Letters from The Artist’s Way

Last summer, I walked through all twelve weeks of The Artist’s Way. Sticking with it opened something up in me that’s stayed that way, yet I’ve struggled to figure out how to share what it all meant to me. Finally, I realized I could share just that: the experience as it happened, documented in letters I sent to friends from Berlin; from the thick of it.

To bring myself around to publishing these letters, I decided to edit a handful of lines. Everything else is as it was.

Week 0

Dear Christina,

At the end of our call yesterday, I committed to sending you a “plan for how to write more” by the end of the weekend. One possibility we’d talked about was the idea that once you wrapped up the current cycle of ten posts for Chrysaora Weekly, we could switch places for a while.

I still really like the idea of being edited by you someday, but I came up with something that I need more, for now: accountability for moving through The Artist’s Way.

You may have heard of The Artist’s Way before; it’s a 12-week program designed to support creative recovery. (Created, yes, by someone with experience in AA.) A few days ago, after realizing that creativity is something I’m craving (even more than praise or publicity), I decided to plunge into the book for a second time. This commitment feels tender for me because the first time I started the 12-week program, I got four or five weeks in and then stopped. So I’m having trouble believing I’ll really do it. Yet I also feel like this time, it’s not just wishful thinking: I’ve finally structured my life to make space for something, and this feels worthy. Especially since even four or five weeks of it back in the summer of 2012 still did me a lot of good.

Here’s what I need from you: would you be willing to hold me accountable for making it all the way through the 12 weeks? I would commit to writing you an update every Sunday until I finish the course, recounting my progress for the week. Then, if you didn’t see an update by the time you went to sleep on Sunday, I’d want you to gently remind me that I chose this! (Here I’m tearing up.) Mapping the 12 weeks out on my calendar, I can see that they’ll conclude on September 12, which feels right.

Speaking with my coach a few weeks ago, I listed out a number of reasons that I value writing in public. Gaining respect, securing opportunities, feeling understood…all of these have felt like fair reasons to hold write moreover my own head, threatening to drop it at any moment. Today, preparing to meet my commitment to you, I realized that the bludgeon — the promise — of public approbation just doesn’t work that well on me anymore. I’d rather access other reasons to express myself. I want to stay tender and see what comes of it.

(Started crying again there.)

In closing, I’d like to share a few passages from the book-so-far that have moved me this time around:

We want to be great — immediately great — but that is not how recovery works. It is an awkward, tentative, even embarrassing process. There will be many times when we won’t look good — to ourselves or anyone else. We need to stop demanding that we do. It is impossible to get better and look good at the same time.
Artists love other artists. Shadow artists are gravitating to their rightful tribe but cannot yet claim their birthright. Very often audacity, not talent, makes one person an artist and another a shadow artist — hiding in the shadows, afraid to step out and expose the dream to the light, fearful that it will disintegrate to the touch.
Okay is a blanket word for most of us. It covers all sorts of squirmy feelings; and it frequently signals a loss. We officially feel okay, but do we?
When faced with a loss, immediately take one small action to support your artist. Even if all you are doing is buying a bunch of tulips and a sketch pad, your action says, “I acknowledge you and your pain. I promise you a future worth having.”
Many of us find that we have squandered our own creative energies by investing disproportionately in the lives, hopes, dreams, and plans of others. Their lives have obscured and detoured our own. As we consolidate a core through our withdrawal process, we become more able to articulate our own boundaries, dreams, and authentic goals. Our personal flexibility increases while our malleability to the whims of others decreases. We experience a heightened sense of autonomy and possibility.
In dealing with the suicide of the “nice” self we have been making do with, we find a certain amount of grief to be essential.
Art is born in attention. Its midwife is detail.
Stripped to their essence, our multiple negative beliefs reveal a central negative belief: we must trade one good, beloved dream for another.

Are you willing to be my source of accountability in this?

with affection,

Week 1

Dear Christina,

I finished week 1 of The Artist’s Way. I wrote morning pages every morning this week and, on Friday evening, took myself on an artist’s date to the art supply store. While there, I bought twelve squares of modeling clay and hunted fruitlessly for watercolor pens. Then, as long as I was in the neighborhood, I dashed over to a boutique where I stumbled across a rack of QWSTION bags, which made me think of you and also want one. Then, a trip to the giant department store just before it closed; I ended up on the top floor.

The first week’s exercises are a lot about affirmations and addressing creative demons. I had a hard time thinking of demons; I just don’t think my creativity has that many enemies. Then I worry that I may just be blocking them out. For sure I am my own worst enemy; I feel very aware of that. (But also, I can be my own best friend.)

