So, yeah, I met Julia Cameron (in the flesh!): The power of story, dialectics and the creation of god

I’ve left paradise and I’m in a crowded parking lot. It’s tucked between the Ukrainian Catholic Church that, I guess, presumes to be a conduit to paradise for its worshippers, and the cultural centre it runs as both a community service and a modest revenue stream.

Even churches need to keep the lights on, somehow.

The Church is St. Basil’s, an unusual and beautiful name that always makes me think of both Sherlock Holmes and John Cleese (and OMG, people, John Cleese playing Sherlock Holmes, why has that not been a thing?).

(Excuse me—I’m googling “Has John Cleese ever played Sherlock Holmes?”)

(OMG, people, John Cleese played Arthur Sherlock Holmes, the grandson of the great detective, in a 1977 British film called The Strange Case of the End of Civilization as We Know It, and you can watch it for free on Open Culture.)

(Back to regularly scheduled programming…)

I’m here because in 2015, then-Conservative MLA for Edmonton-Decore, Janice Sarich, lost her job.

Follow me for a while; I’ll explain.

I’m actually here for Julia Cameron’s first Canadian appearance in more than 20 years. Julia Cameron is the author of The Artist’s Way—and more than 40 other books, several musicals, plays, screenplays, etc. She’s also the director of an art film, the creation of which is a study in synchronicity, serendipity, and also, perseverance past the point of reason.

Julia has been my writing teacher and creativity coach for five years. Today is the first day we are to meet. And when I say meet, I mean, I will be in a church hall with 300 other people while she talks. It’s not going to be a particularly intimate experience. But still. We will be in the same room, I will have seen her, truly, “live,” and this brings me much anticipatory happiness.

Back in 2014, when I was drowning (metaphorically, although the flood was real enough), The Artist’s Way threw me a lifeline and turned Cameron into my first real teacher, and the one I keep on going back to, again and again and again.

And again.

I don’t like her.

Let’s make this clear right away, so that you are not expecting a hagiography. We are not friends, Julia and I. I do not have a rose-coloured schoolgirl’s crush on her. I am neither the Peter nor Paul to her Jesus, nor the Mardana to her Guru Nanak.*

* You can google Mardana and Guru Nanak. Or, you can read The Singing Guru, a marvellous novel by Kamla K. Kaur (also author of Ganesha Goes to Lunch and Rumi’s Tales from the Silk Road), about the life of the founder of the Sikh religion—that’d be Guru Nanak—and his faithful companion, Mardana.

If we were closer in geography and fame, we would not be friends, meeting for a coffee and a chat. I don’t accept Julia’s tools and wisdom uncritically, as gospel. Frankly, I argue with her, fight her every step of the way. I call her names—throw her struggle with alcoholism and co-dependent romantic relationships in her face (repeatedly and unkindly). Tell her that if she spent less time gazing out her window and writing Morning Pages and more time perfecting the craft and refining technique, maybe she’d be famous for her poetry or her musicals. Or her novels would be, like, good, and they’d sell.

I am mean to her, so mean to her.

I hate her.

She is my most beloved teacher.

My refusal to be an uncritical acolyte notwithstanding, I’m here to pay homage. I’m quite aware of this, long before I get into my hic-cuping (Please don’t die!) 2007 Nissan Versa (grey) (I’m telling you this because Julia likes specificity, just as much as Writing Down the Bones author Natalie Goldberg does) at 5:30 a.m. that morning to drive the 300 km that will take me to St. Basil’s Cultural Centre in Edmonton.

I know I am here to give gratitude and pay homage long before Julia Cameron enters the hall and I leap to my feet, giving her a standing ovation before she utters a word, because, fuck, Julia, there you are, after all these years, in the flesh, you’re real, would I be where I am, who I am, right now if you hadn’t been thrust upon me back in 2014?

Julia Cameron is 71 now, and an old 71, a frail 71. My mother is 68 and a) she looks much younger and prettier and b) she could easily take Julia in a fight. Janice Sarich—the organizer—warns us before the Godmother of Art, the Midwife of Creation enters the hall that Ms Cameron has health issues, and because of them, there are some rules we need to follow. We are not to badger her, approach her, crowd her—there’s a red velvet rope strung as a barrier to separate us from the lectern and we are not to cross it. There will be no book signings or requests for selfies. We are here to get what she is willing to give us—and to demand no more.

I know from her books that Cameron is a highly introverted, very sensitive and anxious—neurotic really—and has suffered at least two nervous breakdowns.

Those are all the things about her that annoy me when I read her (Could you be a little less neurotic, Julia?), those are all the things that make her such a sensational teacher.

If I am a doubting Thomas and a pre-conversion St. Augustine—maybe even a Rene Descartes, who, had he lived half a century earlier may well have been burnt at the stake—the woman who brought Cameron to Edmonton—to me—is a less critical disciple. Former MLA Sarich is in the honeymoon phase of the student-teacher relationship, you know, when Socrates can do no wrong in the eyes of Plato, when Jung nods his head enthusiastically at every word Freud utters… even though, if he lets himself think, he’ll see that actually, um, ah, I dunno, maybe the old man got it just a little wrong?

