As a career writer, Julia Cameron is a bit of a maverick, and the advice she gives those looking for publication is equally nonconformist. Author of the million-selling creativity guide The Artist's Way (Tarcher/Putnam), Cameron advises freelance writers to follow their creative impulses first and find the market once the work is done.
"I believe if we get people writing, we will get people selling," Cameron says. "I know so, from experience. I have written many plays, movies and books, almost all of them without contracts. If I want to write something, I go ahead and write it, and then say, 'Would you like to buy it?' I've run my whole career that way."
And Cameron's has been a productive career. In her 25 years of writing, she has published poetry, plays, fiction and essays. Cameron also has an award-winning journalist's career to her credit, with work published in The New York Times, Rolling Stone, The Washington Post, The Village Voice and others.
"Some people say they won't write on spec? I find it much more difficult to write on assignment," Cameron says. "I've had some wonderful collaborations with editors, where they trusted me, and I'd say, 'I think I'd like to write about this,' and they'd say, 'Go ahead,' which is a lovely position to be in. But I really do know that if people continue to take the risk of writing, they will end up publishing."
The philosophical basis for Cameron's advice is spelled out in her most recent creativity title The Right to Write (Tarcher/Putnam). In a series of essays and exercises, Cameron invites readers to write as a way of life, debunks negative stereotypes around the writing life, and offers solid instruction for writers facing perennial problems such as writer's block. She also strikes a blow for the notion that the best writing is writing that arises organically, rather than that which is created to fill a market need. "We've got our thinking greatly reversed," Cameron says. "For example, The Artist's Way has sold more than a million books. When I wrote it, my agent said, 'There is absolutely no market for this book. No one will want to read it, why don't you just go back to writing movies?' Which tells us we don't know what the market is. Sometimes a market doesn't appear to exist for something just because the item has never existed."
With The Artist's Way, Cameron designed a spiritual process of "creative self-recovery," which includes "morning pages" of daily writing exercises and a weekly "artist's date," designed to replenish creative resources. The Right to Write outlines a step-by-step process for readers looking for an introduction to the writing life, as well as for pros hoping to regain a sense of joy in their work.
"All of my advice circles back to write every day, write in whatever form interests you, walk through every door that opens," Cameron says. "I think Joseph Campbell was very right when he said when we follow our bliss, there are a thousand unseen helping hands. You don't need to strategize your career—you need to experiment, knock on doors and see what opens."
Here Cameron talks with Writer's Market about her philosophies on the writing life, and offers her advice for the trail.
It's obvious The Right to Write can help initiate those who don't write into the writing life, but can the book also be used as a tool to improve craft for commercial writers?
Oh, absolutely. The questions I deal with in The Right to Write are the questions that any working writer deals with all the time. I believe the book will help many people who have not been writing to be able to write. But it's also a support tool for writers at any place in their careers, in the sense that sometimes we need to be reminded of what we know. And I think the book is effective at doing that.
Why do you think writers do better work on spec than on assignment?
It takes the heart out of writing to ask people to envision the work they haven't done yet. I think a lot of times you have to tell writers go ahead and write it. That's the story on most of my books. The idea is actually embedded in creation, as you create the ideas come.
People say, "Julia, what are the odds of selling an original screenplay?" And the answer is, "A lot higher if you write it." I sold nine in a row before somebody told me the odds. It's sort of like the odds don't matter. I think we need to be willing to bet on ourselves more.
Is writer's block the same in origin and form for writers no matter what they're writing—essays, fiction, nonfiction—and if so, are the tools to overcome it the same?
Yes. Essentially writer's block is a feeling of powerlessness, constriction and self-consciousness. And the cure is to have tools that make you unselfconscious, more free, more self-nurturing, more involved with process than with product. These tools allow you to forget yourself so that, ironically, you can remember how to write. And those will work regardless of what form you're working in.
I would say the bedrock tool for any writer just in terms of freeness of expression would still be the three pages of daily morning writing called the morning pages. The morning pages miniaturize the censor and let you move freely onto the page. And a weekly artist's date puts images back into your image bank, keeps you from overfishing your pond as a writer, and is pivotal to ease in writing, particularly when you're on deadline.
