I first used The Artist’s Way back at Uni. The Artist’s Way is a 12 step ‘artistic recovery course’ by Julia Cameron. It has some similarities with 12 Step addiction programmes.
In that it has the number 12 in it.
It also has a complex relationship with the term God.
The basic thesis is this; creativity is at the centre of the Universe. It is God, it is light, it is, in my case, the Mystic Law of the Lotus Sutra. It is more powerful than us, yet it is in us, and can flow through us. It is the Force. So creativity isn’t an act of forcing something into being, it is the act of getting out of the way, of allowing it to happen through us, to manifest in us and our work. As with 12 step addiction programmes, we are not alone, there is a higher force on which we can depend. And over 12 weeks of working you can, through the exercises in the book, remove the blocks we have put in front of this great power.
I like this a lot. Partially because, as a Buddhist, it’s really easy to substitute God (and Julia Cameron is clear that she is using the term in most non-denominational way possible) for Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, or ‘I dedicate my life to the mystic law of the lotus sutra,’ which is to say, ‘I dedicate my life to the inherent law of the universe which states that all living beings contain within them infinite potential; wisdom, courage and compassion and are worthy of infinite respect, whether they are currently manifesting that potential or not.’ Which is what I chant over and over for an hour most mornings. Only I chant it in Sanskrit not English. Because it’s much quicker. Anyway, the idea that I have infinite creative potential and all I need to do is remove the karmic blocks that are impeding its flow, really appeals.
So I started the Artist’s Way at Uni. I still have the morning pages. Morning Pages are the crux of the work; you write three pages in a notebook first thing every morning, stream of consciousness stuff, flush the crap out of your creative hose-pipe, that sort of thing. Then once a week you’ve got The Artist’s Date, where you set off on a little adventure on your own to do something out of the ordinary. Play Lego, eat Mongolian food, listen to Kraftwerk, that sort of thing. And then there are some exercises to do.
So I started the Artist’s Way at Uni. And again a few years later. Then again a few years later. In 2010 I started it twice. This year I am going to finish. And you’re going to help me. Just turning up and reading the stuff will help, but I need the external prod to help me finish.
It could be I’ve never got beyond week 3 because I’ve been busy. Or because it requires a lot of effort. Or because I’ve already got my morning chanting and Buddhist study to do. Or because I’m scared of what it might bring up. Over the last few years, I’ve been doing a lot of digging in my psyche, with the support of friends, Buddhists, and therapists. So I think I’m ready now.
Years ago, I was hired to direct some Cambridge students in a production of Twelfth Night. I was being interviewed for one the Cambridge newspapers. I was saying that I rejected the principle that directors can twist and adapt a playwright’s work to say what they want, rather than what the playwright wanted. I find the most satisfying directing is enabling the actors to excavate the work and find the truth the playwright has hidden in it for us. That’s the most satisfying journey. I work for the playwright and my job is to enable the actors and creative team to connect the playwright directly to the audience. To, in a way, not get in the way.
The perceptive interviewer said, ‘So, in that case, the playwright is an artist, but you’re not. You have a craft, you enable. But you don’t create your own art.’
Ten years later I still don’t have an answer for him.
There’s a craft to directing and it’s huge. To really support actors, regardless of their personal needs, their differing training, strengths and weaknesses, to bring together, and keep together, a company through a stressful process (and yes, I know we’re not making nuclear bombs here but we are getting ready to go in front of an audience and possibly humiliate ourselves, and for most people, actors or otherwise, that’s pretty stressful). But is it an art?
I used to love English exams. I would race through the textual analysis and the character studies, so I could get to the last page. ‘Write a short story called ‘The Fire,’ or whatever. And I would be off. An hour later the bell would go, normally just as I wrote ‘The End.’ There would be no time to spell-check or review and often I would have only vague ideas of what I had written. But when they came back, they would be pretty good. And it was as if I wasn’t there, they just poured through me, these exam-adrenalin-fuelled fictions.
While at Uni I wrote a screenplay for my course and the same thing happened, but longer this time. I came around at my computer to realise that six hours had passed and there was a screenplay in front of me. It had happened through me, but I certainly wasn’t in control of it. It was in control of me. And I liked it.
That hasn’t happened since. I’ve created a handful of (I think) remarkable productions and loads more that were okay, ‘given the circumstances.’ But I haven’t written, or drawn, or painted. Maybe this journey will lead me back to those things, maybe it will lead me to the answer of how a director can be an artist without being a tyrant.
I’m intrigued to find out what I’m going to learn. Hopefully you are too.