152 Minutes With the Chief Priestess of Creativity

Julia Cameron, author of The Artist's Way. Illustration: Riccardo Vecchio
152 Minutes With …
Julia Cameron
The author of The Artist’s Way has been unlocking our inner creative spirits for more than two decades, not to get too woo-woo about it.
Illustration by Riccardo Vecchio

Julia Cameron is sitting alone in the lobby of a quaint West Village hotel, writing in graceful longhand. Each morning, shortly after waking up, she fills three pages with whatever comes to mind, as she’s done for more than 30 years. Cameron never shows anyone what she writes — judgment is stifling — and she tries her best to keep Nigel at bay. That’s the name she’s given to her internal censor, whom she imagines as a dapper gay Englishman. “Oh, Nigel,” she’ll say to herself when she hears his tut-tutting voice. “You leave me alone!”

Cameron believes that everyone should do what she calls morning pages because everyone, not just capital-A artists, has inside him or her an artist-child wanting to play, and morning pages are that child’s sandbox. She’s shared this conviction across 22 self-help books, beginning with her most famous, The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity — soon to be available in a 25th-anniversary edition. (On this drizzly March day, she’s writing in a branded The Artist’s Way notebook.) “Without morning pages,” she says, “I wouldn’t be what I am.” Which is something close to a patron saint of our contemporary obsession with creativity.

Cameron and I swap the lobby for a cozy corner booth at the hotel’s restaurant, where we’re joined by Emma Lively, her occasional co-author and a composer-violist whom Cameron first met 15 years ago when Lively attended one of Cameron’s theatrical performances in Taos, New Mexico. In addition to her self-help books, Cameron has authored or co-authored another 20 in various genres, as well as a handful of theatrical projects. Their first joint effort was actually a musical. “She literally locked me in a room and told me to write arrangements,” says Lively, sunny and silver-haired, thinking about the start of their creative partnership. Cameron chimes in. “Emma said, ‘I don’t know anything about arrangements.’ To which I said, ‘I don’t know anything about musicals and I wrote a whole show.’ And then I locked her in a room.” Lively shrugs. “It worked.”

Cameron has flown to New York from her home in Santa Fe to lead a two-day creativity class for 90 or so students at $295 each. She teaches someplace in the U.S. about every six weeks. At age 68, Cameron is slightly creaky on her feet and dressed all in black: black blazer, black sweater, black pants, black sneakers, offset only by her dramatic cascade of straw-colored hair and striking sapphire eyes.

Morning pages, she says, help uncork your creativity, sharpen your intuition, get you laid. “The more attractive you are to yourself,” she says, “the more attractive you are to other people.” Cameron says this, as she says most things, with a quiet fragility that contrasts with an underlying intensity. When I bring up anything positive, she brightens, and she dims when I tiptoe toward the negative, which, given the tumultuous events of her life, happens more than a few times. “I know a lot of the stuff I talk about might sound woo-woo,” she says, smiling, “but woo-woo is where it’s at.”

No kidding. Cameron’s books on creativity sell in the neighborhood of 100,000 copies a year. The original Artist’s Way has sold more than 2 million copies. (Her “geezer book,” It’s Never Too Late to Begin Again: Discovering Creativity and Meaning at Midlife and Beyond, will be published in April.) Elizabeth Gilbert, who wrote her own book about cultivating creativity, Big Magic, has acknowledged that her best seller Eat, Pray, Love wouldn’t exist had she not absorbed Cameron’s first. Pop star Alicia Keys, rap star J. Cole, and rock star Pete Townshend of the Who have all publicly praised The Artist’s Way, which was helpfully blurbed by Cameron’s ex-husband Martin Scorsese.

Cameron was pushing the virtues of being creative well before the concept became as overused as it is now, when it can be applied straight-faced to any job that requires an ounce of original thinking — à la creative professionals — and can also plausibly be used to describe someone’s approach to wearing houndstooth and plaid. Creativity has become such an unquestionably desirable trait that scientific research into it is flourishing, and there’s been a concurrent flood of pop-science and self-help books dedicated to the subject.

“The number of proposals we’ve gotten over the years claiming to be the next The Artist’s Way is hilarious,” says Joel Fotinos, a vice-president at TarcherPerigee, Cameron’s publisher. “There were books about creativity before Julia’s, but they were all about creativity as something you do. She was the first to write about creativity as something you are.” As Cameron explains in her introduction to The Artist’s Way, “our lives become our work of art.”

