The Literary Salon – The Listening Path – by Julia Cameron

When was the last time you had a really good sit-down soul-satisfying conversation with somebody? Notwithstanding the pandemic, it’s surely a given in today’s society that we have become a nation of non-listeners. We have a tendency to interrupt with our own opinion, or maybe we’re not really listening at all but thinking about what our reply will be. I blame this general lack of attention on the instantaneous nature of the internet. We have become so accustomed to conducting everything at high speed, that we’ve lost the fine art of conversation….in person….not by text or tweet. It takes time to have a conversation, and two people who are willing to truly listen to each other’s words. Someone may say they are fine, but you can tell from the tone of their voice or facial expressions that they’re not, and so you ask questions, and then listen carefully. Listening better was one my goals this year, so it was with great anticipation that I ordered Julia Cameron’s latest release, The Listening Path – The Creative Art of Attention.

Publisher’s Blurb from Goodreads:

The newest book from beloved author Julia Cameron, The Listening Path is a transformational journey to deeper, more profound listening and creativity. Over six weeks, readers will be given the tools to become better listeners—to their environment, the people around them, and themselves. The reward for learning to truly listen is immense. As we learn to listen, our attention is heightened and we gain healing, insight, clarity. But above all, listening creates connections and ignites a creativity that will resonate through every aspect of our lives.

Julia Cameron is the author of the explosively successful book The Artist’s Way, which has transformed the creative lives of millions of readers since it was first published. Incorporating tools from The Artist’s Way, The Listening Path offers a new method of creative and personal transformation.

Each week, readers will be challenged to expand their ability to listen in a new way, beginning by listening to their environment and culminating in learning to listen to silence. These weekly practices open up a new world of connection and fulfillment. In a culture of bustle and constant sound, The Listening Path is a deeply necessary reminder of the power of truly hearing. 

Why I Liked It: I didn’t. I don’t even know how it got published. Normally I wouldn’t review a bad book, because I would have quit reading it, but I finished this one out of respect for the author, the creativity expert and author of 40 books most of them truly inspiring, including her first, The Artist’s Way.

I read The Artist’s Way back when it was first published in 1992, and enjoyed it, although I’d have to say I found the Morning Pages a bit OCD. I even tried them once during a week’s vacation, but who has a spare hour in the morning to write out three long hand pages of stream of consciousness stuff. (This was in the days before computers, but she still requires they be hand written, and never in the evening!) Unless you were seeking clarity or trying to solve a problem, and even then wouldn’t you get sick of whining about it day after day, I just couldn’t see the point. For many people those early morning hours are often the most productive of the day, and for some, the only time they get any writing done at all. The Artist’s Dates and Meditative Walks were fun and helpful suggestions though. It was a twelve week program for discovering your creative self, which grew out of a writer’s workshop she taught, although the art can be any genre – writing, painting, music, etc. A best-seller at the time, the book has never been out of print and a few years ago they re-issued a 25th anniversary edition, but it can be found at book discount places, as can many of her other popular books on creativity. I own several of her earlier works and found them uplifting, especially for people who may not have anyone who encourages their writing, or even understands it. She’s revered as the Cheerleader of Creativity.

But back to The Listening Path:

The Publisher’s blurb sounded good, but this book was a disappointing read on so many levels.  It’s a slim 180 page volume, with a long 40 page introduction, which is basically a recap of The Artist’s Way, and six chapters, Listening to the Environment, Others, Our Higher Self, Beyond the Veil, Silence and Our Heroes, with the chapters getting progressively shorter, so that towards the end they were only 4 or 5 pages. The pages themselves had a weird format of very narrow columns (4 inches), designed to make the book appear longer.

The Beyond the Veil chapter (where she connects with the world beyond and her spirit friend Jane tells her not to second-guess herself, the book is going well), reminded me of a seance.  (Jane, if you’re listening, it was bad advice).  The listening to others chapter, which should have been the gist of the book, consisted of interviews with her artist friends and acquaintances, who may be perfectly nice people but are not experts in the field and had nothing interesting to offer other than their personal opinions. (I could just as well interview my friends about listening but then medical people like jargon and brevity. I inadvertently offended a newly minted colleague once when I said cut to the chase.)