Week 2 is about setting boundaries and re-infusing your life with attention and delight. I remember loving one of the exercises the first time around: list twenty things you enjoy doing; then, list the date you last did each of them. “Don’t be surprised if it’s been years for some of your favorites. That will change.” The first time around, it helped me to realize, for a moment, that I’m a grown woman and I can make my days whatever I want them to be.

I’m a grown woman is a phrase that I’ve used a lot this week.

In working with affirmations this past week, I did three cycles: first, alternate between typing the affirmation and responding with a “blurt,” my mind’s specific rejection of the affirmation. Then, extract the belief underlying each blurt. Then, invert each belief, turning each one into a new affirmation.

Reading back over all of the new affirmations just now, this one strikes me: Effort nurtures me. It seems unlikely and yet also obvious. I avoid effort…well, that’s not true. I chase effort to feel virtuous in the realm of other people’s expectations, but I avoid effort when it comes to healing myself.

It was hard to go through the exercises a second time. Even though I last touched them three years ago, they still feel so fresh. In a few weeks, though, I’ll be beyond the known. In the meantime, I have another week of being a grown woman to look forward to.


Week 2

Dear Christina,

I’m done with week 2 of The Artist’s Way. I wrote morning pages every day this week, took myself on an artist’s date to a cello performance at the Konzerthaus, and did most of the exercises in the chapter (including affirmations). I also read chapter 3 in preparation for the coming week.

Part of chapter 3 is about doing a bunch of fill-in-the-blanks about childhood:

My favorite childhood toy was…
My favorite childhood game was…
The best movie I ever saw as a kid was…
I don’t do it much but I enjoy…
If I could lighten up a little, I’d let myself…
If it weren’t too late, I’d learn to…
My favorite musical instrument is…
The amount of money I spend on treating myself to entertainment each month is…
If I weren’t so stingy with my artist, I’d…
Taking time out for myself is scary because then…
I’m afraid that if I start dreaming…
I secretly enjoy reading…
If I had had a perfect childhood, I’d have grown up to be…
If it didn’t sound so crazy, I’d…
My parents think artists are…
My God thinks artists are…
What makes me feel weird about this recovery is…
Learning to trust myself is…
My most cheer-me-up music…
My favorite way to dress is…

The idea is to just write the first thing that comes to mind — to not think too hard. When I got to the line about “If I weren’t so stingy with my artist, I’d…,” an idea popped into my mind, primed by all the childhood reminiscing: Copic markers! As a child, I would go to art supply stores and marvel and yearn after the arrays of beautiful, expensive sketch markers. They still feel extravagant, but once I realized how deep the longing was, I decided to go for it. I biked to Modulor — my favorite art supply store here — and picked out four colored sketch markers: Jade Green, Pale Yellow, a deep red, and Prussian Blue. I also bought a 0.7mm black Copic marker for line-drawing. I came home and colored the giant sheet of newsprint I’d doodled on that morning. It felt like painting, but more self-contained. I loved it.

The nice thing about Copic markers is that I can just keep indulging in them, if they keep bringing me joy. There are 384 different colors! So going to Modulor and buying one or two is always an option. I love that.

The paragraphs in my morning pages are growing longer. (Except when they’re shorter.) Between the morning pages and my ever-more-elaborate to-do system, I’m finding my mind empty more often than I can ever remember. This is exciting — it feels like I’ve finally found a way to conquer rumination — but also terrifying: without a pile of rotting worries, what will I do? My worries go into cold storage so quickly now.

Reading chapter 3, I got excited about the childhood remembrances. It’s good timing, since my mom has been sending me photographs of boxes full of books and old papers, asking which ones she can scan with her ScanSnap and then recycle. So my Dropbox gets filled regularly with old childhood totems: mostly, books. I also remember loving this chapter the first time…particularly the encouragement to remember a treat you loved as a child and give yourself the gift of buying and savoring one. I remembered whipped cream and then I remembered swirled chocolate and vanilla pudding. I found the swirled chocolate and vanilla pudding at Kaiser’s last night and ate it with a tiny spoon.

This morning, I washed a sink full of moldy dishes by hand. I’d been afraid of it for a long time. It was bad, but not as bad as I’d feared.

Thank you for being my sounding board!


Week 3

Dear Christina,

Today marks the end of week 3 of The Artist’s Way. I wrote morning pages every day this week, took myself on an artist’s date to the East Side Gallery, and did about half of the exercises in the chapter. I also read chapter 4, in preparation for the coming week.

