One of my favorite moments in author Julia Cameron’s new book -- titled The Creative Life, True Tales of Inspiration -- is when she introduces the reader to Nigel. That is the name she has given to her persistent inner critic.
“Nigel can be very persuasive,” Cameron told me in our recent interview. “You would think that after all these years I would just know Nigel and dismiss him, but Nigel keeps getting smarter.”
I tell her that one day last spring while writing my Morning Pages -- a tool she teaches in her bestselling book The Artist’s Way that involves three pages of stream of consciousness writing each morning -- I had a shouting match of sorts with my own inner critic who I call Mathilda. I felt her trying to sabotage me at a pivotal time and I ranted on the page until I was exhausted. It worked, I tell Cameron. I felt like I exorcised Mathilda.
“Don’t be surprised if she rises from the grave,” Cameron said.
I groaned, but this woman knows of what she speaks. She has written over 30 books, among them three bestsellers on the creative process -- The Artist’s Way, Walking in This World and Finding Water -- along with a memoir, fiction, plays and poetry.
“Artists have critics and must walk through the fear that the critic invokes,” Cameron said. “People come to me, sometimes they’re expecting to be taught how to be fearless. They think I’m fearless. I say, ‘No, no, I create despite the fear.’”
This is why her tools are designed to teach artists how to move through fear. She does her Morning Pages seven days a week. For those squeamish about having all those personal thoughts in concrete form after they die, she recommends this line in their will: Cremate the Morning Pages, then worry about the body.
With this latest book, essentially a creative diary, the reader is privy to Cameron’s world and, subsequently, her process. We see her life in action, entrenched in the philosophy that is woven through her books and teachings, using the tools that have unblocked and unleashed countless artists. She is collaborating, lunching, taking piano lessons, encouraging and partaking in others’ creative ventures, teaching and, of course, writing.
All of it amounts to what she calls in The Artist’s Way, “filling the well.” That means living, for what is there to express if we are not doing that? So often as creatives we question our need for space to think and be; others rarely understand, perceiving our schedules as “light.” As one friend wisely put it, “When my wife thinks I’m not doing anything, I’m writing. When she thinks I’m writing, I’m typing.”
Cameron’s latest book is sweet validation of just what its title says, The Creative Life. What makes Cameron remarkable in 2010 is that she has sustained it. As I turned the pages, I kept thinking, “Her life’s rhythm resembles mine. This is what it’s about.”
And by that I don’t just mean the juicy aspects. There’s the self-doubt that the book she’s working on is going nowhere. The student in a class she’s teaching that tells her she’s getting nothing from it. The 43 submissions it took to get her novel published. The honesty about how happy she is that she got sober. The projects she starts, puts down, and then resuscitates.
One moment of particular interest is Cameron’s observation about herself after watching Nora Ephron’s film, Julie and Julia. A former friend of Ephron’s, she mentions to her friends that she and Ephron knew each other as fledgling writers when they were in their 20s. Ephron went on to make movies and Cameron admits to feelings of jealousy. Readers of The Artist’s Way know Cameron considers jealousy a road map and so she walks her talk as the story unfolds.
“It tells me that I wish I were making movies, too,” Cameron writes.
But it is books that Cameron is producing and in that she has become a writer’s writer. She calls The Artist’s Way an artist’s support kit.
“People definitely needed these tools in order to be able to go forward,” she said. “I think of myself as a cheering section for artists and they’re so grateful for the support, especially actors. Actors have a really tough road and they really appreciate The Artist’s Way.”
Cameron is heartened by the positive feedback she’s been getting on the latest book because it has found its place and distinguished itself among her vast body of work.
“People seem to love getting to peek behind the veil,” Cameron said. “I guess I’m a little surprised at how popular the book is. It seems to be reinforcing for people, which is what I’d hoped. It seems to in a way give people permission to try and build their life more centrally around their art and particularly to look for ‘believing mirrors,’ people who feed back to them their potential and power. My life is filled with believing mirrors that I’ve collected over the years.”
Cameron challenges the mythology of artist as loner, citing Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald as friends, and Tennessee Williams and Carson McCullers, also friends and believing mirrors for each other.
It occurs to me as Cameron speaks that so much of what we do as life coaches involves serving as believing mirrors for our clients. But it is truly more my writer self that responds to The Creative Life. What I already knew but saw more clearly while reading the book is this: As artists, we delude ourselves if we envision hitting a pinnacle and then resting somehow. The art keeps coming and it is our duty to heed the call.
Nigel and Mathilda, be damned.