The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron
In February I pulled out my yellowing copy of The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron because I wanted to put morning pages back into my day. The daily writing exercise is part of a creative recovery course that was first published in 1992.
What is reading deprivation week?
In week 4 of the course, Julia suggests that to recover “a sense of integrity'” we must empty our lives of distractions to be rewarded with our own thoughts, feelings and art. Uninterrupted, she believes, we are filled with inspiration and ideas of our own.
What counts as reading? 1992 vs 2023
When I first did this course in the early 90s, keeping away from my books was hard. I don’t think Julia or I could have imagined how difficult it would become to distance ourselves from external influences and media distractions. In 2020, a Reddit commenter referred to their experience as “brutal”.
In 2023, media deprivation includes more than just books. The updated version of the exercise is described by Julia as “turning all devices off: no reading, no emailing, no texting, no surfing the Internet. No talk radio, no TV.”
Are you feeling the resistance yet?
As with many people, reading deprivation week provoked a reaction. Julia points out that a response is expected and she is prepared for the backlash of sarcasm, anger and excuses. I had plenty too.
- I can’t do my work without reading anything, I have emails, research and editing to do. My customers aren’t going to wait a week for a reply.
- I’m often awake in the night. If I can’t read, what does Julia expect me to do at 4am?
- What about relaxation and meditation videos, they aren’t media junk.
- Podcasts can be educational and informative, not a distraction.
- No texting? Really?
In the end you just have to get on and try it but I found it helped to get clear on what I was avoiding, what I was going to allow for work and what I was going to do instead.
What did I avoid?
Reading, social media scrolling, YouTube, podcasts, tv, radio and Substack. There was to be absolutely no falling down internet rabbit holes unless I had to solve a work issue. That should free up a couple of hours a day I thought. Less scrolling and more creating had to be good.
What did I allow myself to do?
Work was going to be tricky without media and Julia agreed I didn’t need to be irresponsible. I allowed myself to schedule or quickly post to social media and respond to messages and emails. I would be allowed to use the internet to solve any work related problems if needed.
My morning pages were full of ideas for things I was going to do now I had this time to spare. I was happy to have extra time in the morning without my usual wander through Instagram although I missed it.
I had to stop myself opening social media 4 times. I had to make myself close Instagram after opening it, twice. I tried listening to music at meal times instead of watching tv but turned it off.
Monday night it was hard to fall asleep without a book or video but when I woke up in the night, I stayed away from my phone.
No social media or news summary in the morning was giving me extra time. My morning pages were easy and I had so much to write, three pages wasn’t enough. I felt tired but bursting with clear thoughts about things that were unrelated to my creative life.
When I went to paint I put on some music, which I used to do regularly. I was surprised by how different it felt to work to music rather than a podcast but it wasn’t a good painting day.
I ate dinner in silence and didn’t enjoy it.
I had to stop myself opening Instagram 3 times.
Tuesday night I was awake shortly before four. It’s not unusual for me to pull out a book or watch YouTube until I fall asleep again a couple of hours later. Without these comforting tools, I was restless and anxious. I eventually settled on some calming music but I didn’t go back to sleep.
At around six I gave in and opened Instagram, watched some stories and some annoying adverts before closing the app, feeling like I’d let myself down.
The morning pages felt easy with strong thoughts about the exercise and my failure. I was also exhausted from lack of sleep, my mood felt fragile and my usual comforts were not available. I told myself this was normal, just keep going.
Wednesday night it was clear that something had to change. I was increasingly aware that the structure of my day had been deeply disrupted, I felt low and wrote lengthy thoughts in my journal.
It’s no secret that my mental health is not always good and I was beginning to feel that the exercise was not just affecting my ability to be creative. Maintaining routines and self care rituals are ridiculously and sometimes inconveniently crucial to my mental health. I was feeling isolated and unsettled by the removal of tools that I used daily to keep on top of things. I might not need to have good mental health to create but was it ok to deliberately take away things that supported me? Or was I just making more excuses?
That night, I relaxed to some art videos and a guided meditation and slept all night.
Reflecting on the reading deprivation exercise
It might not surprise you that I didn’t complete the seven day challenge. By Friday I was back to watching tv during meals, listening to a podcast while I worked and reading on sleepless nights. Although I kept my social media use to a minimum.
I live and work alone. It was a hard truth that media from books to podcasts have become a source of company and connection, not just junk food for my brain. In the end this became an exercise in self awareness and setting conscious boundaries.
What was positive?
My morning pages started to flow easily and I wrote more and more deeply and the changes to my thoughts and into my day were wide-reaching.
Less social media scrolling freed up time and mental space for other things. While I missed small unplanned interactions, I got very clear on who I wanted to stay connected to and whose posts I did want to see.
Best of all was not waiting around on Instagram to see who’s engaging with my latest post or story.
The down side
While living alone and working alone, reading deprivation week quickly turned into social isolation week. I didn’t finish the exercise as intended, although the social media restriction was helpful. The discomfort was real and mostly it felt isolating and disturbing rather than creatively freeing.
I definitely spent more time in my head but I’m an introvert with mental health issues so I’m not sure if that was a good thing. I wonder if I should spend more time connecting to others art, views and ideas, especially those different from my own, not less. Or is that for when I’m really clear on my own? That feels like a whole new discussion.
I already had an analogue life that was very satisfying and that didn’t change. I was still crocheting granny squares and building a miniature study in snippets of time because life was still busy despite the absence of media.
By day three I was writing about the lack of structure in my day and feelings of isolation. The things I rely on for feeling good like relaxation videos and reading on sleepless nights were not available and this felt like a problem.
What did I learn from reading deprivation week?
Did I cheat myself out of a more meaningful or useful experience? Maybe but I think I got exactly what I needed from it, right now. I discovered the external distractions and habits that were not helpful. I was able to distinguish those that were supportive and helpful.
I understood the importance of structure, with no employer or family at home to add these daily touchstones. Different media have been scheduled into my day to provide that.
There is an abundance of media resources that support me and nurture my creativity too, from books to podcasts.
I am capable of reducing my social media consumption and giving myself more time. Swapping my mindless scrolling for conscious connection was beneficial. Maybe that was all that I needed.
If you have ever wished for more time to create and engage with your passions then this exercise provides permission to do exactly that. But going cold turkey on the media in your life might be a bigger challenge that you know. Have you tried media deprivation week?