The Artist’s Way

the artist's way

Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way has had a profound influence on the subsequent course of my life. It’s a magical book and it worked – and still works – its magic on me.  Subtitled ‘A Spiritual Path to Creativity’, it’s a practical, playful and creative guide to unlocking and unleashing your creativity, and the tools which Cameron provides are tools for life. They’re a gift. All you need to do is open them and go.

Back in 2001, I was living in Glasgow and working in Edinburgh, a commute made additionally difficult because I was a single mother and my daughter was still young. I was teaching theatre in a university in Edinburgh and the job was deeply unsatisfying. Having performed and directed before, I felt I had become that frustrated creative who resents teaching people because she just wants to make work herself. I felt trapped and I felt blocked. I felt frustrated and resentful.

In Christmas 2001, my friend and neighbour, a film editor called Kristina Hetherington, gave me what turned out to be the best present of my life: Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. I should mention that since then, Kristina has worked on award-winning films, such as Yasmin and Summer, and has herself received a BAFTA as an editor on the film, Mo.

When I first started reading The Artist’s Way, I was a little sceptical about her reference to God but picked up on one of the provided definitions: Good Orderly Direction. I dilligently wrote 3 pages every morning – Morning Pages as Cameron calls them – 3 pages of free writing without self-censorship. You can write about your dreams, your feelings, your complaints, your discomfort, your…anything that comes into your head as you write. I bought colourful stickers and used crayons, and I collaged and sketched images of where I was now and where I so desperately wanted to be. The pictures I drew were of the me I was then: a single mother; an alcoholic surrounded by writing and books and theatre; a functioning alcoholic but an alcoholic nonetheless.

The pictures I drew of the me who I wanted to be were much happier. I was singing and acting and drawing and surrounded by beautiful, life-affirming objects and visions. I was in the full flow of my desired creativity. And what did I want to be? I wanted to be a freelance artist but could see no way of fulfilling my dreams in a country where despite my extremely good wage, the money gets spent on the bills, on the train fare, the council tax, school trips, etc etc etc. The idea of working freelance in Scotland seemed an impossibility.

One day, I went on an Artist’s Date. You do this on your own and the aim is to play and have fun. I went to Arran, taking a train and then a ferry to reach the island. While I was there, it began to rain – that kind of vertical rain which doesn’t stop and from which, that day, I had absolutely no excape. I got completely and indisputably soaking wet. And I also felt alive – more alive than alive. I was soaking wet and I was happy.

In June 2002, I directed a multimedia version of Genet’s The Maids. Shortly after, I organised a collaborative theatre project with practitioners from Bulgaria and Macedonia. In 2004, I revisited a novel, Vandalism, which I’d written in pen and ink several years before. In July that same year, I went to New York to visit a man who had been a central influence on the writing of that book. When I returned, it was to the news that my daughter had decided to live with her father in West Wales and she wasn’t coming back.

I felt sick, shocked and bereft. Utterly bereft.

After the grieving period and time off work, I decided to do all the things I’d felt unable to do while my daughter was there beside me in my world. I set up a theatre company. I received an e-mail from a man who was very interested but couldn’t make it to the initial meeting so we met up later in my university office. His name was Toni Attard and he came from Malta.

In the summer of 2005, Toni got funding which enabld me to go to Malta for the very first time. I worked as a performer on a devised theatre collaboration with Maltese and Scottish performers.

Most of All

Immediately, Malta struck me as a creative and vibrant island, with theatricality oozing out of its pores. I kept going back and I kept going back and – with some major life changes in between – I moved there in January 2008.

I’m still here, nearly 10 years on. I work as a freelance artist whose main financial source of stability comes through teaching English as a foreign language, a job tailor-made for me. No day is ever the same and I meet a fascinating range of people from all over the world on a daily basis. It relies on my creative and intellectual skills, and brings in my capacities as a performer.

