The Writing Process

Filling the Form: Why Being an Artist is About Baby Steps, Not Large Leaps

Filling the form. Julia Cameron, creativity expert and spiritual guru behind the smash hit The Artist’s Way, defines filling the form simply as doing our daily work:

What do I mean by filling the form? I mean taking the next small step instead of skipping ahead to a large one for which you may not be prepared…Creative people are dramatic, and we use negative drama to scare ourselves out of our creativity with this notion of wholesale and destructive change. Fantasizing about pursuing our art full-time, we fail to pursue it part-time- or at all.

Instead of writing three pages a day on a screen play, we prefer worrying about how we will move to Hollywood if the script gets bought. Which it can’t anyway since we are too busy worrying about selling it to write it.

Instead of checking into a life-drawing class at a local culture center, we buy Art Form and remind ourselves that our stuff is not in style. How can it be? It doesn’t exist yet!

Instead of clearing out the little room off the kitchen so that we will have a place to work on our pottery, we complain about needing a studio- a complaint that we ourselves cannot take seriously since we do not have any work to argue our case.

Indulging ourselves in a frantic fantasy of what our life would look like if we were real artists, we fail to see the many small creative changes that we could make at this very moment. This kind of look-at-the-big-picture thinking ignores the fact that a creative life is grounded on many, many small steps and very, very few large leaps.

Rather than take a scary baby step toward our dreams, we rush to the edge of the cliff and stand there, quaking, saying, “I can’t leap. I can’t. I can’t…”

No one is asking you to leap. That’s just drama, and, for the purposes of creative recovery, drama belongs on the page or on the canvas or in the clay or in the acting class or in the act of creativity, however small” (Cameron 140-142).

Child Climbing Steps

Writing the morning pages. Creating a blog post. Applying to one grad school. Filling the form is taking a large, seemingly insurmountable task and making it more manageable. Write a novel? Ha! The idea of composing a story of that length is enough to send most of us into cardiac arrest. But a page? Anyone can write a page. The thing about a single page is that-though it seems infinitesimal by itself-single pages tend to accumulate. If we write a page- a mere 350 words-everyday, at the end of the year, we’ll have a 365 page novel.

Filling the form also means combating the destructive tendency to compare ourselves to others. “Look at Samantha. She’s only 2 years older than me and she’s already completed her master’s program and working for an NGO; I could never do that…” “Or Sarah, she finished her master’s 2 years ago and is living in the Netherlands…” When we compare our creative odysseys to the journeys of those we perceive to be “ahead” of us, only one thing can result: disengagement. After all, why even research grad schools if it’s too late? if we’re already “behind”? By associating our dreams with drastic change and measuring their fulfillment by artificial, ego-imposed deadlines, we promise we won’t do anything at all.

Julia Cameron advocates a gentler, more pragmatic approach to our dreams. Rather than terrify ourselves by equating the achievement of our aims with complete and utter revolution, why not recognize we can satisfy our authentic yearnings in our lives as they’re currently constituted? It’s far less intimidating to be a novelist when doing so doesn’t mean abandoning our home and moving to New York. Not that we should squash our more starry-eyed ambitions; just that we should recognize that such flamboyant dreams are often so grandiose in scope that they become overwhelming, eventually paralyzing us in a state of inaction.

The answer is baby steps. Instead of demanding we write a best-selling blockbuster right away, why not settle for a student film? Instead of expect an Oscar-winning performance from the first movie, why not content ourselves with a few good reviews and a job well done? It might sound like I’m asking you to lower your expectations. I’m not. I’m in no way asking you to lower the guidelines by which you measure yourself. I am, however, asking that you relinquish the disheartening practice of holding yourself to unrealistic standards.

And here we have a conundrum: who’s to say what’s realistic and what’s not? Didn’t all the greatest artists-Shakespeare, Picasso, Van Gogh- share a buoyant, almost naïve idealism? Here I must make a distinction. Having big dreams is not the same as having impractical expectations. A big dream is getting published in Rolling Stone. An unrealistic expectation is believing your first piece is worthy of being published in Rolling Stone. Such irrational belief is self-limiting. When we write our first piece and it’s rejected, we’re not resilient, ready to resubmit; we’re crushed. And what happens? We stop writing at all. Contrary to popular belief, a long, productive creative career depends on a healthy dose of realism.

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