StoryFlow: Julia Cameron on ‘The Artist’s Way’ and the Artist’s Life

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StoryFlow is a series featuring original conversations with Kripalu presenter Lisa Weinert and visionary doctors, writers, yogis, and spiritual leaders about the role of storytelling in their healing and caregiving processes.

When she published her groundbreaking spiritual guide to the creative process, The Artist’s Way, 27 years ago, Julia Cameron unleashed a revolution of creative recovery around the world, one that that has only become more important in our distracted and chaotic time. The Artist’s Way is a publishing sales phenomenon and has inspired many millions of creative projects. I had the great honor of speaking to Julia by phone from her home in Santa Fe, New Mexico, about her life as an artist and how coming from a big family inspired her vision.

Lisa What kind of feedback have you heard most often since The Artist’s Way came out in 1992?

Julia What I always hear is “The Artist’s Way changed my life.” I say to them, you changed your life. You used the tool!

How does it feel to hear that? It must be a lot to take in.

I never get sick of hearing positive things. It’s always thrilling. Recently, I read a review that said, “Julia Cameron’s tools are simple and repetitive.” I’m not sure that they intended it as a compliment, but I heard it as a compliment.

What’s the role of storytelling in your healing process?

Well, I believe that storytelling is very important and pivotal to the way we lead our lives. If we have a story that tells us that we’re a loser, we will find ourselves placed as victims; if we have a story that tells us that we’re a winner, we will always be looking for the silver lining. As we tell ourselves our stories, we have the opportunity to change our story. If we have a negative story, we have the possibility of turning it into a positive story and being more expansive in our lives.

How did stories play a role in your life during your childhood?

I grew up in a house of seven children, all of us readers. We had two libraries in our house. One was a downstairs den where we kept the classic books, like A Tale of Two Cities—books that were considered important. Upstairs, we had a bookcase that was filled with books of a lesser stripe—you might say potboilers. We read from both. We went to the library in our little village once a week and we were allowed to take out 14 books and, among us kids, we would pass our books on to the younger ones.

That’s beautiful. In The Artist’s Way, you recommend that artists work together, create clusters and sacred circles to support each other’s work. Do you think your idea behind sacred circles stems from your childhood?

I think I learned that learning was something that came not just from school but from parents and siblings. And I think that began to make me feel like it was worthwhile to listen to my peers.

Did you write as a child?

Yes. My mother was a writer, she wrote many letters to her far-flung family. And she wrote poetry. We all grew up learning how to write at my mother’s elbow. She had a master’s degree in English and that was sort of rare for a woman at that time.

You talk a lot about creativity being a birthright. Where did that come from?

We grew up with an understanding that creativity was important and that creativity was natural. Our mother gave us projects to do after school, according to the themes of the season. We made Halloween goblins, Christmas snowflakes, doilies and fanciful valentines, we colored Easter eggs. All of this took place at the dining room table. We would do a piece of artwork and our mother would tack it up on the bulletin board or, if we were making snowflake cutouts, she would tape them to the windows. She never singled out one child as the creative child; we were all creative.

Since the beginning, you have emphasized that you wanted to give away The Artist’s Way and empower people to teach it to each other. There is no leadership, hierarchical structure, or strict copyright. Did you have to fight for this? Did publishers or other people encourage you to be more territorial about your work?

Yes—my husband said to me, I think you should franchise The Artist’s Way, like EST. And I said, no, I think it should be free, like AA. He never quite forgave me for walking away from millions of dollars. I think in retrospect it was very wise of me to say that people could form their own clusters and that people did not have to come and study with me.

Have you ever come across a cluster or heard from a reader and thought to yourself, “Oh you’re doing this the wrong way?” Or felt that the work was going in a direction that you weren’t intending?

No. I feel that, with the book as a guideline, that people do teach it very well. It’s a matter of trust. I grew up with siblings that I trusted, and I trusted people that they would follow the spirit of the book—and they have.

Can you bring yourself back to the moment when you knew you would make this book?

It began as class notes. My husband—ex-husband—said it should be a book; it could help a lot of people. I said, I am the book, and he said no, really, write the book, and so I did.

How did that change the message? Was there an alchemy that happened when you took pen to paper?

I had been teaching The Artist’s Way for 10 years before I wrote the book, so what I had to write was very familiar to me. Then I turned the book in to Jeremy Tarcher, who was my original publisher, and in answering his questions, I doubled the length of the book.

In your experience, how is it healing and why is it healing?

Morning Pages make us authentic. They are a safe place for people to vent and to dream. If people use morning pages over a considerable period of time, their lives are altered for the positive. They give people a path to follow--a spiritual one, and a valid form of meditation. And I think that relieves anxiety and stress.

Looking back at the incredible trajectory of this gift you shared with the world, what has surprised you most?

You know, The Artist’s Way works for people of all different stripes. I’ll have lawyers tell me they’re better in the courtroom, ballerinas will say that their balance has improved from doing Morning Pages. Or someone will say, “I used your tools and now I’m a novelist.” So, what they have in common is that the people who use the tools are elated and surprised by the results. And I, in turn, listening to the stories, am elated and surprised.

How have you managed to nurture both The Artist’s Way and your own artistic life?

I had a choice at the beginning of whether I was going to make The Artist’s Way my life or if I was going to stay an artist. I have kept writing plays, novels, poetry, songs, and I haven’t focused on nurturing The Artist’s Way. It has nurtured itself.

What is a typical day for you?

I live in the mountains above Santa Fe, so I wake up, I go padding out to the kitchen where I have cold coffee that I’ve made the night before. I pour myself an iced coffee and I retire to my writing chair and I do my morning pages. After I do my morning pages, a colleague I’ve worked with for 19 years, Emma, guides me through the business of the day. I walk my dog, Lilly, and then I settle in to write or read. And then I typically take myself out to dinner so I’m around people. After dinner, I come back home and I sit down to write again. I do questions and answers. I write to my friends who are deceased. I write to my parents. I ask for guidance. I listen and I write down what I hear.