The Right to Write by Julia Cameron has been a fascinating read for me. In fact, it’s far more than a read, because each chapter of the book concludes with a writing exercise. Julia’s chapters are all short which makes it very easy to read a chapter every day and to undertake the exercise which varies between a few minutes to an hour or so.
The exercises are highly varied and for a number, I read the exercise and wondered if I would even be able to undertake it. They stretch you. Yet the discipline of pulling out a pen and a pad of paper for an undertaking, even when one isn’t sure about whether one has any quality content to provide to that exercise, has proved to be enlightening, and profound.
I recall one exercise that asked me to leave the house and find an external place to write somewhere pleasant. Julia suggested a church or a library but I chose a bench on a high spot overlooking a valley. It was a sunny day, although not particularly warm and I was wearing my red skiing jacket. I noticed how the fabric, which kept the chill wind from me, would rustle gently as I wrote. It was extraordinary how much attention the act of writing facilitated my awareness of my surroundings on that day, and that was part of the purpose of Julia’s well-designed approach. The cool breeze on my cheek and the sound of birdsong in my ears encouraged me to progress with the exercise. I was asked to list 50 things that I was proud of from the small to the large. I recall as my pen hovered over the first line how uncertain I was that I could even think of five things let alone fifty. “This may take some time,” I thought, but I was wrong. As the ink flowed gently from the nib of my precious fountain pen, I found one thing lead to another and to another and to another. With only the briefest of pauses when I had to think some more, another flow of recognition came to mind. At the end of the exercise, I reflected on how changed I felt. There are many things to be proud of, some of which I had done, many I had enabled to be done. Many days were shaped by that. Many more will be.
In another chapter about honesty, Julia opines that “when we get cold feet about the truth, our prose goes cold as well” and I have seen that in my writing too. Have you? Her exercise helps to unlock some areas where we are perhaps not being honest with ourselves. She proposes using language to start our thinking and our writing which enables us to express things in a more honest way, for example, “If it weren’t so threatening I’d admit …” I found that reflecting in this way opened many opportunities for self-honesty, and always, in the end, that changes who you are, for the better.
Later in the book, Julia suggests a “sound initiation”. She asks us to sit very still and very quietly and focus on the sounds that we’re surrounded by. The multitude of them and their richness, and the attention attunes the mind to sound. I found it a gentle and powerful meditation. The next part of the exercise was to write whilst listening to a piece of music that we find urges us to be adventurous (she chose “Chariots of Fire” – I chose Elgar’s cello concerto in E Minor) and then to write our vision of the world as we want it to be.
These are not just random exercises asking you to write for the sake of writing these are structured exercises designed to expand your ability to write and the manner in which you choose words and phrases . They go further; this book invites us to examine ourselves through our writing; to examine who we are and why we think as we do. When we do that it changes our vision of ourselves. It has changed me in ways in which I could not, and would not want to, return from
This is not a book to read quickly; this is a book to absorb over time as you ”play” with the exercises, especially perhaps, those which do not at first glance excite or motivate you. In those exercises, I found great insight.
Has this book changed my writing? Well, I will leave that for you to decide. What I know it has done is shift my internal understanding of myself, and for the better.