Last week was a disappointing one at work: the end of one arc of hope and anticipation, and the muddy, faulty starts of a few arcs I’m supposed to be getting off the ground right now. I also slept straight though my alarms once or twice, though always still waking up early enough to read for at least 10 minutes or so and then do morning pages. I also spent some time with pens, markers, and drawing paper, drawing geometric loops and filling them in. I went to Modulor yesterday and bought four more markers, two of which disappointed me, and the other two of which were strikingly similar to a marker I’d already bought last week. Never mind: it’s the momentum that matters.

In all of my responses to fill-in-the-blank prompts, I keep bringing up dance. Where is this coming from?? I am almost ready to…

I was going to write “I am almost ready to search for modern dance classes in Berlin,” but then I thought, “what is this ‘almost ready’ business!” So I went ahead and ran my search, got discouraged (how to tell whether any of it’s taught in English?), and eventually found an upcoming August workshop that looks like it’s taught by someone who at least knows English, so that’s a start. I emailed him to ask whether he’ll be teaching the workshop series in English or German. I’m proud of myself.

One of the “things to watch out for” in week 3 was synchronicity. When I wrote my check-in for myself earlier today, I felt sure that there had been no real synchronicity to speak of. But when I pulled the modern dance idea up out of my subconscious again just now, I remembered a lunch earlier this week where a beloved coworker of mine mentioned she’d been feeling out of shape; I asked her if there was any type of working out that she enjoyed doing, and she said “modern dance.” Very interesting.

Week 4 is the week without reading. It’s going to be hard for me. I already downloaded Freedom and the companion app, Anti-Social, to firmly block Twitter etc. on my computer. I deleted most reading / skimming apps from my phone, except for Twitter for urgent DMs (but I moved it to a far-away screen) and Messenger for a few logistics threads I’ve got going there. I’m also going to need to find a “first activity” of the day to replace my morning reading ritual. I’m planning to make more geometric loop drawings and see where they take me.

thank you, as always, for listening…

Week 4

Dear Christina,

This is the end of week 4 of The Artist’s Way. Week 4 was the week without reading, which I hated! (Present tense “hate,” I suppose; I’m still in the week for another few hours.) But I still managed to do morning pages every day, and took myself on a full-day artist’s date to the Balinese-themed spa I’ve been wanting to go to for…months. To accomplish this, I took a day off from work.

The day at the spa was rough in places. Without a book to distract me, all I had were my own thoughts! I snuck in my iPhone in my robe pocket (no camera phones allowed) to listen to a Pema Chodron lecture on “Developing Patience” in my wireless headphones, secreted away behind my hair. Her voice lulled me to sleep on a lounge chair outside. When I woke up, I felt hungry and full.

I broke my reading deprivation today in order to read a PDF I discovered in the Dropbox folder my mom and I share. The PDF was titled All About Diana, and it turned out to be a 100-page book of excerpts from my mom’s and dad’s journals and letters from the first eight years of my life. I was captivated by it and read a third of it before I realized what I was doing. Then, I returned to it again in the afternoon, more consciously that time. I decided that if the artist’s brain is the child’s brain, it was worth it to me to break the deprivation in order to understand my childhood self a little better.

Here are some things that have always been true about me:

  • I was always very gifted, but not very motivated. (This one feels the least true now, but I’m intrigued by it and looking for glimmers.)
  • I’ve always cared a lot about what people think of me.
  • I’ve always been “serious-minded, but sometimes funny.”
  • I’ve always been stubborn.
  • I’ve always drawn pictures and written poetry. (Less of both of those for the past few decades, but at least I’m returning to the first one now.)

It was a moving experience to read the collection, and especially startling to just…stumble across it. My family is so masterful at family history that there are entire, gigantic, multi-month projects executed by my mom that I’ve never even glanced at. Now that she’s scanning everything, it’s finally all in a place where I can stumble across it. I hope that will mean, eventually, more of it in my life. I find it cathartic to understand how I was, and how they were.

I’m attaching a photo of this week’s geometric loop drawing. The goal was to, finally, fill in all the loops on one of them…see it all the way through.

Week 5 is about possibility. The preface makes me tense:

This week you are being asked to examine your payoffs in remaining stuck. You will explore how you curtail your own possibilities by placing limits on the good you can receive. You will examine the cost of settling for appearing good instead of being authentic. You may find yourself thinking about radical changes, no longer ruling out your growth by making others the cause of your constriction.

Every sentence is scary. Here we go.

