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Agonizing success of `Artist's Way'

The creator of the bestseller never divulged her extreme struggles -- until now.

June 23, 2006|Gina Piccalo | Times Staff Writer

Julia Cameron's journey to guru-dom began, perhaps predictably, in Los Angeles in the 1970s after a failed celebrity marriage and a scotch-and-cocaine binge had brought her to rock bottom. Back then, she was best known as the lush whom Martin Scorsese left for Liza Minnelli, the hotshot writer who swore like a sailor and matched Hunter S. Thompson drink-for-drink.

This was before sobriety became Cameron's religion and her own recovery inspired her "creative unblocking" seminars, before her 1992 bestseller "The Artist's Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity" sold more than 2 million copies, before the book spawned a movement, before strangers approached her in airports with home-recorded CDs, self-published poetry, handmade jewelry and the words, "You saved my life."

Back then, no one knew of Cameron's own struggles, the nervous breakdowns that got progressively worse and the traumatic episodes so severe she found herself talking to trees in a London park and darting naked down her driveway in Taos, N.M. No one knew of the conflicted personality behind "The Artist's Way," part bawdy truth-teller, part mystical, 12-stepping mentor.

It's all there in her 405-page memoir "Floor Sample," published last month, Cameron's attempt to marry her public life with the very fragile private one, and to use her own wrenching experiences -- and her resiliency through them -- as proof that the "Artist's Way" works. The book's brutal candor might, at first glance, seem self-indulgent and overwrought (one reviewer dismissed it as "febrile New Age rhetoric"). But if all celebrity memoirists these days have a goal well beyond nostalgic reverie, Cameron's is to radically demystify her image for the fans who have over-idealized their teacher. "They read my books and picture me walking serenely through the sage fields," she told a group of ardent admirers at a recent Santa Monica reading. "I thought it was time to duck out from under the persona."

Cameron, 58, arrived at a Los Feliz cafe one recent afternoon looking a bit flustered, her hair slightly windblown, wearing a navy ensemble that she later joked would make any nun proud -- a long-sleeved blouse, ankle-length skirt, black stockings and sensible shoes. She stood out amid the pastels-and-denim lunch crowd, and was recognized immediately by one gushing fan who claimed to carry the memoir in her purse.

As she began to talk about her decision to write a memoir, Cameron projected something fragile, marching out her words with such deliberateness she might have been reading them from a script. Or maybe she was just tired. She had, after all, whipped through nine book signings that morning in San Francisco on the way to the airport and had nine more scheduled before she took a red-eye home to Manhattan the next day.

But Cameron spoke thoughtfully about a variety of subjects, including her own psychic abilities (she has what she believes is "medical intuition") and the always-lurking mental illness she called a "time bomb."

"They have very effective medicine now, but there have been periods where I have felt as if I were coming apart and the medicine was the wall between me and ... " She left the sentence dangling, but added, "You're just hoping it will hold."

Until now, this tentativeness has been kept secret from her followers, the struggling professional actors and writers of L.A., New York and Chicago and the dreamers everywhere else. In the book, Cameron characterizes that decision as one of survival. She had work to do and seminars to teach. And remarkably, it got done despite the breakdowns.

The first big one came in the mid-1990s just as she became known as a recovery guru, after the end of her second marriage to Mark Bryan, her inspiration for writing "The Artist's Way."

"Cast as a 'spiritual teacher' and desperate for answers myself in the wake of the loss of Mark, I embarked on a series of ill-considered fasts," she writes of that time. " I went as long as a week or ten days without solid food. I went for very long walks praying with every footfall. Although I didn't see it at the time, mine was a punishing" regimen.

This search eventually led her to London, where she began writing her first musical, this one about Merlin. Things soon started unraveling.

Cameron stopped wearing her glasses and contacts, because "with nothing and no one to care for, who needed to see clearly?" She did yoga obsessively. She succumbed to delusions so intense that during one of her aimless walks in Regent's Park, she wrote, she became the victim of a "very gentle rape." Later that day after Bryan reported the incident, the London police arrived at her door, took one look at her "giant bird's nest" of an apartment and led her off to a mental hospital. She was diagnosed as manic depressive, which American doctors later said was wrong. Cameron still hasn't gotten a new diagnosis.

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