There were lots of walks with her dog Lily (a cute but yappy little Westie terrier) in the Santa Fe area where she lives, constant weather reports on storms and hail, feeding the dog salmon, and something called gravlax to stop her from barking and annoying the neighbors.  “Lily! Salmon! Treat!” was repeated so many times, (pages 44, 45, 47, 56, 97 and whenever there was a thunderstorm), it got to be annoying.  She has a bad connection on her landline, (several pages on that including dialogue), feels “bludgeoned” by a friend’s dietary advice that she eat more protein, (ditto….sister you don’t know what a bad day is), worries about whether she can afford a house (yes her accountant says she can, and a maid too)….basically it was a whole lot of repetitive personal trivia, zero research and nothing much at all to do with the topic of listening. Unless you’re writing a personal blog, sharing anecdotes for a reason, and/or lead an interesting life, this kind of stream of consciousness stuff might better be left to Morning Pages, not published in a hardcover format for $50 Cdn ($36.99 US).

Her one and only novel, Mozart’s Ghost was like that too – I swear the protagonist lived in the laundry room, but after 43 rejections (page 19) what would you expect? Not that you can’t branch out and try something new, but sometimes an author can be good at one genre, but not others.  (I loved Frances Mayes series of Under The Tuscan Sun travel books, but her attempt at a chick-lit novel was painful).   If you like an author, you expect only good things from them, and are doubly disappointed when they don’t deliver.     

The Listening Path was written pre-pandemic, and while many people have been lonely during this past year, with no company and their only social outlet walking the dog, if you read between the lines this book spoke volumes about how solitary a writer’s life can be.  She needs to ditch the desert, move back to New York and re-read her own books for inspiration.

I didn’t sense too much joy in the creation- more of a pounding out the pages to meet a deadline. There was a lot of self-doubt which I don’t remember from her earlier works.   Was her stuff out of date (yes, Morning Pages)? There was much angst about teaching a course in London she has taught for decades – how can someone with 40 books be so lacking in self-confidence and so insecure.  I perked up at the mention of London though, it sounded much more interesting than walking in Santa Fe.

I even wondered if she was well, maybe even depressed? I read her 2006 memoir, Floor Sample, many years ago, and what struck me was what an unhappy life she had lead, because the memoir was such a direct contrast to her positive encouraging books.  She was married at one time to director Martin Scorsese (a man she declares she still loves – page 114), has a daughter and a grandchild and is a decades long recovered alcoholic.  I suspect AA inspired her writer’s workshops, hence the 12 week programs.   

Normally if I’m struggling with a book, I’ll hop on Goodreads and if enough people share my opinion, then I quit. (Too many DNF’s mean it’s not me, it’s you dear author, keeping in mind of course that some of those glowing reviewers may be receiving free copies).  But I soldiered on….it was readable, but barely, in a train wreck sort of way.

All in all, it was a timely topic which just didn’t translate, and I was left with a sense of disappointment, but you’ll be relieved to know there was a happy ending, as Lily got one of those anti-bark “citronella spray” dog collars. I didn’t even know such a thing existed, but apparently dogs hate the smell of citronella. Yes, that was how the book ended, with a short section entitled, “The Neighbors Rejoice.” I may pass that tip along to my neighbors.

This brings up the question – what does a publisher do when a best-selling author turns in a sub-standard manuscript? A good editor will hand it back to be fixed, or they may just publish it, take the money and run. It might be better to abandon it though and save the author’s reputation. Julia Cameron is 73 now, aren’t writers allowed to retire? (Another recent example of this is Jodi Picout’s latest, The Book of Two Ways, a four hundred page disaster which defies description, although I’ll try in a future blog). Same with the author – it’s hard to be objective especially when you’ve put so much work into something, and it’s also hard to admit when something just isn’t working. Books are subjective, but if the general consensus/feedback isn’t good, then you know there’s a problem.

If you want to read a good book by Julia Cameron, I would highly recommend this one.

Publishers Blurb:
 
Julia Cameron has inspired millions with her bestseller on creativity, The Artist’s Way. In It’s Never Too Late To Begin Again, she turns her eye to a segment of the population that, ironically, while they have more time to be creative, are often reluctant or intimidated by the creative process. Cameron shows readers that retirement can, in fact, be the most rich, fulfilling, and creative time of their lives.