Thousands of people have tagged their Artist’s Way–inspired works on Instagram. Photo: Anitvela_Li; Todrawistosee/Instagram

Maybe the most surprising — and appealing — thing about The Artist’s Way is just how simple it is. There are only two “pivotal tools” for what Cameron deems “creative recovery”: morning pages and “the artist date.” The latter is a weekly private block of time during which you have to do something that nurtures your creative consciousness — going to a movie, gardening, buying yourself arts-and-crafts supplies. What matters is the feeling of the experience. The two tools work together: The morning pages declutter the mind, the artist date fills the soul.

At the risk of being reductive, I’d say that’s about all there is to it. The rest of the book is divided into chapters that identify mind-sets that need rehabbing in order to unblock creativity — e.g., “A Sense of Safety,” “A Sense of Autonomy” — all of which are introduced via gentle essays full of illustrative personal stories and close with tasks designed to develop those mind-sets. To help build that sense of safety, for instance, Cameron asks the reader to remember and record praise from former “champions of your creative self-worth,” to write a mock op-ed in defense of yourself against a “monster” who disparaged your creativity, to mail yourself a letter of encouragement, even to take “your artist for a walk” (that is, to go for a walk). The exercises nudge the latent artist, over and over, to stop thinking about herself as an office drone, a harried parent, an everyday shmoe, and embrace the creative life. That theme is reiterated across Cameron’s self-help oeuvre in Taco Bell fashion, the same handful of ingredients combined in different ways to make different products. The discussion of “resilience” in The Artist’s Way becomes a chapter on “discovering a sense of resiliency” in 2002’s Walking in This World: The Practical Art of Creativity, which becomes a chapter on “uncovering a sense of resilience” in 2009’s Finding Water: The Art of Perseverance. It’s easy to see why this resonates: Who among us doesn’t feel, on some level, that we contain unexpressed beauty or brilliance? Who doesn’t want to be told that all their ideas are good ones?

“People ask me,” says Cameron, “ ‘Don’t you think you’re responsible for unblocking a lot of terrible art?’ I find what happens is the opposite: Students use the tools, and the result is very good. And I’ll think, How could they have not known how talented they were?” Indeed, if you do what her book asks, there’s a solid chance it’ll make you more creative — much of what she came to through personal trial and error (solitary reflection, trying new things, stream-of-consciousness self-expression) has since been scientifically proved to help instigate creativity in multiple studies.

Science can also explain the popularity of her ideas: Our desire to create in the first place may be biologically hardwired. “Creativity,” explains cognitive psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman, co-author of Wired to Create: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind, “draws on the same brain networks that are associated with making meaning out of our experiences. [Creativity] is a basic human drive” — one that allows us to define ourselves to ourselves.

Cameron isn’t particularly interested in these findings, though. She believes creative flow is essentially spiritual, an act of “the Great Creator.” “I don’t come at this from outside research,” she says. “Everything I teach is based on my own experiences. I’m my own laboratory.”

“People ask me, ‘Don’t you think you’re responsible for unblocking a lot of terrible art?’ ” says Cameron. “I find what happens is the opposite: Students use the tools, and the result is very good.” Photo: Fallingfreedom; Youcanbehappytoday/Instagram

Cameron was raised in Libertyville, Illinois. Her parents — her father was an advertising copywriter; her mother earned a master’s degree in English before raising Julia and her six siblings — encouraged a love of words. (Dorothy Parker and Lillian Hellman were two of Cameron’s early favorites.) In 1966, she enrolled at Georgetown and began writing publicly. “There was a literary quarterly that nobody paid attention to until she started writing for it,” says Cameron’s friend and fellow Georgetown alum Gerard Hackett, who has read her first drafts for more than 40 years. “I remember she wrote a piece criticizing the school’s dress code that got the school talking.”

It was at Georgetown where, in an attempt to emulate her literary idols, Cameron began drinking. By the time she was 19, her imitation had turned into full-blown alcoholism. During her senior year, she suffered her first episode of dangerous mental imbalance, attempting suicide by slashing her wrist after being romantically rebuffed. Though she detailed these events in her 2006 memoir, Floor Sample, she tells me that these areas — and most inquiries about her personal difficulties — are too uncomfortable to discuss in depth. (When, later, I call her to ask for a few more details, she says, kind of jokingly, “What horrible questions do you have now?”)