I’ve never had that phase with Cameron. I’ve never had that with anyone. Hero-worship, goddess worship—I envy it when I see it.

Sarich lost her job at the Alberta Provincial Legislature when my socialist, progressive, feminist, “Damn straight I will dance at the Pride Parade!” premier unseated the oligarchy that had been lording it over the province for 44 years. So as soon as Sarich introduces herself and her story, I know some pretty core philosophical differences separate us. In 2015, I celebrated with abandon—if not precisely her loss, then my premier’s win. When the Conservatives returned to power in 2019 under a reprehensible platform that offended virtually all of my values as well as my reason, I mourned.

But when I talk to Sarich, all I feel is gratitude and admiration. Because she turned her tragedy and trauma—and job loss is traumatic, no matter how common in the modern economy—into this opportunity, not just for herself, but for me and for 300 other people. To meet Julia, to work with Julia.

For an emotionally exhausting eight hours.

At 4:30 p.m. that day, I revise my estimation of Julia as old and frail. Fuck, the woman might be 71 and battered by life, but she’s also tough and committed. She might have health problems. She may pause at the lectern for a long, long while here and there, to catch her breath or to recall her train of thought. But she gives us her all for the entire day, shepherding her energy carefully, resting in-between when we break off into our mini-clusters—but, at the end of the day, still giving it all, as fully engaged, as fully present as she was at its beginning.

I bow my head and come the closest to hero-worship, goddess worship I will ever feel.

There are several points during the day when I wish I hadn’t come. The first happens early in the day, during one of our first break-off clusters. The workshop for 300 of Julia’s biggest fans is surprising intimate, because Julia (clearly, she’s done this before) speaks for a little bit, gives us a written exercise, then has us break off into clusters of three, four or two. Each time, we are to connect with new people; each time, we are to share ourselves with strangers.

I fucking hate this. There is immense creative power in being vulnerable, open, exposed. I know—I’ve just come off a 10-day stint in Paradise in which I gave myself like that, completely. And I am still so very vulnerable and leaking tears and love. But these people, here? I don’t know these people at all.

And this is a fact, not an opinion: being vulnerable and open with people you don’t know and trust is stupid.

This is also a fact, not an opinion: The Artist’s Way exercises Julia is leading us through are useless unless one is stupid and open. I mean, vulnerable. Ugh.

I hate her. I wish I hadn’t come. Fine, Julia. I’m here. For you. My stupid list… numbered one to five. Things people in my family thought about Art. Imaginary lives. Things I’d do if I knew I didn’t have to do them perfectly. U-turns…

My first two clusters are marvelous. The women—the audience is 90 percent female, and also, 95, 99 per cent white, and this is sadly relevant—are all also open and vulnerable and loving. And so they set me up for what happens next.

Fine. No blame. I set myself up. I relax into the vulnerability. I start to feel safe.

Bam!

Julia says, she’s going to dictate some questions for us, and we are to answer them in our best Obi Wan Kenobi impersonation. I’m not a Star Wars fan, and while I know the difference between Obi Wan Kenobi and Yoda (Yoda’s the green one, right?), I’m not sure which one of them it is who says, “There is no try. There is only do.” But I think that’s what she’s asking for. Right? Anyway. Jedi master advice to the Padawan. This much I know. Jedi, wise.

She dictates.

What do I need to do?

I write:

Write and build.

She says:

What do I need to try?

I write:

Rejuvenate, recharge, restart.

(I actually think, “I need to let go,” BUT I AM NOT LETTING GO OF ANYTHING, analyze that!)

Number three, says Julia:

What do I need to accept?

Motherhood is forever.

Corners of my eyes tingle, sting.

Number four:

What do I need to grieve?

I don’t want to do this fucking exercise.

But I write:

Loss of freedom. And time.

Tears stream down my face, hot and sticky.

Last one.

What do I need to celebrate?

This one’s hard. But I find the words.

Love. And my talent. I’m fucking amazing and I’m still here.

My face is wet, soaked when we break off into the clusters. Fuck you, Julia, I wasn’t quite ready for that. Fuck honesty. Sometimes, a little bit of distance and delusion is good. And now, in this state, I need to be with people? Why would you do this to me?

We’re a  group of four, a young stay-at-home mom, a woman who could either be my age or be a decade my senior, hard to tell, and a post-menopausal matriarch. And, me.

I want to stay to stay open, so I tell them the exercise really triggered me and I was crying and I pretty much can’t stop. They make supportive noises. We share our lists, without details, context, backstory. Then, the matriarch starts asking questions. Who, what, why. She likes to be in charge. The young stay-at-home mom says something about motherhood, challenges, sacrifices. “You will never regret this time,” the matriarch says authoritatively. “There is so much time to do everything you want after…” And she launches into the story her of her perfectly sequenced life.