I also work as a performer and have performed in plays such as Attempts on Her Life by Martin Crimp, The Sex Comedies by Iain Heggie, The Last Seduction of Almighty God by Howard Barker. I’ve worked on an Edward Bond production and had the unforgettable opportunity to meet the playwright in person. I’ve done some bits of directing work, including David Greig’s version of The Bacchae and Tender Napalm by Philip Ridley.

I’ve also, and perhaps most importantly, published 2 novels since I moved to Malta. The first is a book called Duende which I self-published as a second edition in 2014. It’s set in Spain in the years leading up to the Spanish Civil War and incorporates all the things that have fascinated me throughout my life: art, literature, philosophy, politics and Federico García Lorca, a writer whose work I fell in love with many years ago.

The second book is called Vandalism, which I referred to earlier. A novel which travelled me for so much of my life was picked up by a Maltese publisher and hit the Maltese bookshops in 2015. The following year, it went on sale at Waterstones Byres Rd Glasgow, a bookshop whose location is the setting for Vandalism– the West End of Glasgow where I grew up.

In 2016, Vandalism was shortlisted for Best Novel by the National Book Council Malta and in June this year, I was invited to do an Author’s Evening at Waterstones. This event was a homecoming of an incredible kind. Amongst the audience were people from different parts of my life, both past and present, and the fact that the book was published in Malta and yet now also being sold in Glasgow created a bridge between my two homes, one connected by my writing. I couldn’t ask for more. I really couldn’t ask for more. Waterstones Author Evening 1

Synchronicity has played a major part in my creative journey to date, something which deserves a blog post all of its own. And synchronicity is a word which Julia Cameron uses a lot, referring to the act of writing as a spiritual practice in which connections spring forth from the wider universe and are interwoven with our work. As we create and surrender to this process, we tap into forces far beyond and above us.

I gave a copy of The Artist’s Way to a very good friend of mine just before I left Glasgow for Malta. She’d got sober in 2004 and in 2009, 2 years after I’d given her the book, she told me that The Artist’s Way was The Twelve Steps of AA. It took me another 5 years to understand what she was talking about. In 2014, I stopped drinking, too, and discovered in working the AA 12 step programme that the spiritual path of creativity and recovery are two and the same. Ultimately, a spiritual path is a spiritual path whatever the motivation for embarking on this journey.

While I’ve always been fiercely creative, my creativity liked to dance on the dark side, turning to drugs and alcohol in the hope of perceiving deeper truths. Utter despair and defeat took me to the doors of AA. Terrified that a life without alcohol would somehow diminish my creativity, I discovered that the ideas which had resonated with me so strongly in The Artist’s Way were being given the fresh air I had craved for when I first engaged with the book. And, although I’m not a religious person, the words ‘knock and the door shall be opened on to thee’ carry a real significance for me now. I used to feel I was banging on the door of life, always fighting my corner and defending my cause. The notion of surrender isn’t something that comes easily to me but what I have found, and on a daily basis, is that when I let go and stop resisting, the doors somehow open in the most unexpected of ways. As Julia Cameron says, ‘Mystery is at the heart of creativity. That, and surprise.’vandalism-and-murakami

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The Second Spanish Republic and the Crucifixion of Goodness

Second Spanish Republic 1

The 14th April 1931 saw the establishment of the Second Spanish Republic, and a real sense of optimism and hope for the future spread across Spain, a country which had suffered from a dictatorship, the insidious growth of right-wing extremism, ongoing civil unrest, a fervently oppressive Catholic Church, and the unsparing brutality meted out by the infamous Civil Guard.

The Second Spanish Republic was grounded in a constitution created by thinkers and intellectuals, people attempting to use logic, reason and notions of equality in order to bring into being a fairer better world. The Spanish philosopher, Ortega y Gasset, was instrumental in this and his words have a powerful resonance today:

To have an idea means believing one is in possession of the reasons for having it, and consequently means believing that there is such a thing as reason, a world of intelligible truths. To have ideas, to form opinions, is identical with such an authority, submitting oneself to it, accepting its code, and its decisions, and therefore believing that the highest form of intercommunication is the dialogue in which the reasons for our ideas are discussed.