When someone retires, the newfound freedom can be quite exciting, but also daunting. The life that someone had has changed, and the life to come is yet to be defined. In this book, Cameron shows readers how cultivating their creative selves can help them navigate this new terrain. She tells the inspiring stories of retirees who discovered new artistic pursuits and passions that more than filled their days—they nurtured their souls.  
A twelve-week course aimed at defining—and creating—the life you want to have as you redefine—and re-create—yourself, this book includes simple tools that will guide and inspire you to make the most of this time in your life:

–  Memoir writing offers an opportunity to reflect on—and honor—past experience. This book guides you through the daunting task of writing an entire memoir, breaking it down into manageable pieces. 
–  Morning Pages—private, stream-of-consciousness writing done daily—allow you to express wishes, fears, delights, resentments, and joys, which in turn, provide focus and clarity for the day at hand.
–  Artist Dates encourage fun and spontaneity.
–  Solo Walks quell anxiety and clear the mind.

This fun, gentle, step-by-step process will help you explore your creative dreams, wishes, and desires—and help you quickly find that it’s never too late to begin again. 

This book is geared more for middle-aged folks like me facing their second acts…..those reluctant souls who maybe always wanted to do something creative but lacked the courage to try. I read it back in 2016 and it was a big factor in starting my blog, although it was a whole year before I actually wrote anything on it, and another three months before I made it public. (My creative soul was a bit rusty). This book was an inspiring read, which truly delivered.

PS. Two out of three isn’t bad, and goes to show that even the best of writers have their duds. Do you think it is better to abandon a book which just isn’t working and move on to something else, or stick with it and carry on?

PS. I’ll be exploring more on the dichotomy between a writer’s books and their life, in a future blog about L.M. Montgomery, of the Anne of Green Gables series.

The Bestseller Code

The Bestseller Books

 A Review of Three Writing Manuals           

      “What if there was an algorithm that could reveal the secret DNA of bestsellers, regardless of their genre?     Thanks to authors Jodie Archer and Matthew Jockers such an algorithm exists, and the results bring fresh insight into how fiction works and why we read.”    

      This jacket blurb of The Bestseller Code – Anatomy of the Bestseller Novel promises to unlock all the secrets.  

The Bestseller Code: Anatomy of a Blockbuster NovelThe Bestseller Code: Anatomy of a Blockbuster Novel by Jodie Archer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As a scientific person I found the computer analysis of the DNA which makes a book a bestseller very interesting, but I’m not sure you can distill the magic of writing down to such generic common denominators. Still this was a worthwhile read, especially considering the growing field of AI. Plus we all like to read about books like The Help being rejected multiple times, as it gives us hope….

Although this book was published in 2016 it only recently came to my attention, through another blogger’s review.  As I had half-jokingly written in my One Year Blogging Anniversary of my wish to write a murder mystery, I thought reading this book might give me some tips as to what might sell in the unpredictable world of publishing.    Normally I do my book reviews on Goodreads, but as there are many writers on WordPress who may secretly be harboring the wish to write a novel or are actively pursuing that goal, this book might be of interest to some.   I made notes, as it was a library book and had to be returned prior to posting this.           

Some points and random notes:    (The observations in brackets are mine)

Pg 3    In the US about 50-55,000 works of fiction are published every year.   Of these, about 200-250 make the New York Time bestseller list.    That’s less than half a percent.     (The odds are slim).

Pg 3.   The sudden and seemingly blessed success of books like the Dragon Tattoo Trilogy, 50 Shades of Gray, The Help, Gone Girl and The DaVinci Code is considered as lucky as winning the lottery.   But is it really?    After feeding 20,000 books into a computer program and developing an algorithm, the authors feel they can predict with a fair degree of accuracy which ones will make the bestseller list due to certain common characteristics.  

Pg. 27 you have about 350 pages to take us somewhere and back.     Journeying is the main thing, as is the theme/topic of human closeness/connection.  (The Goldfinch was awful, 600 pages of nothing.   So was All the Light We Cannot See.   But Gone with the Wind was wonderful at over 1,000).  

