Julia Cameron on the Path of Creativity

Julia Cameron, the author of The Artist’s Way and The Vein of Gold in conversation with Samuel Bercholz.

Samuel Bercholz
1 May 1998

Julia Cameron, the author of The Artist’s Way and The Vein of Gold in conversation with Samuel Bercholz.

Samuel Bercholz: Your work is nominally about creativity, but it seems to be as much about tools for spiritual growth. What is the connection?

Julia Cameron: People often say to me, “Your book is a Buddhist book,” or “This is a book about mysticism, really, or this is a Sufi book.” That is probably because creativity is a spiritual path, and at the core of the various spiritual paths are the same lessons. For instance, I recently read Thich Nhat Hanh for the first time, and I found myself thinking that he sees the world with an artist’s eye. I think that’s because he is very heart-centered. Even though we think of creativity as an intellectual pursuit, in my experience creativity is a heart-centered pursuit. We actually create from the heart. I think it’s interesting that the word “heart” has the word “art” embedded in it. It also has the word “ear” embedded in it.

So both Buddhism and creativity involve the art of listening to the heart. That’s where the creative impulse arises from. That’s why I cannot distinguish between creativity and spirituality. When you’re practicing creativity you become a grounded individual, and that communicates the universal.

I’ve been a writer for more than thirty years, and the issues that arise in the creative practice are the same kinds of issues that arise in a spiritual practice. You get to look at your insecurity. You get to look at your inquisitiveness. You get to look at your fantasy that a satisfied desire will lead to satisfaction. As near as I can tell, this is what happens with a grounded meditation technique: you go through all of the shenanigans of the restless nature of the mind and what you are left with is, just be. Out of being, things are made. So creativity is the act of being.

Samuel Bercholz: Your creativity exercises could also be viewed as a form of therapy.

Julia Cameron: Again, I don’t make those definitions. My books are taught by myriad therapists. What they have found is that if they can heal their clients’ creativity, neurosis disappears. This is why they all love this approach, and why therapists facilitate artists’ circles all the time.

My feeling is that an enormous amount of what we think of as neurosis is actually blocked creativity. When people begin living in their creativity, the “neurosis” disappears. I am not certain that we are a neurotic culture; I think we are more a stifled culture, needing to express the self, and you can spell that either small “s” or large “S.”

My feeling is that we are exhausted with talk therapy. Because The Artist’s Way is experiential, it brings people back into their bodies and their hearts. Therapists are using it to bring people into an embodied practice, and that’s why everyone’s calming down.

It’s one of the world’s best kept secrets that art makes people sane and happy. If you think creativity makes you crazy and broke, let’s not do it. On the other hand, if it makes you expanded and connected and joyous and vibrant and beautiful, it may make us a little nervous, but maybe we should try it.

The only time I get in trouble is if I’m not making something myself. If I’m too busy teaching to do my own art I get very sad. It’s a matter of balance for me. I must keep my artist first and my teacher second. I must be making things and then sharing out of that process. If I am only teaching what I have already learned without doing my practice in order to be learning more, I’m very desperately unhappy. It’s dangerous for me.

When we are creative we become happier, more stable, more user-friendly. We have this image of writers as grumpy curmudgeons. Well, when they’re blocked they are, but a writer who’s writing is usually a very festive, even if it’s secretly festive, person. A lot of what I teach is playing. I think that as we become more light, we take our ideas more seriously.

Samuel Bercholz: Do you mean “light” like “more brilliant” or like “light-hearted?”

Julia Cameron: Light-hearted. As we become more light-hearted, we paradoxically take our ideas more seriously. If we’re trying to take our ideas seriously without a light heart we do not have the passion to execute them. This is why I say creativity is a matter of the heart: it takes heart to execute. If you can get people back in their heart, you get them into executing their creativity. If you keep them in their head, the heart becomes hobbled and the capacity to make things that connect becomes hobbled.

Samuel Bercholz: A big part of The Artist’s Way and Vein of Gold is how passion and creativity relate.

Julia Cameron: I think passion is a marvelous thing. I was recently bawled out by a shaman because he took my use of the word passion to mean emotion and turbulence. I use passion to mean an act of will and commitment. I believe that we are intended to be utterly present, present with a passionate commitment. Then when we are, we create. Conversely, when we create, we become present with passionate commitment.

One of the aspects of certain forms of Buddhism that I have difficulty with is that occasionally I get the feeling that people are using their meditation to avoid experiencing the incarnation we all share. They become detached, they hold the larger view, and it becomes: leaf falls from tree, child dies, same value. I think we can hold that view some of the time, but we are intended as humans to resonate far more deeply than that. I believe that creativity as a spiritual path is very much a felt path.

Samuel Bercholz: “Felt” in the sense of passion, or heartfelt?

Julia Cameron: I don’t see those as two different things. Do you?

Samuel Bercholz: No, but…sometimes feeling is just a swirl. Is there a difference between the swirl of emotion and heartfelt feeling?

