Agonizing success of ‘Artist’s Way’

Times Staff Writer

Julia Cameron’s journey to guru-dom began, perhaps predictably, in Los Angeles in the 1970s after a failed celebrity marriage and a scotch-and-cocaine binge had brought her to rock bottom. Back then, she was best known as the lush whom Martin Scorsese left for Liza Minnelli, the hotshot writer who swore like a sailor and matched Hunter S. Thompson drink-for-drink.

This was before sobriety became Cameron’s religion and her own recovery inspired her “creative unblocking” seminars, before her 1992 bestseller “The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity” sold more than 2 million copies, before the book spawned a movement, before strangers approached her in airports with home-recorded CDs, self-published poetry, handmade jewelry and the words, “You saved my life.”

Back then, no one knew of Cameron’s own struggles, the nervous breakdowns that got progressively worse and the traumatic episodes so severe she found herself talking to trees in a London park and darting naked down her driveway in Taos, N.M. No one knew of the conflicted personality behind “The Artist’s Way,” part bawdy truth-teller, part mystical, 12-stepping mentor.

It’s all there in her 405-page memoir “Floor Sample,” published last month, Cameron’s attempt to marry her public life with the very fragile private one, and to use her own wrenching experiences -- and her resiliency through them -- as proof that the “Artist’s Way” works. The book’s brutal candor might, at first glance, seem self-indulgent and overwrought (one reviewer dismissed it as “febrile New Age rhetoric”). But if all celebrity memoirists these days have a goal well beyond nostalgic reverie, Cameron’s is to radically demystify her image for the fans who have over-idealized their teacher. “They read my books and picture me walking serenely through the sage fields,” she told a group of ardent admirers at a recent Santa Monica reading. “I thought it was time to duck out from under the persona.”


Cameron, 58, arrived at a Los Feliz cafe one recent afternoon looking a bit flustered, her hair slightly windblown, wearing a navy ensemble that she later joked would make any nun proud -- a long-sleeved blouse, ankle-length skirt, black stockings and sensible shoes. She stood out amid the pastels-and-denim lunch crowd, and was recognized immediately by one gushing fan who claimed to carry the memoir in her purse.

As she began to talk about her decision to write a memoir, Cameron projected something fragile, marching out her words with such deliberateness she might have been reading them from a script. Or maybe she was just tired. She had, after all, whipped through nine book signings that morning in San Francisco on the way to the airport and had nine more scheduled before she took a red-eye home to Manhattan the next day.

But Cameron spoke thoughtfully about a variety of subjects, including her own psychic abilities (she has what she believes is “medical intuition”) and the always-lurking mental illness she called a “time bomb.”

“They have very effective medicine now, but there have been periods where I have felt as if I were coming apart and the medicine was the wall between me and ... " She left the sentence dangling, but added, “You’re just hoping it will hold.”

Until now, this tentativeness has been kept secret from her followers, the struggling professional actors and writers of L.A., New York and Chicago and the dreamers everywhere else. In the book, Cameron characterizes that decision as one of survival. She had work to do and seminars to teach. And remarkably, it got done despite the breakdowns.

The first big one came in the mid-1990s just as she became known as a recovery guru, after the end of her second marriage to Mark Bryan, her inspiration for writing “The Artist’s Way.”

“Cast as a ‘spiritual teacher’ and desperate for answers myself in the wake of the loss of Mark, I embarked on a series of ill-considered fasts,” she writes of that time. " I went as long as a week or ten days without solid food. I went for very long walks praying with every footfall. Although I didn’t see it at the time, mine was a punishing” regimen.

This search eventually led her to London, where she began writing her first musical, this one about Merlin. Things soon started unraveling.


Cameron stopped wearing her glasses and contacts, because “with nothing and no one to care for, who needed to see clearly?” She did yoga obsessively. She succumbed to delusions so intense that during one of her aimless walks in Regent’s Park, she wrote, she became the victim of a “very gentle rape.” Later that day after Bryan reported the incident, the London police arrived at her door, took one look at her “giant bird’s nest” of an apartment and led her off to a mental hospital. She was diagnosed as manic depressive, which American doctors later said was wrong. Cameron still hasn’t gotten a new diagnosis.

