Walter Mason reviews Julia Cameron's charming account of a year of creative frustration in New York City.
“I’m sixty-one years old, a veteran writer, I still get scared, and I am safe.”
Julia Cameron has become such a sage for so many writers that almost anything she writes about writing becomes an instant classic. The same goes for The Creative Life, her 2010 diary of a year spent struggling with writing and meeting with and encouraging more creatively productive friends. There is something meta about the book in that she describes the process of writing the book you are reading and how it came to take its present form. It is a book about not being able to write a book, and this book is the finished product. And as such it is totally fascinating.
Cameron’s life is filled with creative people doing amazing things, some famous and some less so. She writes enthusiastically, for example, about her brothers new CD and her pride in his musical accomplishments. She describes his humble pleasure in her praise, reminding us all that our encouragement of other creative people is always needed, though it might only be hastily noted. Though the recipient may be shy or embarrassed, one’s words of praise always have an effect.
I remember years ago reading about her idyllic life in Taos, New Mexico. But in this book it becomes clear that Taos was to become a place of sorrow for Cameron, the site of a creative and mental breakdown so serious that she feels she can never return there. An enthusiastic old friend comes to New York City and urges her to re-visit:
“"Taos has become a writer’s mecca,” he tells me. He describes the new café and coffee bar that is ideal for writing. “You’d love it,” he concludes, knowing that I made a habit of writing in Dori’s bakery, now defunct.”
Here we are in thorough Cameronian territory – going outside to write, being in the world and an observer of the world. This is what the whole of The Creative Life is about: turning one’s own life into “material.” She renders the quotidian delicately poignant, occasionally remarkable and always fascinating. This is what makes her such an extraordinary writer and not just another self-help guru with a couple of good ideas. And the ideas keep popping up in this book, though it is in no sense intended to be a practical manual of writing tips. They emerge through the course of her description, and are often attributed to other people (a hallmark of Cameron’s honesty, integrity and generosity). Having attended a wonderful concert of American song, her flatmate and composer friend says:
“That is what I’m meant to be doing,” Emma whispers excitedly as we file out: “I think I should write ninety songs in ninety days again.”
“Maybe I’ll join you at that,” I respond.
Ninety songs in ninety days! A wonderful idea, though I will probably never write a song, not having the skills. Still, it caused me to take up my notebook and scribble down the possible alternatives: ninety blog posts in ninety days, ninety essays in ninety days, ninety poems in ninety days or even, most ambitiously, ninety chapters in ninety days. It is the idea of such self-encapsulated, easily grasped projects that is so stimulating to the creative mind, and it is Cameron’s genius that she recognises this. Putting a time limit and quantity on something works like magic, just as the length and structure of a novena inspires those wanting to pray more.
The experience of ageing is, Cameron suggests, is one that doesn’t diminish our creative capacities but instead increases them:
“Plainly, Tracy doesn’t like “taking it easy.” I remember her cantering through the woods in Central Park. I remember her flying through traffic on her roller skates. It occurs to me that Tracey must hold similar images of me. I no longer own a horse, and I no longer roller-skate. Tracy and I hold each other’s daredevil history. Our adventures now are artistic, not physical.”
The Creative Life is a terrific read, from beginning to end, and one of those rare books that I felt I always had to run back to in order to read just one more page. It is a book about friendship, eating, meeting others and looking for creative stimulation on the work of others. It is about the art of conversation and how more successful companions should be inspirations rather than sources of envy. It is a book about what inspires and how to allow yourself to be inspired, and a wonderful antidote to some of the cynicism of this occasionally confusing existence.