Collision Course

I’m continuing to work through The Artist’s Way with a group — one chapter per week. I’m finding the exercises in Chapter 5 very helpful, but I sense I’m on a collision course with Chapter 6.

In Chapter 6, “Recovering a Sense of Abundance,” Julia Cameron tiptoes ever so gracefully into the thorny subject of money. It quickly becomes clear that she has no practical suggestions on how to make money from art. Her observations and anecdotes about abundance are seriously at odds with reality.

Rather than dissect the whole chapter line by line, let’s zero in on the story of Alan (pp. 110-111). Alan loves music, but he’s blocked by his own perfectionism. So he starts working on his creative recovery by buying a new CD every week. Then he picks up a pair of drumsticks at the music store. After only six months, “he cleared a space in the attic and acquired a secondhand drum kit. ‘I thought my wife and daughter would be embarrassed by how bad I was,’ he explains…. ‘Actually, I was the one who was embarrassed, but now I’m just having fun with it…. For an old guy, I’d say my chops are coming back.'”

This is an inspiring anecdote, to be sure, but we need to scroll back and give it a context. In Chapter 5, Cameron discusses “the virtue trap,” in which the artist doesn’t allow himself to pursue his art due to a misguided belief that his family comes first. “For many creatives,” Cameron says on p. 97, “the belief that they must be nice and worry about what will happen with their friends, family, [and] mate if they dare to do what they really want to constitutes a powerful reason for non-action.”

Advising people to get out of the virtue trap is terrific. You go, Julia! But what happens when we try giving this advice to Alan?

If Alan keeps at his drumming, before long he’ll be ready to join a local blues band with four other middle-aged guys. They’ll get some gigs at local clubs. In a good month, Alan might bring home as much as $1,000. In a bad month, maybe only $200.

Drumming is Alan’s passion! Should we advise him to give up his day job? How will his wife and daughter like it when Dad is bringing home only $500 in an average month? (And how will he make the payments on a house that has an actual attic?)

But if he keeps his day job, surely both his drumming and his family life will suffer. He’ll be too tired to play at a club until 1:00 in the morning and then get up at 6:00 to be at his desk in the accounting firm by 7:00, so he’ll have to turn down gigs (or get sick). His wife and daughter will never see him, because every spare moment will be taken up by rehearsals, practice, and gigging.

If this goes on for very long, I foresee a divorce in Alan’s future.

Cameron ducks this question. Her entire purpose as a creativity guru is to encourage Alan to have “a sense of abundance.” Her religious faith, which she refers to often in this chapter, apparently assures her that “God” will then provide Alan sufficient material resources to meet his needs and those of his family, but the mechanics by which “God” will manage this sleight-of-hand are left conveniently unexplained.

For the benefit of non-musicians and the terminally optimistic, perhaps I should explain that as a middle-aged drummer living in Anytown, USA, Alan’s career options, no matter how talented he may be, are extremely limited. And of course talent doesn’t equate to passion at all. He might be vibrantly passionate about drumming and still be a crappy drummer.

Ten years ago I was more or less in Alan’s position. I had given up playing cello entirely for more than 20 years, but I picked it up again and within a couple of years had reacquired a decent technique. Now and then I pick up a couple of hundred bucks playing a gig — but there are dozens of conservatory-trained cellists in the Bay Area, or perhaps hundreds, competing for a very small pool of poorly paying part-time gigs. I’m not conservatory-trained, I’m just a very decent amateur who picks up a paying gig now and then. My situation exactly parallels Alan’s, except that I don’t have a wife and daughter to support. But it’s entirely clear that I would never be able to earn $3,000 per month as a cellist. Not even Julia Cameron’s cute little God could pull off that miracle.

In this economy I can’t even bring in that amount by teaching cello — and in any case, teaching is not doing. Teaching is something you do to fill in because Julia Cameron’s cute little God has utterly fallen down on the job.

As usual.

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