Somebody will say to me, 'Julia, I was writing brilliantly, why did it dry up?' The answer is it dried up because you were writing brilliantly. In other words we have a finite number of images in our inner reservoir and we must treat ourselves like an ecosystem. And that's true whether you're doing technical writing, a novel, a play, a screenplay or journalism. All of us need to learn how to get freely onto the page and how to use our critical thinking as second draft.
You've described creativity as festive and hydra-headed, and I wondered how you advise writers to control that spirit when working within the confines of deadline.
I don't believe in controlling it very much. I think people need to write a first draft that throws it at the page. And if we can get out of our own way, there is a real wisdom that is subconscious and organic to whatever we're trying to write. Very often if you can teach people to write rough drafts, those rough drafts come out very close to final draft, whereas if people try to write final drafts, they get so cerebral and analytical that the piece doesn't have its own organic shape. This is how The Right to Write can support writers at any level.
I wish it were true that we had beginning writing problems and advanced writing problems, but I've been writing for 35 years, and the problems are the same. Am I on the page today? Am I on the page freely? Is it rich or is it shallow? Those problems don't change. You confront the same monsters. You get a little more practiced"Oh, it's just the monster." The difference is for the beginning writer, it's, "My God, a monster!" When you're a little further down the road, it's "There you are again."
That's the internal censor saying, "Who do you think you are? This isn't any good, you're not original, this has been done before, you've fooled everybody so far, no one will like it." There are 15 or so things that show up, and they always say the same thing.
What practical steps do you offer writers to get beyond the censor?
Start at a really bedrock level, and write everyday. So that's morning pages. The second thing is try whatever you think you like. The third thing is try not to let the market tell you what to write. It's a very interesting thing—a lot of times young writers are focused on how do they get an agent and how do they place their work. And I think we do people a real disservice if we emphasize that aspect over doing the work. People will want to write a treatment to sell a book. Well, in my experience, it's sometimes a lot harder to write a treatment, and you waste nine months waiting to hear back on it and you could have written the book.
Would you encourage professional writers to write for personal exploration as a separate activity and if so, why?
Oh, absolutely. Because we are the origin of our work. I think people really need to leam their own field, and I don't mean the field of writing—I mean their own creative acreage. I totally think the most advantageous writing you do is the morning writing, which clears your decks, prioritizes your day and points you toward new directions. I think for a writer to only write professionally, and not do that work with turning on the inner lights, so to speak, means that you could drift pretty far from your own authentic impulses. You might be writing a great deal, but not too happily.
Again, we're much more talented than we think we are. People are able to pull off a lot more than they believe they're able to. And one of the things that happens when you're doing morning writing is something will repeatedly tap at your consciousness until you listen, and it may be a direction that you'd never thought of going. You know, the novelist might be urged to write essays, the technical writer might be urged to try a play, and at first blush you think, "This is nuts." But the idea will keep coming back, and when you surrender to trying it, it very often has an enormous amount of vigor, and passion, and real brilliance to it. And I think that without doing the morning writing you run the risk of making it difficult for your soul or your writing heart to break through your business and get your attention. You need to give it a place to contact you.
You spend time in The Right to Write dispelling myths about writers—they're broke, addicted, suffering, crazy and so on. Why is it important to dispel these myths?
Because people are afraid to write. People really believe that writing brings with it a cartload of misery. So you start saying to people if you write, you'll probably sell your work, eventually. If you write, you're going to be happier than if you don't write. If you write and write well, you're going to be more comfortable in your intimate relationships. It begins to make it a less threatening arena for people to enter. Admittedly we lose some of the high drama and some of the cherished images, but I do think people need to know it is possible to write in a nontortured way. It's a skill that can be learned, and I think the tools are pragmatic, step-by-step tools to move people into greater creative ease.
Is there any parting advice you'd like to share with writers?
I think the pivotal thing is simply for people to lay track. I believe the more we write, the more easily we write.
ANNE BOWLING is production editor for Writer's Market and a frequent contributor to Writer's Digest Books.