Recovering From Julia Cameron’s “The Artist’s Way”

Reading Time: 2 minutes

The year Julia Cameron’s book The Artist’s Way came out, I was given three of them as gifts. I found the book unreadable, and re-gifted the volumes to those more appreciative. All the same, I knew there was good information lurking in the treacly prose as I scanned the pages.

Challenge Cameron’s “The Artist’s Way” products in public and prepare for a beating from her mostly female fan base. The variety of items in her empire is large enough that you could receive a fortnightly beating with a different volume for about a year. 

The books have so much coddling and soothing and smoothing of the fragile reader that the end result is a condescension that makes me (quite literally) hurl the volumes across the room. I’m obviously not her Right Reader or target market. I don’t need “permission” nor do I dig the “recovery” patois. There are oddly conflicting products in her stable such as the Artist’s Date Book and the Artist’s Way Morning Pages journal. Shouldn’t you make your own book if you’re taking command of your own artistic development? I can get a free pocket calendar from Walt’s Brake and Muffler and make my own Artist’s Date Book (and call it something like “Outings that May Get Me in Trouble”), and a crappy dollar notebook (labeled “Lunatic Ravings”) thus saving myself $10, but more importantly, investing some of myself into the process. This marketing dichotomy aside, which may be more the fault of her publisher (who seems to enjoy building juggernauts), Cameron offers a number of tools that are keepers, and found outside her books.

After a bit of poking around on YouTube, I discovered another aspect of Cameron, personal interviews on video where the tone is very different. She distills her teachings to a sort of actionable shorthand . In this particular YouTube offering, taken at a 2007 retreat in Litchfield Connecticut, (Cameron, you used to be in film, can’t you help them record decent audio on these things?), she explains her top two concepts with a brevity that’s a relief: Morning Pages and the Artist’s Date. The Morning Pages are also known in the GTD world as a Brain Dump. The Artists’s Date is also know to everyone else as getting out of the house.

They’re both really good, simple ideas, not served by formalizing in systems, movements, empires, unnecessary products, clubs and groups. Any artistic catering to the support and approval of others is deadly, which is why her popularity can be dangerous. She herself does a useful bit on recognizing Wet Blanket people (which I may be one) on another YouTube video. Also known in the comedy world as, “If they can’t take a joke, screw ’em.” In this same video she mentions a friend’s advice to her, about writing not for the lowest common denominator, but to her ideal reader. Fred Picker, who taught me the One Hundred Set-ups, often mentioned the Right Reader, the person or few people who really get you and your work, whatever it might be. They’re the antidote found next to the poison, so to speak; the few people who understand what you’re driving at while the others next to them are saying, “she has a way with words but does she have to swear so much?”

So thanks, Julia Cameron, and your hosts for submitting the useful Cliff’s Notes videos on YouTube. And thanks, too, for offering terrific tools to tie more stuff together for the betterment of humanity and, well… not requiring me to read the books.

About Leslie Strom

Stand out. Be bold. Prove you exist. I try to do this in web design, writing, publishing, and with my frequently bad ideas. Since I spend about 85% of my time collecting information and am willing to set myself out as a human cautionary tale, I think you might enjoy the enlightening (or not) tinkertoy workings of my mind. Welcome!
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20 Responses to Recovering From Julia Cameron’s “The Artist’s Way”

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  3. MRstoner2udude says:

    I had the same reaction to this crappy book. It actually curtailed my writing because of it’s “morning only” rule. I really hate books like this. Never again. YOu want to be creative? Sit your ass down somewhere and start writing without judgment or editorializing. Free yourself. Don’t endenture yourself to other’s idea’s.

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  5. ClaireH says:

    Awesome post, couldn’t agree more.
    Her constant reference to God is also incredibly annoying

  6. christine says:

    Thanks for writing this review! I know I flipped through this book once or twice in bookstores, but I couldn’t remember if I wanted to read it or not.

    I remember it now. I’m not big on coddly books either. If I remember correctly it was convoluted and too wordy.

    However, you gave me a great idea. “Lunatic Ravings” sounds much more fun than trying trying to make myself write in a “personal journal” (which I have yet to do).

    “Outings that May Get Me in Trouble” sounds like a good way to reframe my view on social outings too.

  7. Dig says:

    The tone of the book totally bugged me off the bat but the process of doing the tasks helped me because frankly I’m a totally discouraged / triggered / traumatized person from a household of addiction. For my sort of lot her path works a lot since so much of my blockage is childhood trauma. Frankly, doing the book is a lot cheaper than doing months of therapy to work through this stuff and find the power/safety/chops to as one poster says “just sit down and write without judgment” (Gahhhh, I wish it were that easy).

    That said, the God jargon can be excessive, and the culty-ness of other fans of the book is creepy. Flat out, it’s a tool, it’s the right tool for some, and not others. It’s not a religion, or the “true way” – but for some of us it may be helpful (or at least some part of it) to get out of a funk.

    • Leslie Strom says:

      I worry a little sometimes that my review is too long so that readers fail to get to the end where I explain that I think Cameron’s books are actually pretty useful. I’m glad you got that! Today I was at Half-Price Books looking for neuro-science books, which I found in the Self-Help section. I scanned the titles; all assembled they were pretty terrifying in a way. “You are Enough, Your Wounded Child, Find Yourself” and so on. It’s surprising how a title will resonate through the miasma of soothing for some people at just the right time. For me, I wonder if an intensive study of such material just becomes an excuse to avoid going out and trying stuff. Anyway, now I avoid going out and trying stuff by reading brain science books. It would probably have been something….

