I get panicky when there aren’t any books in the house, which probably sounds like a humble-brag until you realize how dangerous this can be.

The first thing I did when the last box of books was packed in Berkeley was march out the door and straight to Pegasus an indie bookstore down the street. I intended to get one book. One book could fit in my purse, and I knew exactly the book I wanted needed. And we know this is a lie because it was about a week ago, and I can’t remember which book it was, only that I didn’t find it. Which was okay because I came out with a stack of six books instead. Six books could fit in the moving truck between the seats under the junk food and energy drinks…

You can see where this is going.

One of the books I picked up was The Sound of Paper: Starting from Scratch by Julia Cameron. I was attracted to the name that sounded a little bit like a koan. What is the sound of paper? Is it like the sound of one hand clapping? Is it the sound of infinite possibility? Is it the sound of silence?

The name of the author sounded familiar, but it wasn’t until I got home and read the back of the book that I remembered that I have a history with a Julia Cameron book.

When I was first starting grad school, I was desperate to prove to myself that I was a Real Writer, so I went out and got a copy of Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way because all the writers I knew swore by it. The Artist’s Way is billed as 12 Steps for writers, but for me it felt like a straight jacket. I struggled to keep up with the practices that she claimed every writer must do, pushed myself to do them for months, eventually I gave the book to someone I thought was more hardcore than I was, and tried not to feel like a miserable failure. Until I found another group of writers who swore all writing books were bunk, and I felt better for a little while.

Looking back on it I know that structure was the last thing I needed. I wish someone had told me not to worry about it. To play. To enjoy covering my hands in the ink from cheap fountain pens and making terrible messes on the page. A writer writes, and if writing doesn’t happen it’s not the death knell of creativity. Something else, something wonderful will present itself.

That was four years ago, but when I opened The Sound of Paper, I did so hesitantly. I’m further along than I was, but I still struggle to do the things that Every Writer Must Do. I do not write a thousand words a day. My process is seasonal. If I have a muse, she’s prone to incredible mood swings. There are weeks when I do nothing but write. I come up from the page like a mermaid flopping up on dry land, and there are long periods of time when the only writing I can do is in my journal. I’m still young. Maybe I will settle into writing a thousand words a day when I’m as seasoned as my heros are now, but right now my practice is unsteady and inconsistent.

Four years ago, I was desperate to prove myself. When I picked up The Sound of Paper, being a writer was a much more entrenched part of my identity, and I needed someone to tell me that being a writer doesn’t dissolve when the pen stops moving. I needed to know that there were still writerly things to do when I was dry and discouraged.

The Sound of Paper begins with a brief passage introducing three practices: 3 pages of journaling every morning, 2-3 short walks a week, and some kind of adventure every week.

They are the same practices that she prescribes in The Artist’s Way, but when I read them this time I almost cried because it felt so kind. I can’t write a thousand usable words every day, but I can go for a walk in the park. I can whine at my journal. I can go for an adventure. The advice felt a bit like hearing a knock at the door and expecting a drill sergeant to tear you out of the house and send you to run laps around the block and finding instead a neighbor with a casserole who sends you back to bed.

Books–and I think this goes for advice, too–are like medicine.  There is medicine that puts you to sleep and medicine that wakes you up. It suppresses some things and aggravates other things. There are books that will save your life one year and be completely meaningless to you the next.

How do you know which is which? Sometimes, you know, like I did with The Sound of Paper, but I think most of the time you try things and guess and try not to poison yourself and hope that someday, eventually you’ll know better.