Friday, January 16, 2009
Spotlight Interview: Julia Cameron
Julia Cameron, 60, is a giant not only among writers but all kinds of artists.
With her ground-breaking best-seller, The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity, in 1992—a “tool box” of mind-expanding exercises she perfected over many years of hosting writing workshops—Ms. Cameron engaged, liberated and inspired a whole generation of creative people.
She has written for television and the big screen, poetry and plays, short stories and novels, and nearly two dozen books, including another best-seller, The Vein of Gold: A Journey to Your Creative Heart, and a candid memoir, Floor Sample, in which she recounts her alcoholism, psychosis, recovery, and self-styled spiritual path that led to The Artist’s Way. She’s also been an award-winning journalist, publishing in such notable places as The New York Times, LA Times, Rolling Stone, Chicago Tribune, The Village Voice, New West, New York, American Film Magazine, Vogue, Mademoiselle, Redbook, Ladies Home Journal, Savvy, and Cosmopolitan.
In 1975, she married before-he-was-famous director Martin Scorcese, whom she met while interviewing him for Playboy; a year later, they produced a daughter named Domenica; and during their short-lived union collaborated on three major films—Taxi Driver; New York, New York; and The Last Waltz.
Living in New York City full-time now, she teaches workshops at the Open Center, does frequent readings in Barnes & Noble, and of course, continues to be creative dynamo.
Please check out her Web site at:
And go look in bookstores everywhere for her most recent book, The Writing Diet: Write Yourself Right-Size.
The following is my exclusive interview with Ms. Cameron:
Mike: What’s the most prevalent, if not the most pernicious problem you encounter in your workshops?
Cameron: I think people have a great fear of risk. And that until they examine it, they have a subconscious foreboding that if they dare move out in the direction that they would love to, something horrid would happen. They have this idea, “I’d love to do this, but I might lose my family. I’d love to pursue my dreams, but if I did I’d go broke.
We have a lot mythology in our culture that’s very negative to creativity. We tend to believe that artists are broke, tormented, neurotic, and lonely. If people don’t bring those beliefs up to the surface and examine them, they constitute a pretty powerful block.
Mike: So how does one counteract that?
Cameron: Well, you can’t fight it all at once and defeat it overnight. You start with small steps, something like the morning pages that I write about in my books, where you allow yourself the freedom at the beginning of your writing day to write three pages non-stop and only in longhand and about wherever your mind takes you at that moment. Free association—it doesn’t matter what you write or how it reads, as long as you fill those pages. It’s a wonderful way of facing your problems head-on and ventilating fears, especially irrational ones. “I’m awake and I’m blue,” you say to yourself, “and I don’t know why I’m blue.” Well, explore that in your morning pages. It’s an effective way to moving out of doubts and taking risks.
Morning pages are a form of meditation and they tend to create optimism and realism. Virginia Wolfe said that all artists needed a room of their own, and I always think, "Fine, if you can afford it," but morning pages are a sort of portable room of your own. No one else reads them except for you.
Another thing you can do is move out of your comfort zone once a week and take an expedition on behalf of your artist self. If you like things French, you might go to a French cooking class, you might go to a French movie.
One more thing is something so simple that many people overlook it: walking. It’s very difficult to walk and stay blocked simultaneously. There’s something about the rhythm of walking that moves people onto the page.
In my 12-week workshop, one non-negotiable tool I preach is taking a good walk once a week. I have found in my experience that as people walk they have breakthroughs, inspirations of new directions to go. I call them alpha ideas, and they don’t usually come from that worrying place but a place much loftier.
I have found that if people walk—I’d say 20 minutes a day—they’ll enter an altered state where they have an expanded sense of self and connection. It is at once very large and very particular. It is often on walks that you will integrate a problem, or if you are a writer and you have a tangled plot line, you will suddenly see a new solution.
Walking is such an enormously potent tool that I can’t say enough about it. When you walk, you are able to hear more cleanly and more keenly. When we walk, we begin to be able to hear with the ears in our hearts.
