Just over 30 years ago, Julia Cameron’s agent gave her undying bad advice that no one would be interested in a book about creativity. “What the hell are you doing?” the officer asked.
Rather than put her manuscript on the shelf, Cameron copied it and started selling it by hand. She got a new agent, signed a deal with mind, body, and soul publishing house Tarcher Books, and in 1992 they released The Artist’s Way with an initial print run of 9,000 copies. Since then, more than 4 million have been sold worldwide.
It sounds like a fairy tale, but this was a book born of struggle. Cameron’s life was one of steep highs and lows. Born in 1948, she embarked on a successful journalism career in her twenties by writing for the Washington Post and Rolling Stone magazine. In 1975, she married up-and-coming director Martin Scorsese and, as she says, worked as his “live-in writer” on such classic films as Taxi Driver and New York, New York. But their union ended when Cameron discovered Liza Minnelli’s silk shirts in Scorsese’s wardrobe and went into a classic Hollywood downward spiral of addiction. She had come to see cocaine “not as a problem, but as a solution,” she recalled in her memoir, Floor Sample. She was also an “out of control” alcoholic. “I was,” she writes, “out of order.”
The subsequent time she spent sobering up helped Cameron develop the ideas that she would turn into The Artist’s Way. Inspired by the Alcoholics Anonymous model, the book offers an “artistic recovery” program. Divided into 12 chapters designed to work through one week at a time, it aims to teach people to unlock their creativity. There are weekly challenges and exercises designed to promote inspiration and overcome the doubts that stand in the way of creative work. In addition to these weekly tasks, Cameron suggests writing “morning pages” every day. The idea is that you simply get words to help you get around your internal censorship and develop new ideas and perspectives by writing at least three pages of handwritten, stream-of-consciousness prose before doing any other work. tries. She also invites her readers to go on “artist’s dates” weekly, set aside time to nurture “creative awareness” by engaging in art, going to a gallery, going for a walk, or watching a movie—whatever. your ‘inner artist’ may be.
The book does not offer an easy path to financial reward. Cameron promises her readers that “many doors” will open, but these are artistic doors, not literary agency doors. The big claims she makes are all about “creative recovery.” This, she says, is “a learnable, traceable spiritual process.”
That’s right: spiritually. Like the AA, The Artist’s Way asks you to put your trust in the “Great Creator” – or whatever nondenominational higher being you think will help you unleash your potential. This divine speech comes along with an emphasis on self-care that may come across as solipsistic to some readers. “Be especially alert to any suggestion that you’ve become selfish or different,” Cameron advises, not because you have a problem, but because such suggestions can block you. A chapter titled Restoring a Sense of Compassion turns out to be about helping yourself rather than other people. Readers should also expect vague, unsubstantiated references to the kind of “brain research” that informs us that “douching is an artist’s brain activity.”
It’s harder to be skeptical about the practical success of The Artist’s Way. It’s not just that so many copies of the book have been sold since Cameron ignored her agent’s advice, it’s also yielded significant results. Musicians as varied as Alicia Keys, Pete Townshend and Kelly Lee Owens, and writers such as Patricia Cornwell have recognized the help the book has given them. “It completely changed my life,” actor and director Kerry Washington says on the back of my copy. There’s also a quote from multi-million selling author Elizabeth Gilbert: “Without The Artist’s Way, there would have been no Eat, Pray, Love.”
Cameron is capitalizing on the anniversary with a sequel of sorts, Seeking Wisdom, which promises “a spiritual path to deeper creativity.” But it should be noted that not everyone is impressed by these types of guides. “They are a total scam,” said Lucy Ellmann, the author of the multi-award winning Ducks, Newburyport. “The time spent reading these books should be spent reading Dickens. Or at least write.”
But it’s hard to deny Cameron’s lasting influence. Her sunny American outlook resonates even here in the rainy UK. While researching this article, I’ve asked several classes of creative writing students if they’ve heard of the book, and each time two or three enthusiastically talk about the morning pages. Shortly after her novel Olive was selected as Waterstones paperback of the year, writer Emma Gannon told me, “I started The Artist’s Way on a miserable Christmas when I tried and failed to write a novel for the umpteenth time. . There was something about the book, not just the content, but the feel, the tone of it, how supportive it was, that allowed me to follow my creativity and unblock myself. I feel absolutely guilty about Julia Cameron for helping me get out of my rut.”
If the increased attention The Artist’s Way has been getting since its spring 2020 lockdown is anything, Gannon isn’t alone in giving Cameron a boost. It was reported that sales of the book in the UK doubled in the first half of the year, and Cameron was even interviewed by Russell Brand on his Under the Skin podcast during that bleak April 1 of the pandemic.
“Many of us are locked inside, we’re restless, we feel claustrophobic, … we feel like events are out of our control,” Cameron said, “but what we do have control over is the pen to the page to take .” She recommended the exercises in The Artist’s Way as a method to “gain confidence, security, enthusiasm and hopefully a little frivolity. Right now we desperately need frivolity.”
In any case, it is difficult to argue on that point. It feels like a message that might even help us in the coming year.