Unblocking the Block
Artist dates give the slumbering muse a good shake.
By Tracy Jones
JULY 20, 1998: I am living my dream. Finally, after years of squeezing journalism and fiction around the demands of a day job, I'm writing full-time. My second novel is due to appear in 1999, and my editor is askingnay, pleadingfor a third. Add to that a spanking new computer and a daughter who is old enough to fix cereal and work the remote control by herself, and I ought to be in heaven.
And I can't work. Can't create. Sit and obsessively check e-mail and wonder if it's time for As the World Turns. Consider adding another show, maybe Yan Can Cook, to my list of must-see TV. I've lost that constant part of myself that invented and created stories. I'm as parched as the Sahara, barren as the biblical Rachel, dryer than a...what's really dry?
I've even run out of clichés.
It's easy to think this state is permanent. My friend M., who reads all my first drafts, notices that the flood of prose has stopped. Tactfully, she recommends The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron (Putnam), sort of a 12-step program for blocked creatives. This book, the basis of many online artists' groups, bookstore roundtables, and other get-togethers, has sold more than a million copies nationwide. Cameron, a former script consultant and Some Famous Director's former wife, swears that she can bring out the latent creativity in anyone.
M., the law-abiding sort, is dutifully going through the book in order. I, the other sort, seize on Cameron's idea of "artist's dates" as a way to unblock my block. An artist date is a once-a-week appointment to do something frivolous and fun or serene and contemplative. What you do doesn't matter, so long as it doesn't feel like work, and so long as you promise yourself that for this amount of time, you will not think about work or obsess about what a bad blocked person you are. You will simply be in the moment. Easier said than done.
"Baby, I'm a fine artiste/And baby I deserve to be kissed." R. Crumb
I don't think so. I already go to the bookstore every week, get a grande cup of joe, then wander around and freak out over all the people who got unblocked long enough to get their books written. Not a good idea.
I call M. She mutters dire warnings about people who make things harder than they have to be, but then she tells me about a really easy date. "Get a binder or a really sturdy notebook. Then go find some stickers and glitter you like and go wild with it. Now take all your old magazines, and if you see a picture that appeals to you, cut it out and paste it in your notebook."
This is one I can handle. As a former child who used to ask for office supplies for Christmas, I am at home in Office Depot. Carefully I select a sturdy single-subject notebook, purple for creativity, then I bop over to the toy store for stickers and glitter and markers.
In front of a beautiful, magical art supply display, my sour inner child reminds me that I have never willingly held a marker or crayon in my life. Nor have I glittered. Is this the real me telling me what the real me wants, or is my evil internal critic disguising herself as my inner child? As an upstanding member of the community, I can't afford to become Linda Blair right now. Instead, I focus on the stickers, looking through the peace signs and unicorns and dinosaurs for that thing that screams "Put me on your notebookI'm you."
It's Miss Kitty, the round-faced, buttoned-nose masterpiece of Japanese anime. I grab a stack of Miss Kitty stickers and take them home. Sidetracked by the phone, I come back to the living room to find my daughter shrieking with delight at "her surprise." What would you do? I play mother of the year, then I ask her if she thinks maybe I could have a couple to stick on this notebook?
"You're weird, Mom," she says, doling out a bow-tied Miss Kitty.
In the weeks that follow, I will find Spice Girls stickers on my computer, cat stickers on my books, puppy stickers on my desk. My daughter is humoring me. She thinks I'm nuts, but she loves me.
"Commit to a weekly artist's date. Then watch your killjoy side try to wiggle out of it."Julia Cameron.
I'm going to go to one of those paint-your-own-pottery studios. More than 600 of these have sprung up across the country, and there is now a locally owned one in Knoxville. Ready-made ceramic tiles, pots, and figures are available to decorate, then glaze. Each person who participates walks out with a fully functional personal piece of art.
Have we mentioned that doing art gives me hives? That doing art in the presence of other people is a recipe for hyperventilation?
I investigate a little further, talk to people who have done this. They loved it, loved the experience of doing crafts, felt like they were back at camp or kindergarten. I call M., who did it as part of a bridal shower party and is still hyped by the experience. "Anyone can do this," she says, a message the owners of the local studio, Art's Desire [115 North Peters Road], also stress.
But something comes up and I get off to a late start and then I decide that I will do it another day. I still have to have some semblance of an artist date, so I take myself for a contemplative nature walk around the neighborhood, where I am bitten by five mosquitoes and followed by three dogs. But somewhere between the last mosquito bite and the final sunset, I realize that I have not thought a negative thought since I walked out the door. I haven't obsessed about why I'm so anxious/neurotic/ready to chuck writing for a job with panty hose and benefits.
It's possible that I would have gotten the same thing from a night at making pottery with strangers. I resolve, again, to try it. In an upbeat mood, I call M., who meant to do something exciting and daring and offbeat but who instead found herself on an artist date at the mall. This is the fourth artist date in a row that has involved shopping.
"Say what you will about your inner artist," she said. "At least she isn't Suzanne Sugarbaker."
"I've always been kind of partial to calling myself up, asking myself out." Tom Waits
This one could be called cheating. I didn't need Cameron and her legions of disciples to tell me it was okay to take myself to a movie and buy myself a tub of popcorn. The going-to-the-movies-by-myself anxiety is not one of the phobias I have (thank goodness there are some left for the rest of you). I plan to do this very same thing every week. I make plans with myself. I get my daughter somewhere. I clear the day.
And then I don't go, because I think about all those things I'm supposed to be doing instead of being at the movies. Which, I remind myself, is Cameron's point. The other artist dates have had a "good-for-you" kind of forced gaiety, like a ribbon of red jam tossed into oatmeal. This one, sneaking off to eat popcorn in the middle of the day, holds a real thrill.
I want to see the X-Files movie, but in filling up my denuded Miss Kitty notebook, I've been almost exclusively cutting out pictures of Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny. Deciding I am in real danger of turning into the kind of person who trolls the Internet for faked pictures of the duo in compromising positions, I see The Truman Show.
It's been reviewed here, so I don't have to tell you how good it is. And it would be an awfully tidy ending to my trials to tell you I burst out of that theater jazzed and jammed about the power of storytelling to transform our lives, filled to overflowing with my own narratives.
Tidy, but true. But the ending of my struggles? No.
Reawakening that yarn-spinning rugrat within didn't make it any easier to sit down at the computer. But it did remind me why I want to, and why the process is infinitely more satisfying than taking a job involving panty hose.
Wrapping up my experiment, I made a list of artist dates I never tried, some (buy some outlandish pajamas and watch cartoons in them on Saturday mornings) more off-the-wall than others. But in the end, trolling for advice on creativity, I fell back on this wisdom from novelist and playwright Sandra Tsing Loh: "There's a lot of language of dysfunction around now, and sometimes the language of creativity is like that. But sometimes you just need a kick in the butt so you're not languishing. Going ahead and just writingthat helps you."
And so I did.
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