– Diana

Loop drawing.jpeg

Week 5

Dear Christina,

Week 5 of The Artist’s Way has come to an end. I wrote morning pages every day. Today, I took myself on an artist’s date to buy embroidery floss for making friendship bracelets. Over the course of the week, I did four or five exercises — more limply than usual, I’ll admit.

It felt so good to be back to reading. I ended up in a random DM exchange with Jenna Wortham earlier this week and asked her for a new round of recommendations, since I enjoyed the last round from her so much. I ended up downloading thebuddhist, by Dodie Bellamy (and finishing it in a day) and Meaty, by Samantha Irby, which I’m almost done with. Both confessional, both bloggy, both raw and real. I need more of that in my life.

It was a hard week, with lots of social events for work and lots of presentations to give. I’m proud of myself for making it through.

This week is about money and abundance. I’m supposed to catalog everything I spend money on over the course of the week, without judgment. I’ll be very interested to see the results, since my second month of earnestly attempting to stick to a budget has shown me that I spend way more money than I think I do. Mostly on smoothies and salads. (Which I have trouble regretting. But it would still be good to know the full damage.)

At the end of this week, I’ll be halfway through!

with anticipation,

Week 6

Dear Christina,

Week 6 of The Artist’s Way is over. I did morning pages every day — even when I woke up later than planned — and took myself on an artist’s date to the crystal shop yesterday. (And stopped a bunch of other places along the way.)

The meta-exercise assigned this week was to track my spending. I did so more meticulously than I would have thought possible, using a nice Do Note → IFTTT → Evernote bridge. Today, I analyzed the results, and was actually pretty happy with the breakdown. 27% of my money this week went to food, 23% to clothes, 14% to creativity in the form of markers and embroidery thread, 10% to charity. I can live with that. The goal of the exercise wasn’t to crack down on spending, but to make sure I’m spending enough on myself.Granted, I received my paycheck this week, so I was feeling a bit more flush overall. My budget clock starts over when my new paycheck arrives, and starting in March, I consciously budgeted for self-care / creativity / etc. anyway. So I’m “supposed” to spend money on that, and typically look forward to it all month. I’m going to track my spending a little more loosely this week to see whether I can keep it up; I found the enforced mindfulness helpful, and it certainly helped me to dispense with a few background worries. (Like “I spend too much on tips” — I actually don’t, so I can just stop fretting about that one.)

Yesterday and today were just the greatest. The weather was beautiful and Erik was in Potsdam at Eurucamp, so I had the house to myself and some brand-new art supplies to enjoy, and I was in a good mood to start, so it all just compounded into more bliss than I’ve felt in a long time. I fulfilled a long-time dream this morning and “spent a few hours at a coffee shop drawing.” I’ve never been able to picture myself as unselfconscious enough to enjoy that, but I think that previously, I was just focusing on the wrong activities: reading (not 100% immersive, kind of inherently slouchy) and writing (ugh, the most self-conscious act of all).

Tomorrow, my two-week modern dance class starts. I’m excited! I caught myself dancing along to my favorite Kishi Bashi track in the living room today and rewound a few times to rejoice in it a bit more. My heart beat faster as I twirled and scooped. We’re allowed / encouraged to wear socks to the modern dance class, which I hope means some slip-sliding around.

This week’s exercises mostly sound really fun to me: “create one wonderful smell in your house,” “wear your favorite item of clothing for no special occasion,” “give yourself time out to listen to one side of an album, just for joy.” Yet I’m quite sure that a few weeks ago, I would have struggled to enjoy those things. For the smell assignment, I’m very tempted to buy a diffuser and some essential oil from MUJI. I stopped into MUJI yesterday toward the end of my artist’s date and saw the diffuser that Tricia has; bergamot floated from it. I wanted it even then, and then on reading the assignment today, it felt like fate. The only challenge is that I don’t have any after-work free time this week because of my modern dance class. But now I’m just thinking up excuses. I’ll sleep on it and follow my heart.

I definitely feel like I’m getting better at saying no. The “I experiment with saying no” daily affirmation (typed five times in a row) seems to be working.

I’m thinking about poetry. Maybe poetry will come into my life this week. I just saw on Twitter that Tavi Gevinson guest-edited the latest edition of the Poetry Foundation magazine. Maybe I can find it online?

I’m jealous that you and everybody are at Foo Camp — genuinely jealous, I realized today. Some part of me interprets never being invited back (since my first time there in 2011) as a sign that I “peaked too early” or “haven’t done much of interest since.” But really, it’s not a sign of anything. It just is! I just miss you all, mostly.

