Looking to Nurture Your Artistic Self? Go On an Artist Date
Julia Cameron Offers the Tools to Activate Our Creativity
Morning Pages are simple but dramatic. They turn us
into who we want to be. What could be better than that?
Set your alarm 45 minutes early. Spill from the bed straight onto the page. Write three pages longhand about anything and everything that crosses your mind. At the end of three pages, quit. Welcome to Morning Pages. They are the gateway to the listening path.
THE ARTIST DATE:
The Artist Date is the tool of attention. It has two differing emphases: “artist” and “date.” Put simply, an Artist Date is a once-weekly solo expedition to do something that enchants or interests you. It is half artist and half date. You are “wooing” your artist. Planned ahead of time—hence “date”—this weekly adventure is something to look forward to. As with a romantic date, anticipation is half the fun.
When I teach, I find myself facing resistance—not for the work of Morning Pages, but for the play of the Artist Date. Our culture has a strong work ethic, but we have no “play ethic.” And so, when I introduce Morning Pages—“I have a tool for you. It’s a nightmare. You must get up forty-five minutes early and take to the page”—I can see heads nodding. My students “get” that this tool might be very valuable, and so they readily commit to doing it.
But when I introduce Artist Dates—“I want you to do something that intrigues or enchants you for an hour or two weekly. In other words, I want you to play”—arms cross defiantly. What good could “play” possibly do? We understand working on our creativity. We don’t realize that the phrase “the play of ideas” is actually a prescription: play, and you will get ideas.
It is astonishingly difficult to undertake assigned play. “Julia, I can’t think of an Artist Date,” I am sometimes told. Once again, this plea comes from a lack of play. Rather than be playful, these students are overly serious. They believe that they must find the “perfect” Artist Date.
Nonsense, I tell them. Then I ask them to number from one to five, and quickly, off the top of their head, list five possible Artist Dates. When a list of five simple pleasures seems impossible to come up with, I give my students a tip: Pretend you are a youngster. Name five things you as a youngster could enjoy. Grudgingly, the playlists are generated.
1. Go to a children’s bookstore.
2. Go to a pet shop.
3. Go to an art supply store.
4. Go to a movie.
5. Go to the zoo.
After they have listed their initial five, I urge them to come up with five more. This takes a bit of digging, but soon five more are uncovered.
6. Visit a plant store.
7. Visit a botanical garden.
8. Visit a fabric store.
9. Visit a button shop.
10. Attend a play.
The minute Artist Dates are firmly established as fun, ideas for them abound. But for those who are still stymied, brainstorming with a friend turns the trick. Our friend may say, “Visit a museum. Visit a gallery.” Or, as one of my friends suggested, “Visit a hardware store.”The Artist Date is the tool of attention. It has two differing emphases: “artist” and “date.” Put simply, an Artist Date is a once-weekly solo expedition to do something that enchants or interests you.
The lists are for giddy delights—nothing serious here. This is not the time to undertake edifying adult pleasures, such as the computer course you’ve been meaning to take. The course is not an Artist Date. It is far too demanding. What we are after here is sheer fun. Nothing too harsh. And remember, it must be undertaken solo. On an Artist Date, you are wooing yourself. The adventure is not to be shared. It is private and personal: a secret gift you share with yourself alone.
Executed solo, the Artist Date is a special time during which your artist is the focus of your attention. “On Friday, I’m taking my artist to a meal out in Little Italy.”
The Artist Date pushes us into a state of heightened listening. During the date, we become acutely in touch with ourselves and with what we might call our “inner youngster.” It is common to experience resistance to this tool, but the rewards of listening so closely to ourselves are great. Alone with ourselves, doing something just for fun, we hear both our innermost desires—and often inspiration, or what feels like the hand of a higher force.
Making art, we draw from an inner well. We “hook” image after image. On our Artist Date, we are replenishing the well. We are consciously restoring our stock of images. The hour we spend spoiling ourselves pays off; when next we make art—fishing for images, remember—we find our well abundantly stocked. We hook images easily. There are plenty to choose from. We listen for the one that seems best.
On our Artist Date, we pay close attention to our experience. This attention rewards us with delight. Our sortie to Little Italy fuels our senses. Rich aromas and savory tastes grace our palate. Veal with lemon—veal piccata—and freshly baked garlic bread tickle our taste buds. Back at home, writing on a different subject entirely, we find plentiful images as rich as our meal. A successful Artist Date pays off, but not in a linear fashion. We take Date A and we reap the rewards in Z Perhaps it is because the rewards are not linear, people find Artist Dates harder to practice than Morning Pages. Pages are work, and we have a highly developed work ethic. Artist Dates are play, and we do not take “the play of ideas” literally. We are willing to work on our creativity, but play? We don’t see what good play can do.
But play can do plenty. As we lighten up, our ideas flow more freely. No longer straining to think something up, we relax, listen, and take something down. Hunches and intuitions come to us on Artist Dates. Many people report that during their Artist Date they felt the presence of a benevolent something that many identified as God.“
“For me, Artist Dates are a spiritual experience,” one practitioner reports. Think of it this way: With Morning Pages, you are “sending.” With Artist Dates you have flipped the dial over to “receive.” It is as though you are constructing a spiritual radio kit. You need both tools for it to work properly.