The average age of the heroine is 28???   (With Mary Higgins Clark it is usually 32, although lately they have aged a bit with her.    I’m not sure age matters that much as long as you have sympathy for the character.   I never thought I would read a Young Adult novel but Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games was totally captivating.    I loved the middle-aged protagonist in The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, but those four sixtyish women in Frances Mayes new novel, Women in Sunlight, annoyed me to such an extent that I would not recommend the book to anyone….yes, four main characters that I could not keep straight and not one likable.   Tuscany was the best part of the book by far).   

 There was a chapter devoted to themes and topics, what sells best, crime/legal thrillers/romance etc, and getting the right topics in the right proportions.    The computer model picked Danielle Steel and John Grisham as the two names who did this best.   (But then how to explain the success of Orphan Train, Water for Elephants, The Help, all diverse topics indeed.    The Help was rejected 60 times, mostly because editors thought the topic, black maids in the South in the 1950’s, would not be of interest to anyone.   I remember someone reading Water for Elephants in the lunch room at work and saying what a really good book it was and thinking they were crazy, who would want to read a novel about the circus during the depression?  After I read it, I thought it quite wonderful).

Pg 67 – The most common topic among bestselling writers was human closeness and human connection, which crosses all genres.    (perhaps self-evident as books do tend to be about people?)

Pg 89 – There are seven different types of plot-lines with sample charts of peaks and valleys.   You must hook your reader within the first 40 pages or they will nod off forever.   (I persisted through 150 opening pages about thet the poor and lonely protagonist in Ruth Ware’s latest The Death of Mrs. Westaway and was glad I stuck it out, as the last half was well worth it.   Some novels are slow going at the beginning).

Pg 115   The compute algorithm could detect with great accuracy whether a book was written by a female or male, even those such as JK Rowling writing under aliases. 

Pg 121   Opening sentences must be gripping and create an authentic preferably active voice, but a comparison of the opening sentence of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice with a Jackie Collins novel???   (I think not.  It is a truth universally acknowledged that one is classy and one is trashy.   But then the authors appear to have an obsession with the success of Fifty Shades of Gray/Garbage).  

Pg 136     Sentences do not need decorating with additional clauses.   Verbs prefer not to be followed with a string of really very pretty lovely little words ending in ly.     (Oh no…my nemesis….sighs sadly).   The sentences of the bestseller are not gaudy Christmas trees, carrying the weight of lights and baubles and tinsel and angels and stars.  Better the plain fir tree brought into simple relief.  (But wouldn’t that be like imitating Hemingway who famously never used a word you needed to look up in a dictionary and ignoring Dickens whose verbose descriptions ran on forever?)

Pg. 148   There was a  chapter on the dark heroine or the Girl phenomena – The Dragon Girl, Gone Girl, The Girl on the train.  The Girl is not your average heroine.  What is their popularity saying about our society?   (These are strong women, but are they nice?  Is this anything new – Scarlet O’Hara was not nice either – she was strong, selfish and determined.   Frail Melanie Wilkes was the nice one, but where did it get her in the end – she died young).

Pg. 194   In the final chapter, the computer picked the one novel 100% most likely to succeed.  (I will not spoil it for you, but it was not a book or an author I was familiar with, nor do I have any desire to read based on subject matter, but it was somewhat ironic).  

Pg. 209 In the epilogue there was a discussion about whether we will ever see a machine-written novel.    As far back as 1952 they tried to set up a program for a computer to write a love letter by feeding it common words used in such, but it was a complete failure, (and sounded like one of those spam comments I occasionally receive on WordPress – “It is lovely worth sufficient for me.  In my view, if all siteowners and bloggers made excellent content as you probably did, the web will probably be much more helpful than ever before.  I can help make very pretty….”    Poor Mr. SpamBot is not going to get anywhere using all those adjectives that end in ly!)   

To sum up, while this was a worthwhile and interesting read, but other than a few tidbits, I don’t think there was any major earth-shattering advice or analysis offered.    It was based on what was popular at the moment, but tastes change.   Some books endure, and others don’t.   I believe most writers write about what they find interesting, which is what makes the book world so diverse and unpredictable….and magical.   While common denominators may predict a winning formula for what sells, you can’t sell your soul either trying to imitate them.   I do read some of the authors on the bestseller lists, Jodi Picoult, John Grisham, Kate Morton, Elin Hilderbrand, (all of their latest  books have been great), but not others such as James Patterson and never ever Danielle Steele or Gray Garbager.   I don’t care how much money they make.    An analogy would be, while there may be a large market for reality TV shows, how many times do we tune in because that is all there seems to be on TV?   Shouldn’t we strive for something unique, something better than the norm no matter how well it sells….or just be content with more of the same…luckily as both readers and writers we get to decide.   