Julia Cameron: When we’re in a swirl of emotion, in a funny way it’s intellectual. Confusing and conflicting ideas are wrapped up with the emotions, much the way smoke has particles in it. When we are in our heart, there is a clarity to the feeling, a purity to the feeling. It’s less like smoke and more like water. Creativity allows you to purify swirling emotions.

Samuel Bercholz: By grounding them? By liberating them? What happens?

Julia Cameron: You see, for me it’s difficult to talk so theoretically. For instance, this morning I was very frustrated. I sat down and wrote four short poems, and then I was fine. The poems both grounded and liberated what I was feeling.

Then I think we should talk just about the practice, because the intellectual part of this doesn’t make any sense. You can read everything about creativity, everything about meditation, everything about spirituality, and what difference does it make?

Okay, let’s look at the nuts and bolts of The Artist’s Way. Get up in the morning and write three pages of long hand writing about anything.

Samuel Bercholz: What inspired you to do that? This is something you created, and people are doing it all over the world.

Julia Cameron: It didn’t begin with an idea. One day I got up and started doing it, and I found that it worked.

Samuel Bercholz: What do you mean by “worked”?

Julia Cameron: It made me prioritized for my day; it rendered me present to my life; it gave me a seed bed of ideas that later became creative work; it rendered me profoundly present. So I did it more. (laughs)

Samuel Bercholz: Then you wrote the prescription for everybody else. How did you know that this wasn’t just for you?

Julia Cameron: People would call me up who were confused, and I’d say, “Try this,” and it would work for them. That’s how it became larger: I simply shared the tool. It’s a tool that arose out of the fact that I am a writer with a habit of writing; therefore, it was the most natural thing in the world for me to get up one morning and start writing, and then to notice what it did for me.

I also do believe in reincarnation. I think that I’m a teacher, and I suspect I’ve been a teacher for a very long time. A lot of what I know comes from my thirty years of work as a writer, but I suspect that a lot of what I know is remembered. I think this is true for all of us, that we are often doing in this life a work that we began a long time ago. That’s what I think The Artist’s Way is; it’s a work that I probably began a long time ago. Or that artists began a long time ago.

Samuel Bercholz: So do you think there’s an ancestry of artists as well as a family ancestry?

Julia Cameron: Absolutely. When people talk about a spiritual practice, they talk about the lineage of the practice. I think I’m squarely within the lineage of creativity, from the caves forward.

Samuel Bercholz: Is this a natural gift, or something you had to develop?

Julia Cameron: I think we have natural gifts and then we develop them. I think my work is helping people to wake up to their gifts and develop them.

Samuel Bercholz: Do you think everybody has natural gifts?

Julia Cameron: Absolutely!

Samuel Bercholz: So what’s with all these frustrated people?

Julia Cameron: I think we’ve forgotten who we are. I think we’ve forgotten we’re gifted. We’ve been made to feel we aren’t gifted: we have an enormous mythology that creativity belongs to an elite few. They’ve known it since birth, they suffer no fear, they always wear black…

So what The Artist’s Way tools do is reconnect people to their own creative impulses, at which point people become far stronger and begin to move in the direction of those impulses. It’s essentially a spiritual process, a listening process: with morning pages you are listening to what’s going on within you. You’re putting it on the page and communicating it to yourself and, in a sense, to the world.

The second basic tool is something called an “artist’s date,” which is a once-a-week festive period of solitude. This is like turning on the radio to receive. So with morning pages you’re listening to yourself and communicating out, and then you go into solitude, a festive engaged form of solitude – you are out in the world, you are interacting, you begin to feel and hear other impulses. You begin to receive.

Samuel Bercholz: In The Vein of Gold you talk about walking as more than just a physical thing. It’s about visual images that come by and all kinds of things.

Julia Cameron: We are ecosystems. Creativity is an ecosystem. If we want to be creative, we fish from the well of the ecosystem. It’s as though you have an inner trout run and when you strive for creativity you’re fishing out of it. Then you need to replenish it, restock it.

When you walk, a couple of things happen. One is that you have an image-flow moving at you. You see and notice things. You see a tiny little bird skittering under a pine branch. You see a homeless person if you’re in the city. You note the image, and the image goes into the well. The well is part of the heart, and that’s where your art comes from.

Walking also moves you across the bridge into a larger realm of ideas. It allows you to listen to a different frequency. I experience it as a sort of click in the back of my head. I begin to have insights and inspirations which seem to be of a simpler and higher order. There is something enormously powerful about visualizing and moving at the same time. It may just be because we have more energy to deal with, but it really helps things to clarify, and once something clarifies it begins to be able to manifest.

I call it crossing into the imagination. When we make things they begin as thought forms, as spiritual blueprints, and when we are walking and we visualize something, we’re actually drawing it into form. As a writer, if I have a tangled plot line, I go for a walk. I’m not thinking particularly about my plot; I’m thinking about the little wren that I saw, I’m thinking about the mallards, if I’m in New York maybe I’m thinking about the antique velvet rope that I saw in the shop window. And as I’m thinking about these things, “Oh! That’s what I can do with my plot” emerges. Creativity is sort of Zen: as you focus north, solutions emerge south. It’s not linear.