I hope you have a wonderful time there (also genuinely), amidst the blackberries.


Week 7

Dear Christina,

Week 7 of The Artist’s Way is done. I wrote morning pages every day and today, I took myself on an artist’s date to the magazine shop for collage material. Afterward, I stopped at a café for avocado toast because I felt like it. I did six of the ten exercises this week, including the two that sounded the hardest: bringing a wonderful smell into my life (aromatherapy diffuser!) and going through all the steps of creating a collage. I also listened to Kid A — an album I used to spin over and over again in my periwinkle Walkman.

Dance was the big event of the week. I really enjoyed it. Attending a class taught in German occupied the verbal part of my brain without actually aggravating it; rumination got canceled out. I was able to focus on moving. At first, my legs were fiercely sore, but by the end of the week I’d either acclimated or the classes had calmed down. Three out of the four days, I biked there and back, which added 60–90 minutes to my evening. No matter: biking might be the secret reason for it all.

I’m glad I’m capturing fragments of experience within [a new, private Instagram account], and certainly I observe things differently when faced with even the remotest possibility of an audience. I do have to admit, though, that it was disappointing to receive so little response from even people I’d painstakingly hand-picked. (Not intended as a dig at you — I’m writing it out to try to understand the general case better.) My main theory is that not everyone reads all of Instagram every day, which comes as sort of a surprise, since I always have. Even in the absence of significant response, though, it’s a relief to feel able to document my experience without worrying about looking selfish. I also realized this week that one of my big reluctances about posting in public comes down to people liking and commenting on posts in a way that somehow minimizes what I’m doing, considering it cute because they don’t understand me because I won’t let them.

I woke up today thinking, quite vividly, of what it would take to carve out three months to learn to program in Swift, sharing my experience along the way.

It’s hot here and I’m tired; I can’t tell if dehydration, hunger, or something else is to blame. To echo you: the only way out is through.


Week 8

Dear Christina,

I finished Week 8 of The Artist’s Way. I wrote morning pages every day — even when my thoughts were so scattered that every “paragraph” was only a sentence — and took myself on an artist’s date yesterday. I also did five of the eight exercises, which is a comfort to realize, since I felt like I hardly did any.

For my artist’s date, I drew from an “ideal day” exercise prescribed in last week’s tasks: Plan a perfect day in your life as it is now constituted. I wrote this:

I would wake up gently and naturally to sun already streaming through the windows. I’d then do yoga in the living room to wake my body up, and then journal longhand with a wonderful pen for a while. Then, I’d wash my face and put on some cute, comfortable clothes and walk (or bike) to a café with my Kindle and some paper and markers. I’d then spend a few hours enjoying first some sort of espresso drink, then some sort of juice, while alternately reading and drawing. I’d then head to a museum, where I’d spend the afternoon walking around and looking at beautiful things. Afterward, I’d come home and spend some time talking with Erik. There would be no chores to speak of. At the end of the day, we’d go to see a documentary and then go out for a late dinner, just the two of us, before returning home.

And then this:

Most of that is within reach!

I ended up doing about half of it. I woke up gently and naturally to a completely dark room, since I always close the blackout blind before going to sleep. I then read The Diamond Age for a while before journaling on my computer (not longhand) and not doing yoga. Then, I washed my face and put on some reasonably cute and comfortable clothes and biked to a café with my Kindle and some paper and markers. I didn’t use the paper and markers, nor did I order juice at that particular café (though I’m just now realizing that I actually did order juice at the next café I went to), but I did manage to sit for a few hours reading. To accomplish this, I had to set a timer for thirty-minute intervals so that I’d let myself get immersed and not jumpy. At the second café, I invited Erik to join me; we then went shopping for jeans for him, before returning home and deciding to go out for a nice dinner at a place that got written up in the new “36 Hours in Berlin” the New York Times just posted. Dinner ended up being weirdly hard. But at least there were no chores to speak of.

Art activities are starting to become more incidental. Today, Erik and I went on a gallery visit that I booked weeks ago, so all we had to do was follow through. We also got brunch with a high school friend of mine who was the lead singer of our indie pop band, Tokyo’s Pyramid. We hadn’t seen each other in ten years! Reconnecting helped me recover memories of the way that I was.

