With The Artist’s Way and The Vein of Gold, Julia Cameron offered creative hope and help to millions of writers and artists. She has continued her advocacy in The Right To Write (Tarcher/Putnam). Enunciating crisply and choosing words carefully, Cameron dismissed writing’s status quo and discussed routine, balance, and opening oneself to the page and the audience.
WRITER’S DIGEST: In your terms, what is the writing life?
JULIA CAMERON: I would say that a writing life is a life in which writing is central, organic, reflexive and natural. A lot of times when people talk about a writing life, they are taking about an idea of being a writer. They are talking being published, they’re talking about being reviewed, they’re talking about agents, they’re talking about markets. What they’re not often talking about is that what makes all the rest of that possible if the bedrock, daily or near-daily writing practice.
So when I talk about a writing life, I’m talking about a life in which writing is the dominant response to living.
WD: Where does creativity fit into that?
CAMERON: First of all I want to say that I don’t believe in the hierarchy of writing as it exists in America. I believe that all writing is creative writing. I believe that with encouragement and some pragmatic tools, all writers can write in many different forms.
WD: Are there ways that those with less creative aspects to their writing can inject that into their daily routine?
CAMERON: Pivotal to a happy writing life is a practice of daily personal writing. For me, that’s the writing tool I call “morning pages,” which are three pages of long-hand morning writing. I believe that those are ideal, bedrock practice for writers for writers who work any format, whether they are poets, advertising copywriters, journalists, playwrights, the use of morning pages makes people intimate with their own creative impulses, and all other forms of writing are easier to do.
WD: Do you think the marketability demands can infringe on the creativity?
CAMERON: I think we have it backwards in America. I think we try to figure out what the market will bear and then try and write for that. The reality, which is very well disguised, is that we determine the market by what we right and that very often we will say there’s no market for a certain kind of writing, and when someone does that writing, we suddenly discover “Oh!” there’s a market for it. And so we have to remember that the word originality has the word “origin” in it and that we are the origin of the market as writers.
I know my book The Artist’s Way has sold probably a million and a half books by now. When I sent it to my William Morris agent, my agent said, “Julia, there’s no market for this.” So I self-published the book, and of course discovered there was quite a market for it.
The thing that I would over and over again tell writers is that, “If you want to be writers, simply write. Trust that what you care about will be cared about by others. Trust that as you are accurate and particular, you will be able to communicate more and more universally. Trust the intelligence of your readers. Assume that they will understand exactly what you mean if you say exactly what you mean. We waste a lot of time and a lot of talent trying to write for the common reader, whom we will never meet. And instead we should be writing for our ideal reader.
WD: Does your admonition of honesty for writers change when the work’s for publication?
CAMERON: Actually, no. In my experience the more honest a piece of work is, the more successful it will probably be when published and that our safety as writers lies not in disguising our vulnerability but in exposing it because the reader then identifies and empathizes with the writer and becomes involved in their own inner process. And that tends to make them not only more receptive to you as a writer but more receptive to the ideas that you’re trying to convey.
WD: When you’re traveling, does your writing routine change at all?
CAMERON: Morning pages train you to able to drop down the well very easily so that you can write any time, any place, the minute your hand hits the page. I find that, when I travel, I write in airports, I write in cafes, I write in bus stations. I write while I’m waiting for a phone call. I write in all of the nooks and crannies of time. I say to myself, “I only have five minutes; I’ll spend it writing.” I think that’s why I’m so productive. What people say is “I don’t have time to write a novel,” but what they don’t realize is that a novel is written a page at a time. So, you don’t have time to write a whole novel today, but you have time to write a page of it. And if you do a page a day, you have 365 pages at the end of the year. I always bring things back to dailiness and to small bites.
For me, writing is a way to metabolize life. It’s a way to make life more understandable, it’s a way to make life more comfortable, it’s a way to make life more interesting. It’s a way to make life more passionate. When I picture the writing life, what I’m talking about is a life where writing is your dominant response. People can learn to do that. They can learn when they have their feelings hurt to get on the page instead of on the telephone. They can learn to keep a notebook next to them and write when they’re in gridlock traffic.
WD: Does the spirit of your surroundings influence the writing you do at the time?
CAMERON: Writing is a combination of being alert to your outer surroundings and alive to your inner reality. And I find that if I take the time at least once a week to consciously focus on bringing in images by a long walk or a creative adventure, something I call an artist’s date, that then I have a richer inner flow when I try to tap into it.
Right now I’m in the middle of writing a thriller, and I felt that my life in New York was a little too claustrophobic for how much writing I was doing, so I came out to New Mexico, and I’m driving every day and just putting in an hour or so behind the wheel and really soaking in images, and those come out in my novel. I’m in Taos, N.M.; my detective is in Las Vegas, but there is something about my watching the precise way that a magpie flies from a cottonwood tree that allows me to write clearly about a neon sign blinking in the desert twilight. So, I’ve found that the Druids are right and that the land does speak to us. It speaks to us if we will listen
[But when] I moved back to New York, it was interesting because all sorts of support showed up. I sold my mystery, I sold my short story collection, my musical has supportbut I found that in terms of filling the well, I had to be much more conscious in New York than [in Taos]. It was very easy to live in three rooms [in New York] because the city was so overwhelming. I think it was actually really healthy for me to get a good dose of how difficult can be, because Taos can be pretty idyllic.
WD: Do you ever have to get away from your writing and distract yourself with reality?
CAMERON: I think it’s very important to have a life in which we write. I think that when writing becomes too dominant, it gets leached of its own power. We spend more and more time writing and we have less and less to write about. So I think it’s really important to keep a rich enough cultural life, a rich enough emotional life, a rich enough visual life and a rich enough sonic life. We don’t often talk about the fact that writing is all about rhythm. When you get too up in your head, you can lose a lot of your writing. Sometimes what a writer really needs to do is go dancing. For me, I get out and walk and walk and walk. I find it will straighten out my plots its will let my characters speak more freely.
There’s a huge amount of wisdom that we carry in our bodies. When we talk about having a body of work, we can’t make it just with our heads.
WD: Are there personal problems that writing can’t solve?
CAMERON: I think sometimes we ask [writing] to do too many things. For me, writing is a companion, writing is a lover, writing is a source of nurturance and a place for expression. But writing is not a kiss.
Brad Crawford is the assistant editor of Writer’s Digest.