Once she graduated, Cameron got a job sorting mail and answering phones at the Washington Post, where a sympathetic editor helped her get assignments for the paper’s “Style” section. Those caught the attention of Rolling Stone, which commissioned her to profile the children of Watergate spook E. Howard Hunt. It ran as a cover story and led to other writing gigs, including one for Playboy, which assigned her a profile of a young director named Martin Scorsese, then filming Taxi Driver. (Cameron says she honed parts of Paul Schrader’s screenplay.)

In Floor Sample, Cameron writes about meeting Scorsese — a “small, dark, and handsome man” — and then immediately calling her mother. “Mom,” she said, “I have met the man I’m going to marry.” The two wed in 1975 — nine months later, their daughter, Domenica Cameron-­Scorsese, was born — and divorced in 1977, the relationship burning up in the flames of her alcoholism and his affair with Liza Minnelli. About her first husband, Cameron says, “I find it hard to talk about Marty. I have a habit of praying for people to stay well, and I will say Marty is on that list.”

After her marriage ended, Cameron and Domenica bounced around. She worked as a screenwriter in Los Angeles. A handful of her scripts sold; just one was produced. And she worked as a journalist in New York and Chicago, where she also taught film writing at Northwestern. She got sober. I inquire if she went through a 12-step program — The Artist’s Way frequently mentions “recovery,” emphasizes a higher power, and it’s divided into 12 stages. Cameron replies, “I’m not allowed to talk about it.”

It was Cameron’s determination to keep her formerly liquor-­fueled imagination going that led to The Artist’s Way. “When I gave up alcohol,” she says, “I needed a way to write without a drink.” A friend of hers recommended that she try channeling spiritual energy and let the universe express itself through her. To practice that — and to give herself a sense of purpose after a screenplay she’d written for Jon Voight went nowhere — she began freewriting every morning. She found that doing so helped her creativity flow, as did taking long walks and consciously seeking out wholesomely pleasurable activities. (She likes to bake and makes a mean blueberry pie.)

None of this was groundbreaking; Dorothea Brande gave similar advice, in more coldly pedagogical fashion, in her seminal 1934 book, Becoming a Writer. But what was new was how Cameron contextualized these tools as part of a healing process. Stung by personal and professional rejection and newly sober, she fashioned creativity into a form of armor against a world too often cruel to artists (a demographic that, according to the book’s logic, includes us all). “The Artist’s Way came out of a fit of temper,” Cameron says. “I got frustrated with people saying that artists have to be fearless and strong all the time. I thought real artists needed to know that it was okay to be afraid and to work through your fear. ”

Cameron first began sharing her approach to creativity back in the mid-’80s, when she placed a classified ad in the Chicago Reader offering creative unblocking. “I remember people coming over and working through these questionnaires that my mom put together,” Domenica Cameron-­Scorsese says. “She and I would go to Kinko’s and make sure there were enough photocopies for all the students.” When the classes outgrew her home, Cameron started leading them at the city’s Unity church together with a young writer she’d met named Mark Bryan. “It’s good to have a man and a woman lead classes together,” says Cameron, “so that people with mommy and daddy issues can project equally.” The workbooks for these classes became, in expanded form, The Artist’s Way. “Julia and I would work on exercises to help people accept their creativity, and then she’d write these instructional essays to go along with them,” says Bryan, to whom The Artist’s Way is dedicated and who became Cameron’s second husband. (They divorced after three years of marriage. Cameron has since remained single.) “At each step in the process,” says Bryan, now a personal creativity coach and corporate consultant, “she would be thinking, What do they need to know next? How can I help them? It was always about support, not evaluation.”

By the end of the decade, Cameron had decided to self-publish The Artist’s Way. After Tarcher picked it up in 1991, the book quickly became a word-of-mouth hit — Cameron cites church groups and Jungian therapists as key proselytizers.