Perhaps we should turn to Jane Austen, who has endured over the centuries, for some writerly inspiration.  

The Jane Austen Writers’ Club: Inspiration and Advice from the World’s Best-loved NovelistThe Jane Austen Writers’ Club: Inspiration and Advice from the World’s Best-loved Novelist by Rebecca Smith

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was an entertaining guide to writing by a five times great niece of Jane Austen who has also been writer-in-residence at the Jane Austen House Museum, and so is well qualified to write about her methods, characterization and plotting. There were some useful tips such as writing an autobiographical sketch on each character, but I found the extensive quoting of large swaths of JA’s novels (sometimes for pages and pages), to be irksome, and in truth I skimmed most of it only ever having read P&P and Emma. There were lots of exercises suitable to a classroom setting. In truth, a book only for true Janeites, who know the novels inside out.

Last spring, I picked up The Jane Austen’s Writer’s Manual, by Rebecca Smith, at a discount store.   Written by a many-times great descendant of Jane Austen, it too had some interesting points, but as it quoted extensively from her seven novels, (at least half the book consisted of pages of direct quotations), I found myself just skimming it.     Jane Austen had many years between the first drafts of her novels and the finished products, long enough to perfect them into the polished gems they were.   One of the most useful pieces of advice in this book was to write an autobiography of each of the characters before you start.    But then what about writers who don’t write with any plot-line in mind, and just let the story and characters evolve?    Sometimes characters have a mind of their own and may take you places you might never even have thought of.    Plan the ending scene before you begin.   I believe Jane did this, but as all six of her completed novels end with weddings, the happy endings readers have been longing for, that’s not much of a stretch.   Much of the book was devoted to writing exercises as the author holds writing workshops at the Jane Austen House Museum.   This book is probably more for true Janeites, of which I am not, having only ever read P&P and Emma a long time ago.   I find her life more fascinating than her books, as is sometimes the case with writers.     

The Best Advice Manual: 
Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and LifeBird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott

Rating: 5 of 5 stars

Although I read this book well over twenty years ago, it remains the best book on writing that I have ever read. Time to re-read it again, plus I loved the inspiration for the title. When you are overwhelmed, that’s what you need to do, take it bird by bird…..or rather page by page.

Although it’s been twenty years, the best advice manual I have ever read on writing, was Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott.    I have a copy somewhere down on the basement bookshelves…..I should re-read it, but that would be procrastinating…..  

Best to just get on with it then……

So, we need a 28 year old Girl Detective who is vacationing in Provence when she sees a man walking up the lane of her rented farmhouse.   There has been a dead body discovered in the nearby sunflower fields.   (see April in Paris Part Two blog for the muse of this story).    It is Monsieur Darcie Leduc, une inspector with the French police force, (but much more Mr.Darcy-like than Hercules Peroit with his ridiculous mustache and undiagnosed OCD).   

Opening sentence:    “Paige Protagonist was tired of thinking for everyone.   She had come to Provence to rest, mind body and soul, and intended not to think of a single thing for the next two weeks.    Let them solve all their own problems back home – she would not be there.   She would be here on this lovely terrace with a glass of wine in hand, looking out over the lavender fields…..and wondering who was that man walking up the lane to the farmhouse.”      

Um……would a 28year old be tired of thinking for everyone….no…..best to make her older….and that “lovely” adjective has got to go.     I think I’ll rest now.   I don’t want to overdo it….a little at a time…..page by page….

PS.  On Cyber-Monday I was browsing on the http://www.bookoutlet.com site for books about Provence when I noticed that this story has been done before, several times, and the proof is in the remainder bin, but alas, as John Grisham said in a recent writing workshop podcast, everything has been done before.    I hope Santa brings me a nice plot-line and some characters for Christmas as I have no idea where to go from here…..  

Song of the Day:   Paperback Writer – the Beatles