The Right to Write, by Julia Cameron


I’m preparing to teach a workshop on creativity, so have been scavenging in my bookshelves for relevant books. In this book, subtitled An Invitation and Initiation Into the Writing Life, Julia Cameron asserts that everyone can lead a creative life.

She makes it easy for the reader to take one small step after another by having brief essays—the invitation—followed by an exercise—the initiation. With each essay, she follows her own advice of starting where you are. She may describe the scene outside her window, something that happened earlier that’s on her mind, or simply an idea.

For example, one essay starts: “Much ado is frequently made about writers and their rituals.” She goes on to talk about special pens, phones silenced, etc. before saying, “I don’t like to make such a big deal about writing.”

Thus, the essays are entirely accessible. The exercises that follow are simple to do, but help the writer dig into themselves and find the will and confidence to write. In addition to the “self-cherishing” and self-discovery sections, there are practical suggestions for living a creative life.

For example, she talks about how writing is actually physical work—“an embodied experience.” She describes writing through the body and suggests a walk, possibly taking along a specific question or topic, and then writing about your experience when you get home. I also like her discussion of writing as being not a monologue but a conversation between the writer and reality. From there she talks about the need to pay attention and closely observe what’s going on around us.

In addition to the essays and exercises, Cameron deploys the two main tools she debuted in her bestselling workbook The Artist’s Way: Morning Pages and Artist Dates.

For Morning Pages, she tells us to write three pages longhand, first thing every morning. What you put down can be about anything; just keep writing. These serve a number of purposes, such as getting you used to writing on the spur of the moment, setting aside your inner censor, and accessing deeper levels of consciousness: “dropping into the well.”

For Artist Dates, she recommends scheduling a play date with your inner artist. This could be a visit to a museum, a film, a walk in the woods: whatever feeds your creativity. Art is process, and the process is supposed to be fun.

The book is a response to people like the Great Writer who over dinner complained to her that too many people were calling themselves writers without having suffered enough, without having come up the hard way, and “‘all that slush keeps the good writers from being published. Writing isn’t for amateurs.’”

Cameron’s response is that too many beautiful voices have been silenced, either by mockery or poverty or some other “creative accident.” She wants everyone’s voice to be heard.

I agree. Just as it’s uncommon today for families and friends to gather around a piano for a sing-song, believing instead that singing is for professionals, many people in our time think that in order to write you have to be a Great Writer—though how one is recognised as such is a minefield—whereas in the past everyone who could wrote letters, diaries, poems, etc. I want to hear those stories, the ones that are buried. That’s why I call my memoir classes Sharing Our Stories.

In another of her books, The Sound of Paper, Cameron reminds us of our purpose as writers:

We say the unsayable and in saying it we name not only ourselves but also the human condition. By being willing to characterize our lives in art, we begin to have the character necessary to make living itself an art.

Do you think that creative writing is for everyone or just for a select few?

A Spool of Blue Thread, by Anne Tyler


My book club rarely comes up with a unanimous verdict on a book, but we all loved this book by Anne Tyler, as we have loved other of her books we’ve read. It’s not just because she writes about Baltimore, and specifically the part of Baltimore we are most familiar with. No, it is something more.

In this, her 20th novel, Tyler introduces us to the Whitshank family. You know families like this one: while there are tensions and long-held grudges between Abby and Red and their four grown children, there is also love and concern and care, even if these emotions are sometimes tempered with frustration or incomprehension. They take for granted their connection with each other, just as they know that if asked to go for a walk on the beach, one is expected to agree.

Part of the glue holding them together is their belief that they, as a family, are special, though Tyler undercuts this assertion by telling us that it is based, among other things, on their ability to keep pets alive to a great age. There are also the stories that they tell about themselves. One has to do with the way Red’s father came to build and then own their house on Bouton Road. The house itself is a character, a vessel for all of their narratives: the wide, deep porch where Abby discovered her love for Red, the curving staircase that funnels sound up to someone hidden upstairs, the kitchen where the real heart-to-hearts take place.

Abby and Red, in their 70s, are starting to experience the effects of aging. Red has trouble hearing and has pulled back from the family construction business started by his father. Abby has begun to blank out for periods of time, finding herself in odd places when she comes to. Over their protests, their dutiful son Stem and his family move in with them, only to be joined unexpectedly by Denny, the black sheep son.

Abby’s baffled love for Denny, a rebel from a young age whom she has never understood, won my heart for this story. I know so many families where one child seems to absorb all the oxygen in the room, driving parents and teachers to distraction. In some ways I was that child, with my constant refrain: Leave me alone! Tyler’s portrait, not just of Abby, but of Denny himself subtly evolves through the book and is just so utterly true to life.

My book club had a long discussion over one critic’s remark that this was a “comic novel”. We agreed that Tyler’s humor is everywhere, but that it is subtle and witty rather than comic. One person, reading it a second time to remind herself of the story, suddenly noted all the little clues scattered in the text that would come to fruition later. Tyler’s craft is astonishing; she distracts us with a compelling story so that we do not notice her writer’s guile.

What we love about Tyler’s novels is her genuine compassion for her characters. She does not shy away from their faults and peculiarities, but she never mocks or criticises them; she instead treats them with respect and dignity. In a recent post on Writer Unboxed, literary agent, author, and writing teacher extraordinaire, Donald Maass suggests that readers are drawn to positive characters, those who have a hopeful outlook on life (though not the uniform optimism of a Pollyanna). These are the kind of characters we readers want to spend time with, whose spirit inspires us. Maass says in another post, “Generally speaking, we choose company that is pleasant. People who are warm, open, curious, compassionate and interesting are good to be around. We gravitate to people like ourselves, who share our outlooks, interests and values.”

In a story, characters encounter obstacles that try them to their limit (in a workshop with him, I started calling Maass The Don—thinking of The Godfather—because of the creative ways he kept pushing us to torment our protagonists). A positive character, confronted with barriers, does not wallow in helpless despair but pushes forward. As Maass says, “The human race is hopeful, yearning, seeking a more perfect world and full of faith that we can make it one.”

It is this quality that we love in Tyler’s novels: her ability to give us people who, with all their quirks and flaws, yearn for something better and have faith that they can get there, people whose stories play out in families so true that we recognise them immediately.

What do you look for in the protagonist of a novel?