The Artist’s Date

Julie Cameron, in her book The Artist’s Way, approaches creativity through a spiritual lens. While her language (somewhere between evangelism and a 12-step meeting) may sound off-putting to agnostics or atheists, it’s useful to focus on the core ideas rather than how they’re dressed up. Her ideas about creativity and inspiration are not far from ancient concepts of muse/genius/daemon, actually: try to create on a schedule, establishing an inviolable time each day, setting a sacred personal space to work in. A lot of it has to do with other people respecting and supporting your creative process which—surprise!—compels you to take yourself seriously as a creator.

Her first and most famous concept is that of morning pages, where you spring out of bed and, before anything else, scrawl out three pages of handwriting. This is free form, nonsensical, impulsive: the point is strictly to churn out three pages of writing every day. You can dress it up in a nice notebook if that helps, but I chose a crappy spiral-bound notebook that I decorated, because I’m going to incinerate this when I’m done. You never go back and look at what you’ve written, you never refer to it. You dump out whatever’s in you and you leave it behind.

The other preparation exercise is the artist’s date. I’d never heard of this, as such, though it’s familiar to other restore-and-recharge exercises where people seek out inspiration. You go to the movies, visit a museum, listen to an album, read a book, under the premise that experiencing others’ creative work will help you initiate yours. But it’s called an artist’s date because you’re supposed to really be treating yourself, indulging a bit, making it a special occasion so that your own senses are raised and receptive, and the significance of what you experience is likewise elevated. It’s not just killing time with pretty pictures and sounds: you are constructing an evening of taking care of yourself, nourishing your soul or spirit, attuning to the creative minds that produced what you’re experiencing. Again, you’re taking yourself seriously as a creator, and you’re surrounding yourself in the trappings of creativity.

Right, but all that was decided before a global pandemic and civic uprisings throughout the United States…

Get a pen and some paper right now.

So you’re stuck at home. Movie theaters are out of the question, but there are all sorts of streaming video services. Restaurants are ill-advised: this is the era of curbside pickup. Which, you know, still isn’t bad. Recently I picked up a “ramen kit” from a beloved Japanese restaurant. It was little more than heating up the broth and boiling the fresh noodles, but it felt fun to put the components together, and the taste was amazing. It was moving, actually, to be led by the tongue to my life five years ago when I worked next to this place and could go there several times a week.

Museums… are still an option. Many museums are offering online galleries for people who can’t get out. Some people will snort and insist that it’s just not the same experience as being there, really being right up there against the actual, physical artwork. It’s still really good, especially if you don’t have the money to fly out to international cities. Take an hour to examine the collections of famous works of art. Lists of virtual museums have been collected by The Washington Post, Columbia Business School, PanoramaNOW, and The New Orleans Gambit; you can easily find others.

Slow videos were slowly gaining a following before the pandemic, and now they’re very helpful for taking in beautiful landscapes at a relaxing pace. Jontyjago on MetaFilter collected a great array of train videos that ride along from 20 minutes to almost five hours. Put on your headphones, get comfortable, and zone out to a conductor’s view of other countries. If you can tolerate cheesy music, check out David Huting’s Nature Relaxation Films, 4K aerial videos of natural scenes around the world. There’s no shortage of high-resolution drone footage of gorgeous landscapes.

You can search around for relaxing, soothing ASMR videos, but I’m not going to link to any here because there are far, far too many to think about. First it was a legitimate phenomenon, and then around the time thousands of young women with iPhones decided they had untapped supernatural healing powers, it also got really porny. That’s great, whatever floats your boat, but I’m not going to recommend that as a spiritual recharge.

Instead, consider the new wave of slice-of-life videos. Rhea Y.’s Simple Living series has a couple dozen of these, in which she leads the viewer through her life as “a salary woman in Japan.” Same with Ivy Kitchen, in South Korea. These videos are designed to touch the heart: rather than glamorous, they celebrate the humbler, uncomplex aspects to a peaceful existence. The emphasis is not on brand names or prestige merchandise; all the attention goes to the solace in a cup of tea or the pleasure in pulling off a simple recipe. Similarly, these videos aren’t about ego, screens full of faces, speakers blaring opinions. The host is often an off-screen participant narrating and performing actions, which steers it away from being voyeuristic and makes the viewer feel welcome, like a guest.

Now. There’s a voice in your head that’s been telling you how stupid all this is. On the paper you retrieved, write out all the things it said. Write down your candid reactions, all the criticism, all the doubt, all the reasons why not to do any of this. Write them out like you’re recording a conversation, and don’t modify them at all. Write about how pointless it is to watch a video of sitting on a train and staring at nothing for four hours. Write all the condescension toward watching a young woman putter about her tiny apartment and make simple meals in her crappy, dollar store cookware. Write out every last mean, mocking thought.

There is something inside you that doesn’t want you to create, a reflex created from self-protection that mutated into fear. Every time you try to be kind to yourself, it rears up and reminds you how horrible you are. When other people compliment your work, it actually seizes the controls and makes you contradict and argue with them, and it damn sure won’t allow you to say thanks. Now you’re looking at it outside of yourself, the lines on the page. It’s not just in your head: you have evidence of something malignant in you that wants you to suffer and stop trying.

Picture Trump saying these things to you, with his wormy lips and slurred speech and “I’ve forgotten where I am” lilt. Are you going to take that from him? Why would you take advice from someone who does not have your best interests in mind? Why wouldn’t you listen to your friends? If one of your friends was suffering like you were, what would you tell them? Why can’t you take that advice?

Go make yourself a nice little snack and tour a museum and visit someone’s quiet, tidy household. Go ahead and put on the noise-canceling headphones and listen to an ASMR guide with a foreign accent. Fill up your well, as Julia Cameron puts it, restock your fish pond. Feed your soul (and write down the hateful thing that internal voice says when you read something like “feed your soul”). Take a moment and step out of this world and find the pleasure entirely outside the temporary news events, built into the rocks and trees. You deserve an hour, even if that voice doesn’t think you deserve five minutes. You have to take care of yourself before you’re any good to anyone else.

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