Mike: What other problems do you hear a lot?
Cameron: Sometimes people say, “I don’t have time to write,” so I tell them to buy five postcards for their friends and write on them. Suddenly, they have time for that.
We really need to dismantle our seriousness, to write simply for the joy of writing, what I call laying track. Most people can get half-way through a project laying track, and then they'll hit a wall, where the ego says, "My god, I'm going to finish this. Someone's going to judge this. This better be good." The critic comes rearing up like Godzilla and people typically try to sort of muscle their way over the wall, with phrases like, “I am good enough. I am smart enough. I am writing well enough.” That absolutely doesn't work. When you reach the wall in your writing, instead of trying to convince yourself you're brilliant, you have to say, “I’m willing to write badly.” The minute you have surrendered enough to be willing to write badly, you can finish your work. And when you're willing to write badly, you very often write very well.
Mike: What else liberates the writing mind?
Cameron: I like for my students to start with a written cue. For example, a wish list: “I wish that…” And fill in the blank. You may do that 20 times if you want. By the end, people are often very surprised what they wish for.
I also like making collages, designing creativity dolls or masks that take on the creative monsters looming in our subconscious, a totem figure that we’ve never been able to break from, such as the teacher that said, “Did you plagiarize this?” or “With spelling like that, you'll never be able to write.” We need to isolate the things in our past that crushed us.
Mike: What are your own writing habits?
Cameron: I get up in the morning and do my morning pages (at least three pages and possibly more), then I take a long walk and during the afternoon I write. Sometimes I write at night, but not often. When I write at night, it means that I didn’t write well during the day, so it spills over.
I do my writing often on an old IBM electric, believe it or not. Typewriters are enticing to me. That little click keeps you company as you write. The computer is not quite as user friendly, at least for me.
I write every day, and enough to keep me comfortable. “It’s your journalism background that keeps you writing so freely,” is what my editor always tells me.
Mike: Is writing more difficult now than when you were younger?
Cameron: No. You see, I’m a sober alcoholic. Before I got sober (in 1978), my writing was purely ego driven. I just wanted to be brilliant. Once I got sober, I started writing out of the spirit of trying to be of service, with brilliance sort of parked on the side. What happened, my writing really became untangled, more user friendly, less ego driven. And the funny thing is, probably more people would say that I’m brilliant now than before, when I was so self-consciously trying to be brilliant.
Mike: When did you know that you were an artist?
Cameron: I always knew, because I came from an entire family of artists. So it never occurred to any of us to do anything else. My mom and dad are both writers and musicians, and so it never occurred to them to tell us that we couldn’t make a living at it. My oldest sister is a writer. My next sister is a portrait artist. My older brothers are musicians. And the two youngest are writers. All seven of us live by our wits.
I was so lucky growing up, in that I had an environment that was incredibly supportive. I was encouraged for my writing and also for my painting. I was writing short stories when I was 12, my first novel when I was 21.
Mike: What was the key part of your creative growth?
Cameron: I started reading theology in high school and that became the groundwork for my creativity books much later. I was particularly drawn to people like Paul Tillich, the German-American theologian and Christian existentialist philosopher who talks about the “ground of being,” or what can sustain finite beings is being itself.
But while I was reading all these theologians, I was also reading Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Lillian Hellman.
Surprising, I never read any writing books, never did, at least not until I had been a writer for 20 years, around the time I was writing the Artist’s Way. It was then that I read Brenda Ueland’s If You Want to Write and Dorothea Brande’s Becoming a Writer and Peter Elbow. I found them reassuring. I never knew that anybody else did anything resembling morning writing. I discovered it entirely by the seat of my pants.
Mike: What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever gotten?
Cameron: It came from the famous Playboy editor, Arthur Kretchmer, who said, “Don’t try to write for your common reader, because you’re never going to meet him or her. Write for your ideal reader, the person who will get everything you have to say.”
