"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 20 July 1998. Updated every WEEKDAY.
Finger Painting



Whenever we hear someone urging

us to release our inner child,

we wonder what it was in for in

the first place. And then we

deny the little bastard parole,

without a hearing; the last

thing we need is some

shiv-toting, shower-copulating,

neck-tattooed, orange-diapered

punk pacing the floor near our

desk, emoting about wildflowers

and trying to help us heal. We

have work to do.


And in this we are apparently

very much alone.


Some of the bestseller lists -

the Los Angeles Times list of

"healthy" bestsellers to name a

leading contender - have been

historically, inevitably full of

cloying and saccharine titles;

read through a recent list

without context, and the titles

sound uniquely like Maya

Angelou free-associating after a

nasty head injury: One Day My

Soul Just Opened Up, Talking to Heaven,

Marilu Henner's Total Health

Makeover ... well, you get the

point. But only one set of

related titles riding high on

the various lists - number six

among the "healthy" hardcovers

and number four among the

"healthy" paperbacks as June

ended, though they'd mercifully

fallen off a couple of weeks

later - makes our skin actively

crawl. And it only got worse

when we actually paused at the

bookstore to look between the

covers - we'd resisted for so

long. Art, it turns out, is a

lot like a low-fat celebrities

diet or a list of lifestyle tips

channeled from the angels: Using

it can make you more

self-embracingly special and

may exist primarily for that

purpose. It's, like, spiritual.


Since it was first published in

1992, Julia Cameron's

frightening book, The Artist's Way, has

spawned - and spawned really

is the best description - an

equally frightening number of follow-up titles and

companion volumes, countless

self-help clubs (a new online

session starts tomorrow), and an

entire deeply sticky culture.

The book, divided into 12

sections - each starting with

the word "recovering" - offers a

series of reflections and

exercises to help the reader get

in touch with that long-lost

"artist child." If we accept the


interpretation of the book's

ardent admirers, the number of

recovery-themed chapters is very

much purposeful, since it is

"fashioned after the popular

12-step recovery programs such

as AA. The idea here is to spend

12 dedicated weeks performing 12

dedicated steps to breaking

creativity blocks - and all the

while to treat yourself as a

'recovering artist.'"



Well, sure. My name is Ambrose.

I've been off the artlessness

for four months. A friend from

my pre-child days recently tried

to give me a ticket to a Jerry

Bruckheimer production, but I

was able to say no. I've gotten

really into butterfly art, and I

was fortunate to meet a woman

who was into Canadian music

before it became popular. I

think I'm gonna make it.


The Artist's Way will be

familiar territory to anyone who

has taken acting classes (just

fall back - we'll catch you!) or

grown up in a family headed by

ex-hippie high school guidance

counselors. There are

affirmations: "My creativity

heals myself and others," for

example, and "I am allowed to

nurture my artist." There are

fill-in-the-blank statements:

"Ten ways I am mean to myself

are ..." ("I waste a lot of

money on stupid self-help

books.") There are amulets to

create and lug around: "Write

out, in longhand, your Artist's

Prayer from Week Four. Place it

in your wallet." And there are

endlessly onanistic references

to the self: "Try to acquire the

habit of checking in with

yourself. Several times a day,

just take a beat, and ask

yourself how you are feeling.

Listen to your answer. Respond

kindly." Which suggests that

people who live on bus benches

and push all of their belongings

around in stolen shopping carts

are extremely artistic.



But remember that a working

artist is recovered. Recovered

from what? Recovered from the

"core negative beliefs" of the

"enemy within." Straight men,

for example, fear becoming

artists because they believe it

will make them turn "either gay

or impotent" - a notion picked

up "from reading too much about

Fitzgerald and Hemingway." Other

core negatives about creating

art include "I will die" and

"Everyone will hate me." And if

you derive your understanding of

"art" from this book, everyone

just might.


There's an empty space in The

Artist's Way, something missing

among all that healing and

recovering and nurturing. The

list of books for further

reading folds right around that

void: Beyond Codependency is there,

Healing the Shame That Binds

You, A Book of Angels, Stage II

Recovery: Life Beyond

Addiction, and Healing the Child

Within. But there aren't a hell

of a lot of books about, say,

art. Which is appropriate,

considering that there aren't

many references to art - the

thing, the product of all that

self-gratification - in the

preceding pages, either. Missing

in this vision is the strong,

persistent understanding that

writers read, painters look at

paintings, and musicians drive

around listening to the radio

and trying not to get day jobs

or move out of their parents'

house. The understanding, in

short, is that creation follows

some kind of effort to discern,

to see before trying to show.

The artist's way is about making

art, about a task and a product;

The Artist's Way is about being

an artist, about wearing the



Other, better books on writing

note the difficulty, and the

value, not the impediment, that

the difficulty offers. "Write as

if you were dying," Annie

Dillard has written. "At the

same time, assume you write for

an audience consisting solely of

terminal patients. That is,

after all, the case. What would

you begin writing if you knew

you would die soon? What could

you say to a dying person that

would not enrage by its




One possible answer: You

wouldn't say that art is the

work of a recovered child.


Speaking of better books on

writing, there's another book

missing from that list for

further reading at the back of

The Artist's Way.

Brenda Ueland's If You Want to Write

is a relatively slender book first

published in 1938. Cameron quotes

from it, but hangs the quotes

out on the side of

the page, attributed to

Ueland but without mention

of the book's title alongside

the quote or in the

appendix to other works

about codependent addictive angels.

And this is probably a smart

move on Cameron's part,

considering that her book covers

much the same ground as

Ueland's - and badly. Ueland

instructs would-be writers to

write impulsive, quick pages,

not intended for others to see,

every day; Cameron instructs

would-be artists to write

impulsive, quick pages, not

intended for others to see,

every day. Ueland argues that

everybody is talented, original,

and has something to say; that

the imagination works slowly and

quietly; that a writer should be

careless and reckless, free of

fear and the instinct of

self-censorship, when writing.

Cameron argues ... well, you know.

But she adds the language of

pop-psych self-help books and

an all-you-can-eat serving of



And the treacle doesn't help -

which means that Ueland's

60-year-old book is roughly 10

million less awful than

Cameron's, give or take a few

million times. The focus just

falls a little less in the

mirror and a little more on what

we always thought was the point:

Art, believe it or not, isn't

principally useful as a means to

therapeutic self-love. When she

read a letter from Vincent van

Gogh to his brother, for

example, Ueland "knew what art

was, and the creative impulse.

It is a feeling of love and

enthusiasm for something, and in

a direct, simple, passionate and

true way, you try to show this

beauty in things to others...."


Which is a nice enough thought,

and - including, as it does, the

alien notion of "others" -

awfully gratifying after a

session with The Artist's Way.

And if you still need something

to help you to work on your

inner child, we'd be happy to

loan you a belt.

courtesy of Ambrose Beers