Also, I did another four days of modern dance this week. Now, the class is over, and I’m really sad about it actually. I spent about half an hour today poking around the internet for other drop-in classes I can attend in the future, but one of the best things about what I just did was how intensive it was. I had to leave work early every day, because I’d made a commitment that was important to me but wouldn’t last forever. I couldn’t work as much (or at all) in the evenings, because I had to bike far, dance, bike back. I liked the way it reorganized my life. Drop-in classes seem, individually, too easy to skip. But I did find a set course that sounds eerily right: “Nothing to Fear and Nothing to Doubt.” It starts soon. Just before writing this to you, I wrote to the studio to see if my level of experience is enough. I felt some fear in exposing myself that way. But since the course is about understanding (at first I wrote “rejecting”) fear, it seemed only right to try.

I just read this week’s chapter and choked up some. This passage hit me hard:

As artists, grounding our self-image in military discipline is dangerous. In the short run, discipline may work, but it will only work for a while. By its very nature, discipline is rooted in self-admiration…That part of us that creates best is not a driven, disciplined automaton, functioning from willpower, with a booster of pride to back it up…Over any extended period of time, being an artist requires enthusiasm more than discipline.Enthusiasm is not an emotional state. It is a spiritual commitment, a loving surrender to our creative process, a loving recognition of all the creativity around us.

Dismay: that’s exactly what I’ve been doing. The self-admiration, the pride, the emptiness and inability to relate that result: it’s all there. I really, truly worry that if I’m not disciplined, then nothing will happen at all. But maybe I’d just be able to sink onto another plane.

I didn’t really get a lot of freedom this weekend. Today was hyper-planned. Yesterday was full. All of the activities were ones I admire, but I can’t condone the rigidity. What will it take for me to make some space?


Week 9

Dear Christina,

I finished Week 9 of The Artist’s Way. I devoted most of last night and this early morning to pulling it off, since I’m off to the woods in less than an hour. I wrote morning pages every day and, last night, took myself on an artist’s date to Luiban and Kaschk. I also did all four of this week’s exercises, though some in a more cursory way than others.

One of this week’s exercises was to read back through all of my morning pages so far. This was tough, and took me several days. (Later, I realized why: 9 x 7 x 750 words = almost 50,000 words minimum! That’s a small book! And then: that’s a small book.)

As I went, I cataloged my progress since late June:

  • I started both yoga and dance
  • I discovered a few great new smoothie places
  • I started drinking espresso (and it hasn’t ruined my life)
  • I took a day off to go to the spa
  • I got the toilet fixed
  • I went to a museum, an experimental gallery, the art supply store, a few design shops…everywhere
  • I revived my old personal laptop and stripped my work computer of personal documents
  • I bought a jump rope just because it sounded fun

That’s just a fraction of what I’ve done. I’m really, really proud of myself. What sometimes felt like slow progress was really a steady buildup.

I also kept track of sentences that struck me in retrospect; this one rang particularly loudly:

I want to be very loved. But it’s as though I’m okay with being loved for being someone I’m not.

I’m still turning that over in my mind. What would it mean to invert that?

The past few weeks of exercises have asked me to envision creative goals. The two that feel potent for me are dancing and writing. What I can’t tell is whether writing about myself or writing not about myself is the more powerful end goal. One of themost useful threads of the past few months has been to realize that self-disclosure is exhausting, and not everyone deserves access to it.

One of last week’s exercises asked me to dig into the past to find creative u-turns — times when I was heading toward something I cared about it and then ducked. One image that came back to me was the book about “pockets and pocket devices” that I dreamed up as a…junior in college? I conceived it in sassy defiance (under the surface, I wanted a serious pursuit to make me more aloof to the person I was dating), but I still think it’s a really good idea. Maybe I could write a Medium post about it, as a start. (But how would I do the research without Harvard’s libraries?) (I’d find a way.)

One passage from the latest chapter that hit me hard:

In the long run, fan letters from ourselves — and our creative self — are what we are really after. Fame is really just a shortcut for self-approval. Try approving of yourself just as you are — and spoiling yourself rotten with small kid’s pleasures.

Could it be true? Could all of my “I love letters from out of the blue” be resolved just by being a little, or a lot, kinder to myself?

The latest chapter also includes some warmly stern words against workaholism. I believe I’ve proven myself for the moment, so I need to: chill out. Workaholism is always a way to avoid something.

I’m starting to think about what it could look like to do my own cycle of ten posts. I feel almost ready. I’d need to organize my life around it — that’s what I believe, anyway — but I think it would be worth it. I’ve always known that doing so could be the opening to what’s next.

I’m standing in the opening.


Week 10

Dear Christina,

I’m done with Week 10 of The Artist’s Way. I wrote morning pages every day and, today, took myself on an artist’s date to a smoothie shop in a shipping container, followed by a documentary. The theater was small, but it still seemed striking: I was the only one there.

