How the artist found her way
Julia Cameron's path from rock bottom to creative success
Julia Cameron can overlook the fact that author James Frey embellished A Million Little Pieces; what irks her is that Oprah deigned to endorse the now-infamous memoir. "It made me mad at Oprah. I thought it was irresponsible of her to so love an anti-AA book," Cameron says by phone from her home in Manhattan. " He [Frey] never really got into recovery in the sense of having to do soul-searching, inventory, restitution—any of the parts of rebuilding. It was just like, I stopped using. Isn't it good the storm's over?' Well yes, but it didn't seem to suggest the entire expanse of life that opens up once you get sober. It's not just quitting the drink; it's finding a spiritual path. Once you do that, you can go anywhere."
Cameron knows. She's been there and back: smashed to sober, lost to enlightened, with occasional detours into madness that she now controls with the help of her psychopharmacologist and daily doses of Abilify.
In her candid memoir, Floor Sample, Cameron recounts her steep and frequently harrowing climb out of alcoholism and psychosis and onto a self-styled spiritual path to creativity that she first shared with readers in her 1992 bestseller The Artist's Way.
In the mid-1970s, Cameron was a hot young magazine writer living in Washington, D.C., who modeled herself on hard-drinking literary lionesses Lillian Hellman and Dorothy Parker. One day, Playboy commissioned her to interview a rising young New York director named Martin Scorsese.
"I was at a lunch table at the King Cole Bar at the St. Regis hotel and he walked in, sat down, and I said my God, I've met the man I'm going to marry!" she recalls. "I had never thought about getting married. I had always thought I was going to be a writer so I had pictured a sort of solitary path. But when I met Martin, I just fell totally in love. He was enchanting; he still is."
Marry they did, and in 1976 collaborated on the birth of a daughter, Domenica.
"It was like marrying into a Who's Who, but before they were," Cameron says. "Martin was not yet famous, Steve Spielberg wasn't famous, Robert DeNiro wasn't famous. Everyone became famous simultaneously, so there was no grounding. It was crazy for everybody."
Scorsese's career skyrocketed as a result of Taxi Driver and the newlyweds suddenly became A-listers with unlimited access to excess. The marriage didn't survive the pressures of Scorsese's sudden fame and his wife's growing dependence on alcohol.
"I was what, in retrospect, I call a Cup o' Soup alcoholic; I had a blackout the first time I went drinking and most people don't," she says.
Cameron quit drinking in 1978 and found to her surprise that the good times weren't over but actually just beginning.
"I lost a world but I gained a world. I lost Martin and all of our mutual friends, and for a long time I thought the party had moved on without me. Everyone else kept right on moving at high velocity and I skidded to a halt and said, this has to change or I'm dead."
Adrift as a single mom, Cameron depended on her sober friends for guidance, though she didn't like their suggestions at first. "When I got sober, they said to me, you've got to believe in some positive greater being of some sort, and I said, you don't understand, I was raised Roman Catholic, this is the greased slide to agnosticism. But I started casting around for what I could believe in and I came up with a line from Dylan Thomas: 'The force that through the green fuse drives the flower.' So I crystallized it; I can believe in creative energy."
Spiritual student and creativity teacher, Cameron ping-ponged between Taos, New Mexico, Los Angeles and New York assembling the creative "tool box" that readers know as The Artist's Way. It recommends a simple creative regimen: write three "morning pages" a day on anything to help overcome internal censors, schedule "artist dates" to invite inspiration and let God take care of the quality.
It's a system that has worked for Cameron, who says she's a floor sample of her techniques. She's written 22 books, numerous plays, screenplays, poetry—even musicals guided by the spirit of Richard Rodgers.
"I tell you, he's a taskmaster!" she chuckles. "Today, I was sitting here doing my morning pages and looking for guidance and when I got to the bottom, there it was: 'Julia, I'd like to see you at the piano. There are melodies waiting for you to find them. There is a show I'm ready to write and I need you to cooperate.' His tone is take no prisoners."
But there were dark periods as well, including breakdowns in which Cameron developed an irrational fear of electricity. "I'm always asking, can't I please stop taking drugs? And the answer is, if you stop taking the drug, you probably have two months before you have a breakdown. Then it seems like a small price to pay."
Cameron still remains in touch with Scorsese through Domenica, a writer and filmmaker who is set to direct her first feature film this fall on her dad's home court, New York City. "The apple doesn't fall far from the tree, I guess," says Cameron, who admits she's still " trying to commit" to the city but loves teaching at the Open Center in SoHo.
Despite the dark subject matter of her memoir, Cameron doesn't view her life as a tragedy, but instead a work in progress.
"I once had a girl say to me, 'I admire you so. You've lost everything,' and until she said that, it had never occurred to me. I think I've had some very dark things happen but I think my temperament is the lemonade-making variety. I find when I'm writing I'm pretty cheerful, which may explain why I've been so productive."
Jay MacDonald is a writer in Mississippi.