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How I learned that creativity and vulnerability go hand in hand

Penguin Publishing Group

Eight summers ago, I found myself in a D.C. yoga studio sitting in a circle with several other women. No one was in a downward dog position, and hardly any of us were wearing stretchy pants. Any curious passerby might have assumed we were part of a support group of some kind, and in some ways, we were. We were a motley group of struggling creatives practicing The Artist's Way.

The Artist's Way is a 12-week course that helps people unlock their capacity for creativity — whether in art, at work, or in life. At its core, it's a great practice to access more delight, curiosity, and creative inquiry within your daily life. But for me, The Artist's Way grew to mean more than just a fun summer project or a tool to overcome writer's block. It helped me face my fears around trying new things, and gave me a better framework to live with the vulnerability and uncertainty that comes with life. I will gab about it to anyone who lets me in on their secret desires to pursue their artistic dream — be it tiny or grand.

Getting in an artist's mindset

The luminary behind The Artist's Way is Julia Cameron, and I often call her my fairy godmother. Her philosophy has helped me understand that the ability to be artistic comes more naturally than one would think. Cameron believes that the "refusal to be creative is self-will and counter to our true nature." In other words, we all possess an inner creativity; we just willingly choose to block ourselves from that impulse. Her course is meant to help us unlock the artist that lives within each and every one of us.

Did I consider myself an artist at the time? Not in the slightest. I had forsaken dance classes in my teen years, and most of my creative writing was tucked away in personal journals alongside to-do lists and reflections of the week. I was too much of a nervous millennial to pursue anything as bohemian as the life of an artist.

The author's well-loved copy of <em>The Artist's Way</em>, with a journal and some flowers she gathered during an artist date.
/ Lauren González
Lauren González
The author's well-loved copy of The Artist's Way, with a journal and some flowers she gathered during an artist date.

In many ways, I felt like the complete opposite of one. I was a bumbling and uncertain post-grad, trying to build a life on my own for the very first time. I played it by the books, landing a job in D.C. that looked good on paper. But it felt like I'd stepped into a pair of shoes that didn't feel like my style. But where would I go from here? What else could I do? I didn't have the slightest idea, so I waited for inspiration to strike.

And inspiration did strike. While taking a yoga class, I noticed a promotion for a summer workshop centered around The Artist's Way. I figured a workshop would keep me accountable to the process, and for the next three months, I'd meet with this group of women to discuss weekly readings as well as share our progress, frustrations, and aha moments.

The path that Cameron lays out is a simple one, but it requires commitment. There are weekly readings and exercises, all geared toward helping you understand your artistic hang-ups and how to get out of your own way. You're required to write your morning pages at the start of every day. It's meant to be an uninhibited style of free-writing: no stopping and no editing until you fill up at least three full pages.

A butterfly the author saw during an artist date.
/ Lauren González
Lauren González
A butterfly the author saw during an artist date.

And then, there's the artist date — a weekly commitment to take yourself on a solo activity all for the purpose of indulging in a sense of fun and delight. No agenda, just play. All to say, The Artist's Way packs in quite a bit in three short months.

Inviting playfulness into your life

However you pursue The Artist's Way, my advice is to stick to it, even if you feel some resistance. Can Cameron's New Agey platitudes feel a little hard to swallow? For some, maybe. But there's a way to connect to this process that doesn't require a spiritual understanding of creativity.

Whether or not you believe that human creativity is inspired by a divine force, it's easier to see how our aversion to risk, failure, and humiliation prevents us from taking a creative leap. My practice with morning pages revealed just how often fear would eclipse my own creative ambitions. I'd always find an external circumstance or an internal flaw as a reason to skip out on a dance class or exciting job opportunity, and those limiting beliefs started making their way to the page.

That's because free-writing is sort of like gargling for the soul. You write a lot of nonsense early in the morning, but eventually you start revealing and shedding your hang-ups, fears, and the stories you tell yourself to protect you from taking a risk. But eventually, you start recognizing they're just that — stories.

My morning pages helped me recognize that I tend to avoid any situation that made me feel vulnerable. And yet, creativity and vulnerability go hand in hand. You can't have one without the other, and Cameron's writings make that tension resoundingly clear.

But Cameron also offers a respite for dislodging your writer's block, or any block for that matter. Fear is the most immobilizing force, but its antidote can sometimes be a dose of levity.

That's where the artist dates come in. Cameron stresses that recognizing your limiting beliefs is only half the battle on the path to artistic enlightenment. You also have to work actively in inviting pleasure, delight, and playfulness into your life. Without these ingredients, your end result will be half-baked. It's like a cake without frosting — who would want a slice of that?

And so I went on a journey of indulging in simple pleasures. I baked blueberry muffins on a Sunday morning. I went to a meditation series held at a paddock among the horses of Rock Creek Park. I listened to my favorite album of the Gipsy Kings from start to finish, no skips. I collected fallen summer flowers and pressed them between the pages of my notebook. I went to a park tucked behind Embassy Row and stared at the fireflies at dusk.

My favorite artist date was one of the last ones. I rented a car and drove out to Saint Michaels, a beautiful little coastal town in Maryland that feels worlds away from the D.C. metropolis. As I made my way back, I crossed the Chesapeake Bay Bridge right during sunset. I don't remember what song was playing, but I'll always remember what it felt like to roll down the windows, sing at the top of my lungs, and stare at the pink and orange sky that appeared before me.

The path beyond The Artist's Way has been a crooked one for me, with many starts and stops. But I've come to learn that life never gives it to you straight. It took a year to work up the courage to quit my job, and a few months after to land a job in a creative field. It took three more years to get back on stage and perform a dance routine for an audience. I still haven't published any short stories, but perhaps that's for next summer.

I come back to The Artist's Way often during this season, and each practice brings new insight. And yet each time, I relearn how important it is to indulge my curiosity and transcend the limiting beliefs I've set around my creative potential. And whenever I get caught up in the uncertainty that comes ahead of a new adventure, I remember Cameron's mantra: "Jump, and the net will appear."

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Lauren González
Lauren González is the Senior Manager of the Content Development Team, where she manages new pitches for podcasts and other content, and works closely with the programming leadership team to develop them.