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  9. Doug says:

    Yup. An acquaintance reccommended it too me. I did a quick GOOGLE peak at reviews (but unfortunately not this one) and went out and forked over $17. I supposed getting pissed off is also good for creative blocks. I had already bought the book yet on every page I felt like I was reading a sales pitch from Julia Cameron. Still having the book and having forked over the money made the Scot in me feel like I had to get some value from it so I got writing like I new I should in my “Morniing Journal”. Next time maybe a friend or acquaintance could just kick me in the ass and tell me to start writing, thereby saving me 17 bucks. Oh Julia, you sly devil.

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  11. Helen says:

    Questioning The Artist’s Way? Sacrilege! Haha. Only kidding. I think skepticism is essential. I’d say skepticism is an artform in itself, not to be confused with cynicism. And I’m sure Julia would agree.
    Yes, I think any self help book worth its salt, or money, should stress that it is just a tool, or guide. I’ve lost a few friends to cults, over the years. Scary.
    I must admit I often have a dogeared copy of The Artist’s Way, and The Right To Write in my bag. I love reading them, they are like friends, I tell them things, but I don’t do the exercises.
    These days I prefer reading about the lives of teachers, rather than following any teaching.
    Consequently, I was delighted when I discovered that Julia had written a book about her life. Floor Sample, A Creative Memoir.
    Here she reveals the true struggle of her life, the addiction to alcohol and drugs, marriage to a famous guy, mental breakdown leading to hospitalisation, loneliness, motherhood, the search for trust and friendship and home, inspiration, and a fearsome creative drive that has kept her going, against the odds. I was quite shocked at first, The Artist’s Way had a tough birth.
    Has anyone else read Floor Sample? I’d like to know what you thought of it.

  12. Thanks for this review. This book keeps popping up as a ‘have to read’ and I love buying books so my first instinct was to just get it but I’m glad I read your review, I might save myself the cash! The two things I already knew about it (that people have told me about) are the two you mentioned as the most valuable ideas in the book and I could do without all the culty and religious stuff, so thanks for the heads up!

  13. Caitlin says:

    Just to add the other opinion, this book was a life-saver to my mother who went from being a sad housewife to an active playwrite. An ex-boyfriend who was an active songwriter and poet found it extremely useful despite the fact that he was already on the right trajectory.

    It’s not for everyone, but if you don’t like it, just don’t use it.

    “God” speed.

    Ps- the artists way is based very closely on Alcoholics Anonymous, which references god. My chemist friend who is Agnostic used the term “great scientist” and was able to get beyond that….

  14. MeetJohnDoe says:

    I found it very useful, both for myself and for the people I work with.
    I ignored all references to God and any treacle.

    In your comment, you state that you think Cameron’s books are pretty useful?

    Having read your article, I got just the opposite impression.

  15. Sara says:

    I found a way to access my creativity well before I found the artist way and I chose to leap into my art well beforehand too. It’d be years later before I took the time to read it and while reading it I mostly felt relieved and seen. All these things I couldnt explain; getting shamed by my family, having otherwise supportive friends become uncharcteristially discouraging, getting really excited about a new project only to drop it right before completion — were placed in a new light. The book marked a turning point in my creative life and the tools, insights and tasks have been imeasurably supportive. It took me two tries over a year, 4 years after I first tried to read the book before I went through the 12 weeks and, for me, working through that resistance was well worth it. It’s scary and that’s okay. Offering another perspective for the folks who might read this review and use it as incentive to pass for the cliff notes version. Maybe it’s not for everyone but also maybe it is for you.

  16. Kathleen says:

    Thank you so much for an honest review.

    The Artist’s Way (and its attendants) is a body of work that I have so many mixed feelings about. I know that there are good ideas in there, particularly ideas rooted in doing things and not just “positive thinking.” I wish that I didn’t find the text absolutely revolting.

    The way these genuinely useful ideas are presented in the book is the most sanctimonious and condescending drivel I’ve ever read. I felt like a five year-old being scolded the entire time, and by someone who enjoys “disciplining” a little too much.

    I hope I’ll get to a point where I can separate the ideas from the presentation. I think some of it could be really useful.

  17. SC says:

    I cannot find any flaw in Julia Cameron’s work. It’s an important act of service that changed many people’s lives for the better. “God” is not that almighty presence that’s been used by power-hungry people at Church to shame or oppress us; God is simply that mysterious phenomenon that somehow, inexplicably, decided to create you. I don’t know what that is, but whether it’s called “God” or not, it is there. Connecting to that sense of mystery inspires me and dissolves the limits that I perceive in my ability.

    Actually I don’t really get the comments about her prose being condescending; I never once found myself feeling offended in that way at any point.

    I would like to understand more how her approach may offend people. As someone who also wants to help others unblock their creativity, it would be helpful to see what may trigger feelings of being treated condescendingly.

  18. B says:

    Remember that Julia Cameron includes the past professions of screenwriter and playwright in her biography. ..and even that her past marriage to a Hollywood mogul didn’t result in HER megablockbuster movie. So..she learns to package her journalings and “creative advice” under the guise of a helping avatar. Then she veers into cult leader land through edicts like “No reading? That’s right : no reading. ” (p. 87, The Artist’s Way).
    Real artists don’t join cults.

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