I was 41 and it seemed like the gate had closed forever on my life goals. I couldn’t sleep. I coughed constantly and had mysterious pain in my butt that resisted all chiropractics. I kept falling – even up the stairs. I felt trapped in an academic job I’d outgrown. My husband shattered his leg in an accident while rebuilding houses in hurricane-devastated Mississippi. Medical bills piled up around us and it seemed we had no true friends in the town we’d chosen, nine years before, for its lush old neighborhoods. Instead of friends, I had a circle of sharks in my university department who’d made my last few years a nightmare by undermining everything I did or said.
Thank God for a sabbatical that rescued me from the sharks and the pain-in-the-ass. My son and I boarded a plane for the UK and I took along a copy of Julia Cameron’s book, The Artist’s Way. While my little boy snoozed, I cracked it open and started changing my life’s course. Not that I saw myself as an artist – but I had a gut feeling I needed more imagination in my workday, more laughter, less worry, less posturing and competition, more play.
I had this fantasy I’d quit my teaching job and go work for Sesame Street. I pictured myself sitting in a circle of funny people, writing scenes for Muppet characters, falling back into gales of hilarity.
Julia advises Morning Pages, a kind of unstructured journaling exercise you do every morning, first thing, before the day’s demands and conversations take you away from the imagination that blooms during sleep. She says Morning Pages can lift us out of crippling depression, clear the mental space we need to design our cherished plans, explore crazy ideas without squashing them, and plant seeds that eventually grow into a more creative – even artistic – life.
And she’s right. But it takes some time and persistence. As I look back at 41, I can see I was in a tunnel leading me from old life to new. I had to write my way out.
I started getting up a half-hour earlier to write in my journal. I vented frustration, listed wacky ideas, drew cartoons of mean people, wrote scenes from my life story, and conversed with my enemies. I described a change of color scheme for the living room. I journaled my dreams. I made to-do lists. I bemoaned my stresses and arguments with my husband. And then one day, I prayed.
It went something like this:
Dear Creative Force (Julia recommends this salutation for those of us who struggle with agnosticism),
I am writing to you because I need help. I have no idea if you’re there or if you can hear me or if you care, but I could use an intervention.
Then came some subtle changes. After about a month, I looked forward to the Morning Pages – they started my day with focus. Days I skipped tended to drag. After three months, I got some inspiration for the book I was writing. After six months, I had more energy to exercise (Julia says people who do the Morning Pages tend to become more fit). It was weird. I got this burst of knowing beyond all doubt – I had to quit my grown-up job and work for myself.
Seven years later, I do my daily journaling religiously. I write about everything. When I get stuck, I write: I’m stuck – I have nothing to say – my mind is blank – I feel completely uninteresting and uninspired – blah blah blah. I get unstuck. I have epiphanies. I converse with God. I doodle ideas for the office. I give thanks for everything from my sweet husband and son to the canopy of green outside my window to the warm kitty purring in my lap.
A circle of love surrounds me – but it took writing to uncover it, to lead me through the dark passage and into the light . . . and it probably will again.
Is there a dark place you need to escape? Or a cage door you need to push open? Put your pen on your paper and keep it moving. When you’re tempted to stop, keep it going a while longer. See if you can do three pages. Get up tomorrow and do the same. And then just notice what happens.