I spent almost every evening this week in the company of other people, which I found draining. I want to understand where the threshold is: what amount of time with others leaves me feeling not like myself?

After the documentary, I bought myself some Nike “studio wrap” dance shoes in preparation for my twice-weekly-for-eight-weeks dance class that starts on Monday. The shoes come in a kit, with neoprene inners (the ones you dance in) and loose ballet flat outers (which I’ll probably wear to bike to the studio). Above and beyond the shoes themselves, I’m also reminded that I just straight-up love kits.

On Thursday, I decided I wanted a new batch of markers after all, and ordered another set of twelve to be delivered to the office by Friday. As intellectually satisfying as last month’s pale markers were, I had to admit — in the end — that they were so pale as to be almost invisible. This month couldn’t be more different: all the colors are vivid. At the smoothie shop, I started a new geometric loop drawing in jasper, cotton candy, tuscan orange, and pecan. Four colors; very non-standard.

I’m nervous about making the pocket meanderings happen. I decided to let today be about other things and to devote tomorrow to it more or less fully, and I know that will be fine. But the lightweight dread is still affecting my day; I can feel it. How do I get the benefits of commitment without the low-grade horror that comes from anticipating it?

I can tell that the book is coming to a close. I just read the eleventh chapter and felt intensely aware that it’s almost over. This week’s tasks are all about preparing for the end, which I’m resisting. It feels too soon, even though I know so much has changed.

Here’s a passage I liked from the latest chapter:

To be an artist is to acknowledge the astonishing. It is to allow the wrong piece in a room if we like it. It is to hang on to a weird coat that makes us happy. It is to not keep trying to be something that we aren’t.

Peppermint smoke is puffing out of the diffuser, and I’m tired but I’ve done a lot.


Over My Head

A note sent to a handful of friends, in-between.

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I pedaled up to the low brick studio complex, cracked asphalt expanse post-apocalyptic. Sidling into the building, I forked over hundreds of euros at the ticket window, trying to stay casual. Of course I belonged. I stepped into the studio itself, slipped off my flats, and turned to see: some straight-up Central Stage stretching nonsense. Groups of lithe women and bearded men chatted in clusters, cycling through improbable yoga-esque motions. I sat alone, stretching in all the ways I could remember. Then, the compact, curly-haired teacher stopped rocking her pelvis by the sound system and called us into a circle.

She moved in alien ways. I stayed positive, thinking about how brave I was to be there. Trying not to be too self-conscious about my fancy dance shoes. (Gear is a comfort blanket.) Forgiving myself when I mistook right for left. But as the class wore on, my patience wore out. I am in over my head, I finally knew. I sensed no looming triumph, no imminent redemption through stubbornness. I just wanted to go.

Between part one and part two of the four-hour class, I spoke with the teacher and confessed to my lifetime total of eight hours of instruction so far. I need to start slower, I said. She reassured me, encouraged me to keep trying. I started crying: she didn’t understand. I decided to hold my ground. “I want to be courageous, but I also need to know my limits.” She gave me a hug and then I left.

Biking home, I muttered “stupid, stupid” under my breath, tears still slopping down my cheeks. The shame was tough. How could I have been so foolish? But I knew, at the same time, that nothing good would come of wallowing. I want to keep dancing. I just chose wrong. For something this tender and foreign to me, skipping levels doesn’t make sense. “It’s supposed to be joyful!,” the teacher exclaimed warmly as I cried. Feeling this overwhelmed wasn’t that.

Once I got home, I ordered salad, peeled off my dance shoes, and looked up other ways to use my 10-class punchcard. (One third of today’s expense.) There’s a class “favored by older people” that sounds just right. This will only be the end if I let it be.

As for the other two-thirds: I asked for a refund, but I’ve decided I’m willing to be wrong about this. Let it go, let it go. I signed up from a sweet place and I want to stay hopeful. I feel courageous for knowing that.

Written from Mitte, fattoush salad in my belly.

Week 11

Dear Christina,

I finished Week 11 of The Artist’s Way. I wrote morning pages every day and did five of the ten exercises. Today, I took myself on a three-part artist’s date:

  • A visit to a used bookstore for a small scavenger hunt (look for all the books with purple spines), a bagel and lox, and some time to play with markers
  • A trip to Kuhn Ceramic, which has been on my to-try list for a few months; while there, I picked up a ceramic playing card to give Erik for our upcoming anniversary
  • A slice of the best cheesecake in town at Five Elephant and some time to read My Brilliant Friend, recommended on the Call Your Girlfriend podcast

The nice part was that I had an original idea for the day — go to Kuhn Ceramic — and just kept adding more ideas to it as they sparked in my mind, realizing I didn’t have to choose.