There were other episodes -- “allergies” to electricity and walking barefoot in the desert in Taos and talking flowers and more fasts on Venice Beach -- before Cameron found the right combination of medications and the stabilizing regimen to keep them at bay.

Still, they left the people closest to her traumatized. Her daughter, Domenica Cameron-Scorsese, now 29, and her assistant and collaborator, Emma Lively, recall Cameron’s breakdowns with terror. “I have to look back at it and say, ‘Thank God we made it through,’ ” her daughter said.

Today, Cameron and Lively share a Manhattan apartment, where they keep up an impressive pace. In their eight years working together, the two women have collaborated on three musicals, plus drafts of three more, plus two albums of children’s music, all while Cameron taught weekly at the Open Center in Manhattan, traveled a few days every month to lecture, wrote a novel and her memoir.


A cynic might note that only the memoir has been released. The musicals are still awaiting buyers. The albums haven’t been distributed. But Cameron would insist that’s beside the point. “People get so focused on the big dream,” she said, “that they forget about the process.”

Indeed, a week after Cameron made that point, her novel -- rejected 41 times -- got offers from several publishers, and she accepted one from Thomas Dunne Books, a division of St. Martin’s Press. But this is just the most recent late-arriving break in a lifetime spent dutifully trusting “the process.” At 21, her parents suffered simultaneous breakdowns, and Cameron was charged with the care of her six siblings. She started her first novel the same week.

When it was clear her marriage to Scorsese was over, (Cameron discovered Minnelli’s silk blouses in her closet), she went on a years-long alcohol and drug binge. She reemerged in 1978 as a sober single mom in Hollywood with a screenwriting job at Paramount Studios. Out of all this came the creative unblocking seminars that would make her famous.

Cameron still describes herself as “fragile” and said she’s gripped by anxiety in the days before an appearance. But there was no sign of hesitancy at two recent events in Santa Monica. She was funny and self-deprecating and even a little risque, peppering her lecture with choice expletives. Her guru side wasn’t evident, really, until her students lured it out of her.


At a book signing on the Third Street Promenade, a modest crowd of mostly women in their 40s and 50s listened politely to bracing excerpts from her memoir. Then, without once referring to the reading, they poured their hearts out, pelting Cameron with questions on how to land an agent, how to publish a novel, how to keep at it long enough to write one.

One woman talked about her sobriety and her move to L.A. and the crippling anxiety she still faced. Cameron empathized, then told her: “You’re stuck with the vulnerability, so you might as well do something with it.”

Two weeks later, at a seminar in a Santa Monica hotel, she stood before the usual suspects -- struggling actors, a life coach or two, an environmentalist and the girlfriends who met in yoga class -- and joked about Los Angeles being “in the heart of darkness.” Then she spent the next 45 minutes reassuring these vulnerables, quoting Carl Jung, and telling them, “It takes courage to live here.”

She stressed the importance of morning pages, an “Artist’s Way” daily writing regimen that, she teaches, not only clears the mind but often inspires divine intervention into stalled careers and lonely lives. When she opened the floor for questions, a furniture store owner piped up from the crowd.


“Fifteen minutes from writing about George Harrison,” he exclaimed, “I’m meeting his personal guitar-maker!”

It was, as promised in “The Artist’s Way,” the synchronicity that “creative recovery” usually brings.

Cameron then launched in on the “responsive universe” and how she had a student with a manuscript who went to a dinner party and -- poof! -- landed a book deal. And another one, a screenwriter, who went to the gym one day and -- pow! -- met “one of [Tom] Cruise’s people.” Even the chatty yoga friends were rapt.

It was comforting, accessible stuff for these “dreamers just looking for a way to survive,” as Cameron called them a day earlier. And to hear Cameron speak, it seemed “The Artist’s Way” could be an undertaking virtually guaranteed to change your life. That is, unless you’re like the guy in the third row who claimed that after 5 1/2 years of morning pages he gave up on his creative project and started running.


“It sounds like you’re having a lack of faith,” she told him.

Later, Cameron explained that this student’s predicament -- being stuck in traditional notions of “success” -- was quintessentially L.A.

“There’s a lot of pain in Los Angeles,” she said.