Despite some of the Republic’s achievements – granting votes to women, legalising divorce, the reduction of church powers in relation to the state  – within a year, the idealism enshrined in its values had effectively come apart. Ortega y Gasset washed his hands of the new government whose actions became as oppressive and corrupt as those they sought to overturn.  As one character asserts in my novel Duende:

The Republic was founded on ideologies. It was inspired and created by the thinking people. The intellectuals. But it was Azaña who implemented the Law for the defence of the Republic, for Christ’s sake. A deliberate attempt to ensure that the order enshrined in Republican values was maintained, a move which went against everything that the Republic was supposedly about. We defend our liberty – no, we enforce it – through repression and oppression. They shot us down when we were crying out for the very freedom we were promised.

Duende Take 2

Duende by Lizzie Eldridge

The ultimate failure of the Second Spanish Republic paved the way for General Franco and his fascist forces to begin their assault on Spain in July 1936. Shortly after, the Spanish writer, Federico García Lorca, was shot dead by fascist soldiers in his home town of Granada.

Lorca photo

Lorca was a writer who spoke of love and he spoke of love above all else. Lorca was also a homosexual whose sexuality was outlawed by the society in which he lived and worked. Lorca is a man who still lives and breathes through his words, through their everlasting beauty, and as a symbol – but never simply just a symbol – of the consequences of the forces of evil when they are wantonly unleashed upon the world.

It seems deeply pertinent that today is not only the anniversary of the establishment of the Second Spanish Republic but also marks Good Friday, a shameful remembrance of the crucifixion of goodness, however its significance is personally understood. It is the crucifixion of goodness that we remember and sadly, we remember this in a context which seems bitterly devoid of good.

The random absurdity of Donald Trump has now become a daily reality, his latest arbitrary action occurring only yesterday when the ‘mother of all bombs’ was released over Afghanistan. This is coupled with the news of the beating and torture of homosexual men in Chechnya. Just as Lorca was rounded up with other prisoners and taken to be shot, so, too, gay men in Chechnya are being treated in a similar way, with reports that some of these men may later have been killed.

All of this comes hard on the heels of Sean Spicer’s incredulous assertion that ‘someone as despicable as Hitler…didn’t even sink to…using chemical weapons’, deftly erasing the gas chambers and the Holocaust in one outrageous sweep.

So today, on Good Friday, we remember what for some is considered the greatest sin committed by so-called humanity: us. We atone for a crime that was committed in our name. The hope for resurrection has to wait and it seems that two thousand years later, we wait, and still we wait.

But I want neither world nor dream, divine voice,

I want my liberty, my human love

in the darkest corner of the breeze no one wants.

My human love!

Federico García Lorca

Crucifixion
Oil on board
1946Crucifixion by Graham Sutherland

Duende: a novel about art, philosophy and love

Duende Take 2

Duende by Lizzie Eldridge

‘The true struggle is with the Duende.‘  Federico García Lorca

Ignacio Ramirez Rivera quickly became Nayo thanks to his older sister who deliberately simplified his name in response to his arrival in her world. Although this diminutive form was unusual, soon Nayo’s parents were fondly referring to their baby in this way, pleased a bond had already developed between their two young children. Angelita, the little girl responsible for her brother’s title, herself had a name with a lot to live up to.

Duende, a novel set in Spain in the period leading up to the Spanish Civil War, begins in 1900 with the birth of Nayo in Barcelona. In 1914, he falls in love with a boy called José who becomes his life-long partner at a time when homosexuality was outlawed. The illicit nature of their relationship becomes a means of exploring the nature of love per se and how it is possible to co-exist in a hostile environment.

The Spain in which the two men live and breathe is deeply antagonistic, riven by religious, political and social tensions. In contrast, and reflecting wider European trends, Spain was also characterised by a vibrant artistic and cultural scene, and Dalí, Ortega y Gasset and, most significantly, Federico García Lorca are real-life figures who appear as characters within this book. 

