Enjoying the Ride of Serendipity

When I first heard of Julia Cameron’s book The Artist’s Way, I disdained it. Self-help books were for losers and wannabes. At the time I had just received my MFA in Creative Writing. Suddenly adrift without the structure provided by grad school, I suffered serious writer’s block—but I did so, nobly, in silence. Then a gifted poet I was coaching told me he found the book useful. And a PhD candidate at MIT’s Media Lab said the book was helping him write his dissertation.

Guess I needed permission! I started working with the book. One day I mentioned to a fellow poet what I was up to. “Sarah, do you have ‘writer’s block’?” he asked, the air quotes weighted with derision. Clearly it was wrong to be blocked, or say so, or seek a remedy. I had an ugly afternoon, contending with a cranky inner critic reawakened from its temporary slumber. But next day I went back to The Artist’s Way. Not long after, I completed my first full-length book.

Truth is, I’m still critical. Not of The Artist’s Way but of the cottage industry it spawned. Several weaker spinoffs followed—a depressingly common practice in the self-help world. (That said, if the spinoffs have helped you, I celebrate that.)

But I value the first book’s core ideas and sometimes use them, or modifications thereof, with clients. The two most touted concepts are the Artist’s Date and Morning Pages. The first is a weekly solo date—arranging flowers in a vase, say, or strolling in a park, or visiting a gallery—that “fills the well” of creativity. The second is a daily free-write to override the inner critic and develop creative flow. But there’s a third that I treasure too: attending to serendipity.

Per Merriam-Webster, serendipity derives from a Persian fairy tale called “The Three Princes of Serendip” (love that!) and means “the faculty or phenomenon of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for; also: an instance of this.” The Artist’s Way periodically enjoins readers to reflect on serendipitous events.

It’s weird: The more one pays attention, the more such instances seem to crop up, and the more significant they become. You start out hesitantly noting that when you rolled over in your sleep and accidentally thwacked your beloved, he happened to be having a nightmare he was grateful to be woken from. Pretty soon, you’re spotting God at the 7-11—where you never go but you got an inexplicable urge for a Slurpee. Even—or especially?—if you’re an atheist, bumping into God is pretty cool.

This serendipity exercise points to something mysterious and good about life. Call it God, call it spirituality, explain it scientifically like the Media Lab guy probably would. Regardless, attention to wonder creates more wonder. Noticing the way beauty arrives unbidden lifts the burden—temporarily, at least—of believing we’ve got to make everything happen. I think of it as life’s gentle reminder that we’re not the drivers we think we are. Sit back and chill for a moment, life is saying. Be a passenger. Enjoy the ride.