Samuel Bercholz: Well, that’s magic. That’s the way spiritual practice is: it works because it works. I mean, you could do whole scientific studies and they don’t help anything. You can make up excuses why it works, but they’re just excuses.

Julia Cameron: You know, if smart were the solution, very few of us would be screwed up. Smart isn’t the solution. The heart is the solution. That’s why I don’t like the term “mindfulness.” I like the term “heartfulness.” I think it’s more accurate.

Samuel Bercholz: Actually, the term is translated from the Sanskrit, and whoever translated it chose the word “mind” rather than “heart.” But mindfulness refers to the Sanskrit cotta, which is in fact “heart.” So “heartfulness” is more accurate; it’s not about our head at all.

Julia Cameron: Well, this is good. I always thought, what a dreadful word, they can’t mean it.

So we’re really talking about what arises from the heart.

Samuel Bercholz: You don’t mean the little flesh thing, right? What do you mean by “heart?

Julia Cameron: The essence. The center. The place that is simultaneously individual and universal that each of us carries. That point of truth. I think heart is a pretty good word for that.

Samuel Bercholz: What’s the relationship between time and creativity? You’re struggling with a deadline now, working on a book, and all of us who are involved with the world of creativity know there are always deadlines and the panic that comes with them. Do you think it’s positive that there are time restrictions or would it be better if things were eased up?

Julia Cameron: It’s a central question. We yearn for more time with the illusion that if we had open time we would be creating all the time. The trick is to actually learn to use the time which we have.

What I try to teach is how to be creative within the life you’ve got. We are a workaholic society. We are addicted to work and often to work for work’s sake. But when you are happy, rested and in touch with yourself, you can often work very quickly. That’s because when you have some clarity it’s easy to do something quickly. The trick is really clarity. People say, I don’t have time to do the morning pages, but if they do the morning pages it gives them clarity, and that makes them do all the rest of their life more quickly and more easily.

Now, the whole issue of how to be creative within a business environment is an issue of people being connected and clear, which is contagious. I use the term “creative contagion.” Very often if one person in a workplace starts working with creative emergence tools somebody else will say, “What are you doing? You seem really different.” Then they’ll start doing them and you have this sort of grassroots beneath the hierarchy; out of sight of the superiors you have these people who are becoming more and more grounded while also becoming more visionary, innovative and individual.

These tools render us able to see our choices in any given situation. In the middle of a demanding business day you can close the office door for ten minutes and listen to a piece of music. You can go off and write a half a page just to clear your thinking. The tools are very portable. These little tiny timeouts during a day keep you connected, and just an instant of connection creates space for what I call grace, or what other people might call inspiration or intuition. If we make the smallest opening, there is the possibility of creativity. This is why it is so much like a spiritual practice.

Samuel Bercholz: Do you want to say something about the various kinds of addictions and their relationship to creativity?

Julia Cameron: Our mythology tells us that artists are addicted people – that they are promiscuous, drug addicted, alcoholic. We’ve come to think that somehow those addictions are part of the creative process.

My experience is exactly the opposite. My experience is that creativity is freedom from addiction. We are frightened when we feel the force of our own creative energy, because we don’t know how to ground it. This is why my tools tend to be grounding tools, and when creativity is safely grounded and used, addictions fall to one side. Conversely, if you see someone addicted, what you’re seeing is a profoundly creative soul reaching for a substitute to self-expression.

When people get sober they can be profoundly creative. When people get emotionally sober off of a process addiction like workaholism or sex addiction or relationship addiction, they have freed for their use a beautiful amount of new usable energy with which they can make wonderful things. That doesn’t just mean writing a poem or making a ceramic vase. It can be a new system for the office. It can be revamping the way they do parent/teacher meetings.

But often what happens is that when we experience our creative energy we don’t recognize it as creative energy; we just think it’s anxiety. So rather than saying, “How can I direct this energy and what should I make?” we try to block it. We block it by thinking of some titillating sexual adventure. We block it by picking up a drink. We block it with a pint of Hagen Daas. We block it by picking up workaholic work. But it doesn’t go away; it’s still there. Creativity is always there, because it is as innate to humanity as blood and bone. It is the animating force.

Samuel Bercholz: Although a lot of people talk about creativity and sexuality as not different energies. Do you see them as different?

Julia Cameron: No. I would tend to say that energy itself is pure, and that we can abuse it. You can feel the difference between an addictive, deadening sexual encounter and a sexual encounter where you stay present and the other person stays present.

Samuel Bercholz: Being in the present is the issue?

Julia Cameron: I think so.

Samuel Bercholz: Is it the same with creativity?

Julia Cameron: Creativity is living in the connected moment.

Samuel Bercholz: What do you mean by connected?

Julia Cameron: Heartful, present, alert, attentive, engaged.

Samuel Bercholz: Thank you.

Samuel Bercholz

Samuel Bercholz

Samuel Bercholz is the founder and editor-in-chief of Shambhala Publications. He studied with Thinley Norbu Rinpoche for more than two decades, and has been teaching Buddhism and the Shambhala teachings for nearly four decades.