Federico García Lorca (1898-1936) was a homosexual writer and poet murdered by fascists at the start of the Spanish Civil War. He becomes a friend to the two main characters in my novel as their professional and personal interests coincide. Nayo is an artist and José a philosopher, and thus art, philosophy and literature become overarching themes.

However, they become more than simply themes as they permeate every single aspect of the story, being integral to plot, structure as well as characterisation. In conjunction with the tumultuous landscape in which the action occurs, these elements form the momentum and impulse driving the narrative forward. And these elements combine in the title of the novel which, deriving from Spanish folklore and mythology, defies any adequate translation into English. Here’s some descriptions taken from the novel itself:

Duende. Something primal, living, shuddering and vibrant. Duende which evokes tears through its music and its poetry. Duende which comes from the depths of the body through the roots of the earth and shakes the entire universe. The aspiration to perfection is a struggle with the duende and José thought of Nietzsche’s concept of the Ubermensch as the ongoing quest to overcome the limitations of the self. Like Nietzsche’s Will to Power, duende encompasses the the death wish as the duende swoons and dances in its arms.’

Duende, which only appears when there’s the possibility of death. Duende. That most vital struggle, when touching death is knowing, and truly knowing, life. The fucking wrenching ache, the agony of living, loving, dying at the same time.’

José thought of Federico’s premise that all that has dark sounds has duende and knew from his own experience that art, in each and every medium, stemmed from the need to express not only the inexpressible but those emotions which cut so deep that in the act of articulation, the artist writhes in pain. Release has its aftermath in resolution or destruction or, perhaps, in both.’

In the context of 1930s Spain, resolution of longstanding conflicts came through destruction in the form of the Spanish Civil War.Spanish Civil War 3

My own story, which chronicles the lives of two men in their ongoing journey to make sense of their experiences, comes to an end as the civil war begins. For me, as the author, this was a momentous journey as I, too, struggled to comprehend the seemingly irreversible sequence of events that resulted in such widespread and barbaric devastation. However, in the process of writing Duende, I became intensely aware that it was the forces of love that propelled the narrative forward. It was the forces of resistance to increasing brutality. It was the voices of humanity which allowed me to keep writing even when all hope seemed irrevocably lost.

The fact that the precise love at the heart of my story was of itself a form of resistance to prevailing morality served to reinforce its humanity and its universal implications. At this point, it’s pertinent to let the characters speak for themselves:

‘It’s always been about connecting thought and feeling,’ said José. ‘For me, that’s what it’s always been about. And at its finest, philosophy does this. At its best, philosophy becomes poetry and vice versa. Take Nietzsche, for example. When we were talking tonight, a phrase from Nietzsche kept going round and round in my head. I know he’s Rubén’s favourite so maybe that triggered it but I couldn’t get the words out of my mind. Nietzsche said that whatever’s done for love always occurs beyond good and evil. Whatever’s done for love transcends these fundamental dichotomies.’

‘What Nietzsche’s referring to,’ said Nayo, ‘me and you have found that place so many times. We’ve been there and back again. Forget politics. Forget philosophy. We’ve stood there, we’ve tasted it and we know what it feels like.’

José looked at Nayo and nodded.

‘But we also know the ground we walk on can shift,’ he said. ‘For us, it has to. Many times, we’ve been forced to put up barriers in order to defend the very territory we wanted to sustain. That’s how it’s been and that’s how it is. We’ve inhabited a space that’s never been permanent. It can’t be. Because it’s simply not allowed.’

‘But the fact is that we’ve found it,’ persisted Nayo. ‘Even when its truth can only be revealed when we’re as certain as we can be that no threats can interfere, the fact we know of its existence, that we’ve lived and breathed within this is what matters. The fact we’ve been there and can go back there any time we need to, that’s what counts.’

Duende by Lizzie Eldridge: Available on Amazon