In her memoir, “Floor Sample,” published in 2006, Ms. Cameron recounts the brutality of Hollywood, of her life there as a screenwriter and a drunk. Pauline Kael, she writes, described her as a “pornographic Victorian valentine, like a young Angela Lansbury.” Don’t marry her for tax reasons, Ms. Kael warns Mr. Scorsese. Andy Warhol, who escorts her to the premiere of “New York, New York,” inscribes her into his diary as a “lush.” A cocaine dealer soothes her — “You have a tiny little wife’s habit” — and a doctor shoos her away from his hospital when she asks for help, telling her she’s no alcoholic, just a “sensitive young woman.” She goes into labor in full makeup and a Chinese dressing gown, vowing to be “no trouble.”
“I think it’s fair to say that drinking and drugs stopped looking like a path to success,” she said. “So I luckily stopped. I had a couple of sober friends and they said, ‘Try and let the higher power write through you.’ And I said, What if he doesn’t want to?’ They said, ‘Just try it.’”
So she did. She wrote novels and screenplays. She wrote poems and musicals. She wasn’t always well-reviewed, but she took the knocks with typical grit, and she schooled others to do so as well. “I have unblocked poets, lawyers and painters,” she said. She taught her tools in living rooms and classrooms — “if someone was dumb enough to lend us one,” she said — and back in New York, at the Feminist Art Institute. Over the years, she refined her tools, typed them up, and sold Xeroxed copies in local bookstores for $20. It was her second husband, Mark Bryan, a writer, who needled her into making the pages into a proper book.
The first printing was about 9,000 copies, said Joel Fotinos, formerly the publisher at Tarcher/Penguin, which published the book in 1992. There was concern that it wouldn’t sell. “Part of the reason,” Mr. Fotinos said, “was that this was a book that wasn’t like anything else. We didn’t know where to put it on the shelves — did it go in religion or self-help? Eventually there was a category called ‘creativity,’ and ‘The Artist’s Way’ launched it.” Now an editorial director at St. Martin’s Press, Mr. Fotinos said he is deluged with pitches from authors claiming they’ve written “the new Artist’s Way.”
“But for Julia, creativity was a tool for survival,” he said. “It was literally her medicine and that’s why the book is so authentic, and resonates with so many people.”
“I am my tool kits,” Ms. Cameron said.
And, indeed, “The Artist’s Way” is stuffed with tools: worksheets to be filled with thoughts about money, childhood games, old hurts; wish lists and exercises, many of which seem exhaustive and exhausting — “Write down any resistance, angers and fears,” e.g. — and others that are more practical: “Take a 20 minutes walk,” “Mend any mending” and “repot any pinched and languishing plants.” It anticipates the work of the indefatigable Gretchen Rubin, the happiness maven, if Ms. Rubin were a bit kinder but less Type-A.