“The reason Julia is so good at communicating to artists,” says the singer Judy Collins, a longtime friend, “is because she understands the anxieties and doubts that creep into our heads.” In part because they’re her anxieties, too. Even after the success of the book brought her career stability, Cameron lived through multiple severe nervous breakdowns, the worst of which she suffered in 2001, precipitated, she says, by the murder of a beloved aunt. The tragedy shook her “sense of safety in the world.” Cameron was living in Taos at the time, and after learning of her aunt’s death, she would compulsively count her heartbeats and eat only oatmeal, and she developed a fear of electricity.

“It was a rough situation,” remembers Lively, who was staying with Cameron back then. “Taos was not a good place to have a medical emergency; you have people offering you an amethyst and saying, ‘Let this heal you.’ ” Eventually, Cameron was taken to a hospital in Sante Fe and then flown to New York for further treatment. As Cameron listens to Lively, she anxiously fingers the locket of her lapis-bead necklace. The locket contains a picture of a friend who recently passed away and whom she wants to keep close. I ask Cameron if she’s ever worried about having another breakdown. She answers quickly: “Yes, I am.”

After recovering, Cameron felt a renewed hunger to make art. Creativity helped her cope, and if there’s a core takeaway of The Artist’s Way — beyond writing morning pages — that’s it. We pick up the book thinking it’s about becoming a successful artist, and we realize it’s about how to get along in the world. “It’s not therapy,” Cameron says, “but it is therapeutic.”

The next day, when I meet her again for lunch, Cameron, dressed exactly the same as before, wants to tell me about her psychic ability. “This’ll come off as woo-woo,” she says, picking out a pomegranate seed from her kale salad and balancing it on her fork, “but one of my most memorable ESP experiences was with a woman early on in my psychic exploration. I concentrated on her, and I heard a voice say ‘pomegranates.’ I thought, I can’t tell this lady that. She’ll think I’m crazy. It turned out that, as a girl, she loved pomegranates so much that she carried them around in her pockets.”

I ask Cameron if she can demonstrate her psychic gifts. She fixes me with a wide-eyed stare. “I see a book,” she says — not exactly a mind-bending feat of clairvoyance when you’re talking to a writer. She looks down, concentrating. She looks up again. “I see a novel.” Well, actually, I did just start working on a novel, and I have to say, since I began doing morning pages, the work has been going awfully well.

I ask her about the success of The Artist’s Way. “Once the book started to take off, I ran away,” Cameron says. “I was so worried about being perceived as a teacher and not an artist that I flew to London to write musicals.” She has continued to make her own art — a hefty collection of fiction, poetry, plays, and musicals, and a film she wrote and directed called God’s Will. But the broader public perception that Cameron feared is, as far as I can tell, exactly what came to pass. In publishing a best seller that helped creative people, she made it near impossible to carve out a nonjudgmental space in which she herself can create — though she doesn’t see it that way.

Despite her reputation, Cameron is dismissive when I mention the reach of her self-help books. “I didn’t do anything,” she says. “The readers did.” But she eagerly mentions favorable notices of her non-self-help output. “I’m proudest of my plays,” she says. “I did one called Love in the DMZ, and a review said it’s a masterpiece.” She furrows her brow. “The Artist’s Way I think of as my vocation.” So is it ever frustrating to have that be the reason people know you? “I don’t feel trapped,” she says. “That would be heartbreaking, wouldn’t it?”

When she’s down on herself, which happens not infrequently, she does feel that being known for a self-help book has caused critics to unfairly dismiss her artistic output. “They’ll say, ‘What’s a self-help writer doing writing a novel?’ ” Still, Cameron seems slightly taken aback by my suggestions that her work as an artist exists in the shadow of The Artist’s Way. “I don’t think what you’re saying is true,” she says. “I think I’m accepted as an artist who sometimes writes nonfiction.” Domenica says, “I’ve watched my mom navigate a complex world of definitions, and she’s found a way to frame her identity that she’s comfortable with. She knows she can’t control how other people see her.” 

Besides, she’s got plenty of other things to occupy her time: teaching, revising her plays and musicals, honing her psychic skills — she’s in the middle of a course in mediumship — and she’s also finished a new book. “Nigel objected to every page,” Cameron says, shaking her head. “He kept going, ‘Why are you even bothering?’ And I told him, ‘Thank you for sharing, Nigel. Now leave me alone.’ And I kept on writing.”

*A version of this article appears in the April 4, 2016 issue of New York Magazine.