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Writing

The Artist’s Way and all that jazz

I recently started the 12-week creativity program, The Artist’s Way, by Julia Cameron (http://www.artistsway.com/aw.html). Well-known in creative circles (the book has sold about 4 million copies), it’s designed to help artists of all disciplines (musicians, illustrators, dancers, filmmakers, writers – or people who aspire to be artists) unlock their creativity. As well as weekly exercises, the two main components of the program are:

1) Morning pages: Keep a notebook and pen beside your bed, and every morning after waking up write three pages in longhand, stream-of-consciousness-style. You can write about anything. It’s designed to free you up (turn off your “internal censor”) and to get negative thoughts out of your system. The writing starts off as irrelevant drivel, then slowly good ideas start to creep in.

2) Artist’s date: Once a week, go on a “date” by yourself to stimulate your creative sensibility. It doesn’t have to be in your creative discipline, and it’s probably better if it isn’t. It can be anything from going to the movies, going to an art gallery, going to a book reading, spending an afternoon taking photos or hearing an artist talk – the most important thing is that you do it alone.

As a friend pointed out, the tone of The Artist’s Way is very California New Age-y (Cameron refers to “God” a couple of times, although I think she means it in the spiritual, higher creative power sense). But the principles she outlines are effective.

I started the program years ago when I was doing a creative writing thesis for my honours degree and was massively stumped. After a few weeks of doing the morning pages I finally overcame my writer’s block. Unfortunately, once the creative juices were flowing again, I abandoned the program and never went back to it, until now. I’m determined to stick until the end this time – and hopefully even make the morning pages a daily habit.

Today is Day 6. I went on my first artist date today, visiting the Australian Centre for Photography (www.acp.org.au) and then Brett Whiteley Studio (http://www.brettwhiteley.com/). I’ve loved Whiteley’s sensual paintings since high school. I still remember walking into my Year 8 art class and finding the teacher crying because Brett Whiteley had been found dead earlier that morning. I over-estimated the amount of time I would spend at the galleries, so after an hour, I’d run out of things to do. The exhibitions were good, but my visit hadn’t sparked any creative insight – no thoughts or feelings to stoke the creative fire. I felt dejected, as if I’d started up a conversation and it had gone exactly nowhere.

I decided to give up and head home. As I walked down Devonshire Street, I heard a melody. I realised a live jazz band was playing nearby. Not since the SIMA gigs (http://www.sima.org.au/) at the Strawberry Hills Hotel stopped in the early 2000s had I seen jazz at a pub in Sydney. Turns out that The Clarendon Hotel, where the band was playing, has jazz on Sundays, but today’s gig was part of the Jazzgroove Summer Festival (http://jazzgroove.com/).

I crossed the road to get a closer look. The place was packed. I joined the throng standing on the sidewalk. The band, The Waples Brothers (http://www.myspace.com/waplesbros) with Jackson Harrison, were fantastic – sax, double bass and drums, with Jackson on keyboard. Their lovely, rich, uptempo sound was the perfect antidote to a muggy afternoon.

The music unleashed something within me, setting off a chain of loosely linked memories and thoughts. The last time I had been to a live improvised jazz gig was when I was living in New York, four years earlier. Kris, Ghita (visiting from Canada at the time) and I visited St Nick’s (http://stnicksjazzpub.net/), an old jazz haunt on 149th St in the Sugar Hill area of Harlem, a venue that has been around for more than 50 years. It was an amazing place – the old dame at the bar, the locals that had been going there for years, and the tourists who’d heard about it through word of mouth (us). The musicians were so skilful and played so intuitively, it seemed as if they’d played together their whole lives. They played for hours, long into the night.

As I stood on the sidewalk outside The Clarendon, thinking about the time I was listening to jazz in New York, it struck me that association is such a big part of what art is about: presenting the familiar in a way that makes us see things anew and have deeper insight into life.

Creativity is said to come from the meeting of the conscious and the sub-conscious. But to reach that point is tricky, as our rational (conscious) mind too often takes charge in day-to-day life. That’s why people often have creative “eureka” moments when they’re in the shower, out walking or on the train. That’s why, when I sit down with the intention to plough ahead in my novel, nothing comes out. That’s why so many artists (eg Brett Whiteley) turn to drugs or alcohol to help their creativity. The thing is, creativity can’t be forced. You have to distract the conscious mind, trick it into doing another low-level task, in order to give the sub-conscious mind the space to bubble up. That’s also what the morning pages and artist dates are about – freeing up your mind from rational thinking and allowing it to wander and make unusual associations.

Another thing that came to mind as I listened to live jazz was the short story “Sonny’s Blues” by James Baldwin (http://aj-classnotesdiscussion.blogspot.com/2011/03/sonnys-blues-by-james-baldwin.html). Apparently it is often taught in English literature classes in the States, but I hadn’t heard of it till I did a summer course at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in May 2011. Our teacher, Lan Samantha Chang, said it was one of her favourites. I finally got around to reading it a few months ago. It’s a flawed but powerful piece. Fantastic dialogue and thematically rich, I just wasn’t sure what it was about. (If you’re thinking of reading it: it’s long, so set aside an hour to do it justice.) It left me with a certain emptiness, but at the same time it stayed with me for a long time, which I think is generally a good indicator of the merit of a piece of art.

“Sonny’s Blues” has an obvious connection to jazz. Set in Harlem in the 1950s, it’s about a young man (the narrator’s brother), Sonny, determined to become a jazz musician, despite the naysayers all around him. Sonny gets caught up in the Village music scene, becomes an addict and spends some time in jail. The story ends with an evocative scene in a jazz bar, with Sonny jamming with his old jazz buddies. Reading it over now, the final scene strikes a chord as it is as much about the artist’s struggle with creativity as it is about the cycle of poverty, suffering, freedom, redemption – the individual’s battle against the vicissitudes of life.

“All I know about music is that not many people ever really hear it. And even then, on the rare occasions when something opens within, and the music enters, what we mainly hear, or hear corroborated, are personal, private, vanishing evocations. But the man who creates the music is hearing something else, is dealing with the roar rising from the void and imposing order on it as it hits the air. What is evoked in him, then, is of another order, more terrible because it has no words, and triumphant, too, for that same reason. And his triumph, when he triumphs, is ours.”

So that was it, my first artist date. And what a great date it turned out to be.

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About C Piper

www.christinepiper.com I’m a writer and editor, half-Japanese but born in South Korea, raised in Australia and currently living in New York. My debut novel, After Darkness, won the 2014 The Australian/Vogel's Literary Award and was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award. It's about Japanese civilian internment in Australia (see: lovedayproject.com) and Japan's biological warfare program. My articles, reviews and short stories have been published in various newspapers, magazines, journals and anthologies.

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