“I get my breakthrough ideas on Artist Dates,” a woman tells me. I’m not surprised. Creativity experts teach that breakthroughs are the payoff of a two-part process: concentrate and then release. With Morning Pages, we are concentrating, focusing our attention on the problem at hand. With Artist Dates, we practice release, and our minds fill with new ideas. It takes the “letting go” for the process to work. This is why so many people report that their breakthroughs occurred in the shower or as they executed a tricky merge on the freeway. Albert Einstein was a shower person. Steven Spielberg is a driver. The critical point is focus, then release. Too many people strive for breakthroughs by focus without release. Artist Dates are the remedy for this bad habit. The play of an Artist Date inaugurates the play of ideas.
The point of an Artist Date is enjoyment. A hearty dose of mischief characterizes the best dates. Do not be dutiful. Think mystery, not mastery. Think frivolity. Do not plan something you “should” do. Instead, plan something that perhaps you shouldn’t do. Ride a horse drawn carriage. Enjoy the clip-clop of iron-shod hooves. Artist Dates need not be expensive. Some of the very best are free. It costs nothing to browse the shelves of a children’s bookstore. And the books found there are fascinating. All About Reptiles. All About Big Cats. All About Trains.
Artist Dates are childlike. The amount of information contained in a children’s book is the perfect amount to set our artist humming. More information—the amount, say, in a book for grown-ups—can overwhelm our artist, leaving us feeling daunted. Remember, always, that our artist is youthful. Treat it as you would a child. Coax it rather than flog it forward. It will respond well to playfulness. Artist Dates—assigned play—are an ideal tool for increased productivity.
“I took an Artist Date at a pet store where I was allowed to pet the baby rabbits. Afterward, I wrote like a fiend,” reports one happy student. Her favorite bunny was a female Lionhead—a fluffy specimen that was both gentle and playful. Back at home, out her living room window, she spotted several cottontails in quick succession. “It was as if I had my dial set to ‘bunny,’” she laughs.“For me, Artist Dates are a spiritual experience,” one practitioner reports.
Pet stores, with their inherent playfulness, are an ideal Artist Date. But one practitioner swears by aquarium shops. “I could stay for hours,” he tells me. “I am mesmerized by the tiny little neon tetras with their glow-in- the- dark stripes. And I have a love for fan-tailed goldfish, with their fins floating like veils. The angelfish look so serene, but are actually aggressive. The swordtails are colorful, but very shy.”
Paying attention to the natures of the differing fish is an act of attention. Attention is the primary characteristic of an Artist Date. We listen for the individual traits of each date, and we record them in our memory bank. When next we sit down to create a piece of art, we have a rich well to draw on. The particulars in our memory translates into specificity in art, and specificity is what engages the viewer.
Fine arts photographer Robert Stivers hangs each of his shows with care. The placement of each piece is important to him and to those who visit the gallery. Stivers’s work ranges from the mysterious to the mystical. The beauty of his images is undeniable, from a wind-tossed sunflower to a solitary palm.
“I think of it like listening,” Stivers says. “Something will catch my eye like a whisper catches my ear. It’s a matter of attention.” Driving across the desert, Stivers snaps photos from his car window. The images he captures are striking.
“I like some of what I get,” he says modestly. His eye is ever alert, and his modesty has an understated dignity. Visiting a gallery on the eve of a show of his, I am treated to a sneak preview. Leafing through a hundred images, he takes particular pride in a series of animals in saturated color. A ram is hot pink, a buffalo is regal purple, a moose is green. The jolt of color makes each animal more memorable. Even Stivers has to admit he “likes some of what he gets.”A successful Artist Date opens the door to creative exploration. What you see or hear opens the heart to what you feel. Emotion is unlocked. The whole person is engaged.
A visit to a Stivers show is, for me, a perfect Artist Date. His images are so stunning, they jar the senses, inducing a childlike wonder. A single rose, caught at the point of decay, is a memento mori. A nude draped in cheesecloth is another.
A successful Artist Date opens the door to creative exploration. What you see or hear opens the heart to what you feel. Emotion is unlocked. The whole person is engaged.
In planning an Artist Date, choose beauty over duty. You are out to feel enchantment. Jotting a quick list of ten things you love leads to a succession of Artist Dates. If you love horses, you could pet a horse. If you savor chocolate cake, you could visit a bakery. A cactus leads to a florist. All your loves lead somewhere, and that somewhere is a rich Artist Date. Artist Dates provoke a sense of connection. In visiting something you love, you come home to yourself. There is a thrill that is quite visceral. A feeling of well-being steals over the senses. Many report they felt a touch of the divine. There is something sacred in celebrating what we love. A feeling of gratitude for the abundance of the universe is a common experience.
“Julia, I think I felt God,” one student exclaimed to me with wonder.
The sense of a larger and benevolent something—call it God or not—is the frequent fruit of an Artist Date. On the dates, we are kind to ourselves, and that seems to raise for us the possibility of divine benevolence.
From The Listening Path by Julia Cameron. Copyright © 2021 by Julia Cameron, and reprinted with permission of St. Martin’s Publishing Group.