No matter if you’re moving to a new city, switching careers, dealing with an empty nest (or a re-populated one!) or you’re suddenly single, change can be exciting and daunting. The life you had is morphing into something else, and the life to come is yet to be defined. Guidance can come in many forms: Life coaches do an excellent job of helping people uncover their passions and goals. Volunteering can help you discern what really lights you up. But tapping your inner artist may be the most creative way to design an authentic, meaningful life.
Julia Cameron, whose bestseller The Artist’s Way has inspired millions of people to find their calling, has created a new 12-week intensive program specifically written for people in midlife who find themselves at a crossroads. Cameron’s new book, It’s Never Too Late to Begin Again: Discovering Creativity and Meaning at Midlife and Beyond (with co-author Emma Lively), calls forth the creative powers we all possess, whether we know how to wield a paintbrush or not. Cameron says there is a mythology in this country that tells us that creative adventuring belongs to the young. Not so, she maintains. Connecting people to their long-buried dreams is a process that Cameron says can help people break through whatever’s blocking them, and write that new chapter in their lives.
While Cameron’s process requires some right (creative) brain thinking, left (logical) brain people can reap huge rewards, too. “I don’t tend to divide people into left brain and right brain categories,” she says. “I tend to think we are all creative, and with a little bit of coaxing, we can all start to unlock our creativity. Just try it!”
Cameron’s 12-week ritual uses four basic artistic tools to help clear out the mental cobwebs, connect to long-buried passions and take action to create a joyful life.
Cameron wants your ritual to begin with three daily pages of longhand, stream-of–consciousness writing done first thing in the morning, for your eyes only. Use a notepad and a pen (or pencil or crayon). “When we write by hand we go slowly enough to record our thoughts with accuracy. …Typing on a computer, it is as if we are driving at 75 miles per hour. Our perceptions are fleeting. We’re not quite sure what we see or feel. We miss important signposts and details. Writing by hand, we know precisely what we encounter. Writing by hand yields a handmade life,” she says. Morning Pages can be about anything. “They perform a type of spiritual chiropractic; they clear us for the day ahead. Done consistently, they will alter the trajectory of our lives.”
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Can something as simple as writing three pages of longhand about that damned dripping faucet really help you change your life? Cameron says it can. “Morning Pages are a form of meditation and I think for hyperactive Westerners it’s sometimes difficult to meditate (so Morning Pages help in that regard). And many people who already meditate ask me why they need to do Morning Pages,” says Cameron. “Morning Pages are a very effective whisk broom that you take to the corners of your life. With standard meditation, when you meditate on a problem, you emerge feeling calmer, like you don’t really need to do anything about it. But Morning Pages move you directly into action, so they are very effective for helping people get rid of the pesky things that they’ve been procrastinating about.” Over time, this clears the way—and the mind—for new possibilities.
Writing one’s memoir is a task divided into 12 weeks: a guided process of triggering memories and revisiting your life in several-year increments. You divide your life into sections (typically you divide your age by 12 and the result is the number of years you’ll cover each week) and write about those sections based on a series of questions and prompts that Cameron provides. They are gentle nudges to take you back in time. For example, revisiting your first five years of life, you’ll answer questions such as “Where did you live? Who took care of you? Describe a smell you remember from this stage of your life.” Over time, you’ll progress to more probing questions, such as “Were there risks you wanted to take but did not? What was a source of adventure for you?”
“As you become open to revisiting your life,” Cameron says, “your life will become open to revisiting you. By revisiting – and reigniting – the many deep, complex, creative parts of yourself and your story, you will arrive at a place of clarity and purpose—a jumping off place for the rest of your life.”
Memoir is more than just amassing memories. According to Patricia Hampl, memoirist, educator at the University of Minnesota and recipient of the prestigious Guggenheim Foundation fellowship, “Our capacity to move forward as developing beings rests on a healthy relationship with the past. Psychotherapy, that widespread method for promoting mental health, relies heavily on memory and on the ability to retrieve and organize images and events from the personal past.” We learn not only to tell our stories but to listen to what our stories tell us, she says.
But as important as memoir— and memory—is to crafting a beautiful future, this is the tool at which many people balk, says Cameron. “This is why we divide it into 12 pieces and use teeny questions to coax you into writing. We find that when people begin to write their memoir, they become fascinated by their own life. And then they begin to think of it as a legacy they’re leaving for their children and grandchildren.”
Walking is exactly what it sounds like—getting outside and moving on your own steam. Cameron prescribes a 20-minute solo walk, twice weekly, without a dog, friend or cellphone. “One of the most valuable creativity tools is also the simplest. Walking is an exercise in receptivity. As we walk, we fill the creative well,” says Cameron. It’s a kind of walking meditation.
And walking meditation, says Dr. Andrew Weil, founder and director of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine, “has a long, noble history in ancient spiritual disciplines. [They] all share a similar purpose: to focus on synchronized breathing and stride in order to develop mindfulness of the present moment.”
Mary Maddux, M.S., counselor and healing arts practitioner, says that walking meditation can be just as profound as sitting meditation. “It has the advantage of bringing the meditative experience into our activity,” she says. “There is a tremendous richness of experience to become aware of as you walk. The body loves movement and will reward you with pleasure if you pay attention to how it feels. So much of the time we are caught up in our mental worlds. Paying attention to the body as you walk will help you to enjoy simply being alive.”
These are once weekly, solo expeditions to explore something new and enjoyable. “Expect to meet resistance when you propose to yourself doing something fun,” says Cameron. “Even though we give lip service to the phrase ‘the play of ideas,’ we don’t always truly understand how fun can help us. Those who undertake Artist Dates report insights, hunches and breakthroughs, a heightened sense of well-being.” An Artist Date need not be expensive or exotic; the point is that it something that feels fresh and exciting to you.
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The value of Cameron’s exhortation to “play” should not be underestimated. Dr. Stuart Brown, founder and president of the National Institute for Play and author of Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination and Invigorates the Soul, says, “Playfulness enhances the capacity to innovate, adapt and master changing circumstances. It is not just an escape. It can help us integrate and reconcile difficult or contrary circumstances.” That’s perfect for when you feel adrift or confused, or are simply unsure about next steps. And play, he says, “is the gateway to vitality. By its nature it is uniquely and intrinsically rewarding. It generates optimism, seeks out novelty, makes perseverance fun, leads to mastery, gives the immune system a bounce, fosters empathy and promotes a sense of belonging and community.”
Yet this is another tool at which people balk, says Cameron. “People will typically procrastinate around doing an Artist Date, and then if we coax them gently enough they’ll finally say, ‘Oh all right, I’ll try it,’ and this might be two or three weeks into the process. Once they try it though, they are amazed at the sense of well-being that they feel, and then become enthusiastic for future Artist Dates.”
Each of the 12 weeks in Cameron’s program is dedicated to reigniting important life forces that may be sputtering or completely extinguished. Week one reignites a sense of wonder, while week four reignites a sense of purpose. Weeks seven and eight reignite a sense of resilience and joy, respectively, while the final week reignites a sense of faith. “Many times what is ailing in people is what I would call a spiritual hunger, and as they work with the tools they begin to experience a spiritual awakening that leads to optimism and benevolence,” she explains.
Cameron’s four creativity-based tools are “aimed at those transitioning into the second act of life—leaving one life behind and heading into one yet to be created,” she says. As for the time commitment: “Twelve weeks—three months—may seem like a long time, but think of it as a few-hours-weekly investment in the next phase of your life.” People always complain to Cameron that just don’t have enough time. “We all have plenty of time,” says Cameron. “It’s how we choose to spend it.”