I found that advice very helpful and for years I wrote with Arthur in my head.
Mike: What’s the best advice you can now give to others?
Cameron: I tell people in my workshops to be like the Nike ad: Just do it. I don’t really want to hear why people are blocked. Just get up and write.
Mike: What do you think about self-publishing?
Cameron: I do believe in it. I self published my first two books, The Artist’s Way and Money Drunk, Money Sober. I did it, however, in a very rudimentary form, by simply Xeroxing the pages and mailing them out to people.
I do believe that when we commit to our own work passionately enough to self-publish it that it can sometimes create a ripple effect.
In fact, I had a novel up for sale right and found that my name wasn’t in any way helping in selling it—I’ve been typecast as a nonfiction writer, I think—so I considered either going the small-press route or self-publishing it.
Mike: Do you show your work to other people before you send it out?
Cameron: Yes, I do. I have a little group of people—around a handful—that I’ve known for years, and I’ll send them some rough drafts. They’re very tough people whose aesthetics I trust.
I think when we start to share our work we become a little bit braver. And I feel that we all need what I call a “believing mirror,” which is somebody who’s committed to your creativity beside yourself. That’s very important. A person who’ll tell you to send it out one more time.
Mike: Could you talk about the progression of your writing career?
Cameron: My first real writing job was at the Washington Post, during the Watergate era. They didn’t really hire women back then, so I was a copy aide, opening letters and sorting mail but also writing stories all the time, mostly for the arts section. You’d think I was a staff writer, but I wasn’t.
I knew Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, and I got along with them very well.
Anyway, in my frustration, I quit in a huff one day and went to write for Rolling Stone magazine, and I even scooped Carl and Bob with a piece about E. Howard Hunt’s family. That piece became pretty famous (cited for excellence by Time magazine). It was the first one about Watergate behind the scenes.
I also wrote journalism for, among many other “hip” places, New West, Playboy, and The Village Voice, but then my career took an entirely different course.
I married Martin Scorcese. The marriage lasted only 2 1/2 years, but we were together off and on—before, during, and after our marriage—for around a decade—I was kinda like Marty’s live-in writer. I worked on Taxi Driver; New York, New York; and The Last Waltz.
In my book Floor Sample, I write all about my colorful, as well as tortured, experiences in Hollywood.
Mike: I know you live in Manhattan now, but how about Taos, New Mexico?
Cameron: A couple of years ago, I sold my house in Taos, New Mexico, where I lived for a decade.
Mike: You lived near Natalie Goldberg, right?
Cameron: Yes. In fact, we used to joke together that there was something in the Taos water.
Mike: You and Natalie are often paired together as the New Age gurus of writing books.
Cameron: That’s true, even though we have quite different styles and are grounded in very different senses of spirituality (I’ve been on a spiritual path for nearly 30 years that I cannot name).
What Natalie and I did, I think, was get people in the water, a whole new group involved in the world of art and creativity.
In fact, I love reading Natalie myself.
Mike: Natalie told me in an interview awhile back that, until recently, you were more hesitant to confront the dark side than she was. Do you agree?
Cameron: I’ve written about my three nervous breakdowns, so I’m well acquainted with the dark side. But I admit that on a daily basis, I work really hard to work in a brighter reality.
Mike: What was it like to get so much fame—nearly cult-like—after publishing The Artist’s Way?
Cameron: Success is difficult. Fame is difficult. It can keep people from seeing you as you are. You must go through that. I cure people of any reverential feeling by very quickly cursing in their presence (I think journalists are first-rate swearers and that the newsroom breeds colorful language).
I’m convinced that if you do your job properly that you’ll lower the pedestal level.
Mike: What do you hope to accomplish with your workshops?
Cameron: That the students will have their lives change and they’ll make things and develop projects.
Mike: Besides writing and, obviously, your friends and family, what are your loves in life?
Cameron: Pragmatism, solitude, teaching, and…solutions.