This week’s dance class fiasco felt terrible. I think I’m mostly over it, but it put me on a trajectory for the week of digging myself into holes and then lifting myself out of them with grim chagrin. I learned that I can’t get a refund for the course, but I will get a voucher that I can apply to other classes. Although it’s hard to imagine really spending the whole punch card I already bought plus almost 2x the punch card’s value in additional vouchers, I think that emotionally, this is a sound outcome. No running away; just an adjustment of course.

In preparation for the final week of The Artist’s Way, I read the rest of the book today. The final page is quite amazing; I’ve attached a screenshot. I sent you a comically-crying emoji via Twitter DM before I started, but I really did end up crying a bit. (As I did almost every week, to be fair.) Some of my favorite exhortations:

Mystery is at the heart of creativity. That, and surprise. All too often, when we say we want to be creative, we mean we want to be able to be productive. Now, to be creative is to be productive — but by cooperating with the creative process, not forcing it.
Restive in our lives, we yearn for more, we wish, we chafe. We sing in the car, slam down the phone, make lists, clear closets, sort through shelves. We want to do something but we think it needs to be the right something, by which we mean something important. We are what’s important, and the something that we do can be something festive but small: dead plants go; mismatched socks bite the dust. We are stung by loss, bitten by hope. Working with our morning pages, a new — and gaudy? — life takes form. Who bought that azalea? Why the sudden taste for pink? Is this picture you’ve tacked up a you you’re moving toward?
Always remember: the first rule of magic is self-containment. You must hold your intention within yourself, stoking it with power. Only then will you be able to manifest what you desire.
In order to achieve escape velocity, we must learn to keep our own counsel, to move silently among doubters, to voice our plans only among our allies, and to name our allies accurately.
Keep gurus at bay.
When people ask me what I think is the single most important factor in an artist’s sustained productivity, I know I am supposed to say something like, “solitude,” or “an independent income,” or “childcare.” All of these things are good and many people have said so, but what I think is better and more important than any of these things is what I call “a believing mirror.” Put simply, a believing mirror is a friend to your creativity — someone who believes in you and your creativity.

At this moment, I want to thank you — not for the first time, and not for the last — for being my believing mirror all along the way.

This week will be interesting. One of last week’s exercises asked me to plan out a whole week of self-nurturing. Here’s what I came up with:

  • Sunday: Create a small altar with origami and recovered crystals; put it in the bedroom window
  • Monday: Buy flowers
  • Tuesday: Write out affirmations in longhand
  • Wednesday: Take myself out to breakfast (follow my heart)
  • Thursday: Sleep in
  • Friday: Buy myself some chocolates
  • Saturday: Buy as many movies as I want for the flight

I just went down a rabbit hole of researching a few of those ideas and slotting them in to my calendar, which feels thrilling and forbidden. But why? Everything’s possible.

At the end of the week, I fly to San Francisco: a fitting end.

Still need to write the pocket piece. Still resisting. I’ll figure it out.


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Week 12

Dear Christina,

I’m done with The Artist’s Way. I wrote morning pages every single day for twelve weeks, took myself on twelve artist’s dates, and did about half the exercises. I collected dozens of markers, found a way to enjoy cafés, started dancing, and wrote a piece that feels like the start of something. I’m really, really proud of myself.

Today was a long day. I woke up around 5am in Berlin, ritualistically wrote morning pages, talked with Erik about which iPhone he was going to order while I avoided starting to pack, started packing, discovered that I couldn’t find my passport anywhere, tore the house apart, went to the airport anyway, and somehow convinced official after official to let me through with just a passport card. Almost 24 hours later, here I am in San Francisco, staving off sleep by tying off the last of the loose ends on this intense journey.

I feel a dull panic about the program being over. The very last set of exercises invites the reader to commit to morning pages and artist’s dates for another ninety days, which comes out to thirteen weeks. I’ve marked my calendar, using an acronym I found goofy and charming — “PAW,” for “Post-Artist’s Way.” Like a postgrad program. I’m going to ask my friend Sarah if she’ll receive my reports for this round, to reset momentum.

I cried when I read your letter last week, thinking about how far both of us have come.

Thank you, thank you, thank you for supporting me through this and cheering me on. I love you!


Originally published on Medium

Diana Berlin