I can’t bear it. Because sometimes there’s no time, there’s no more time. Sometimes, just as you think there’s more freedom, more time, everything comes crumbling down, and then what? Is it still worth it?

Right now, to be perfectly, brutally honest, I don’t know. I don’t know if it was worth it. Maybe I should have been more selfish, more focused on what I needed back then. I’ve lost so much time, I’m losing so much time now, I’m wasting the time I do have…

What happens when you find out there will not be more time, more freedom? And you will never get back what you lost, and you have to figure out how to work with what you have?

And what is it with this crap of telling women—sacrifice everything you are, everything you want now, because sometime in the future, when nobody needs you anymore, you can do the things that you…

Fuck that shit.

My tears come again. Hot.

What do I need to accept?

Motherhood is forever.

What do I need to grieve?

Loss of freedom. And time.

I don’t want to out Flora, her story, her struggle to strangers.

But they are looking at me, confused, but, I think, also, compassionate.

“I have a sick child,” I say by way of an inadequate explanation. “I don’t have more time, now, that she’s older. My challenge is to figure out how to work with the time I have.”

I don’t add that I’m having a really hard time making use of what time I do have. That I spent most of it exhausted, non-functional.

The matriarch looks at me. I don’t really expect words of wisdom. Just, what? Acknowledgment? That it’s hard.

“I know this couple,” she says. “Married thirty-two years. Never a cross word between.”

There’s no more to her story, although her mouth keeps on moving and she’s making words. I excuse myself and go cry in the washroom for a while.

I’m not angry. Just unsupported. And reminded that it is stupid to be vulnerable in front of strangers.

I recover sufficiently to be present and to listen to Julia. But I know that even though I carry out the exercises, between myself and the page, fairly honestly, I will not be naked to strangers again today.

This is not unfortunate. It’s smart, safe, necessary. Just as necessary as, when walking home late at night, choosing the well-lit paths or opting to call an Uber instead of taking a shortcut through the dark alley or ambush-point filled urban park.

The next point of pain comes during the Q&A on Morning Pages. The Morning Pages, if you’re not an Artist’s Way acolyte, are the primary tool Julia gives us for creative recovery—and perseverance. Three pages, written in longhand, first thing in the morning. Other than those guidelines, anything goes.

In my Morning Pages, I often tell Julia she’s an idiot and this is a stupid exercise, and surely there’s a more productive, creative, enjoyable way with which to start my mornings?

But it’s been more than five years now and I’ve missed perhaps five days. The Morning Pages have given me three novels. Renegotiated most of my existing relationships, opened me to new ones. They are saving me, keeping me anchored to life and why I want to live it during this latest, shittiest chapter of my life.

They work.

They work, very very well, for writers.

Julia prescribes them for everyone.

The question, asked by a woman I don’t really see, but the top of whose head suggests she might have African roots, is this:

“The Morning Page tool is so powerful. But it’s all about writing. Is there way for people or cultures without writing traditions, to use it?

Julia answers it like a 71-year-old white woman.

The first part of her answer is ok. She says that she’s a writer and she comes at this process from that lens and she doesn’t have any experience elsewhere.

Would that she just stopped there, it would be ok.

But she doesn’t. Her next sentiment, communicated as much by tone as actual words, comes across as, “I’m not interested in making my tools work for non-writing cultures.”

Bang. Ouch. Wah.

I can’t tell if the woman asking the question is African or indigenous—she’s far, the room is crowded, I’m blind (I meet her later, she’s a Canadian with Jamaican parentage), but OMFG, Julia, how could you?

Well.

She’s no goddess, she’s no hero, she’s blinded by her class and her privilege, and she’s a product of her time.

She’s also a product of her culture, which has over-privileged writing as a cultural and communication form almost since it invented it.

And it’s so weird, really if you think about it at all.

This urge to write shit down. Not even important shit. Just… anything that happens to you. Or crosses your mind. Imagined shit. Stories about robots and unicorns and alternate universes. Murders that didn’t happen. Love affairs that go right or wrong—but that don’t actually exist.

How weird is that?

Nothing natural, inevitable about any of it, right?

What would all we writers be doing if we were born into a pre-literate age?

We would be… story tellers. Song makers. Poem reciters.

Writing is a tool, a technology, a cultural invention we use to express, communicate both the very mundane (“Sold three sheep for two wheat barrels”; “Pick up toilet paper and eggs on your way home, will you love?”) and the absolutely divine…

“The minute I heard my first love story,
I started looking for you, not knowing
how blind that was.
Lovers don’t finally meet somewhere.
They’re in each other all along.”

― Rumi (Coleman Barks translation)

The Morning Pages are magical for writers. My non-writing son finds a similar peace and cleansing when he runs. His father finds it in meditation (which Cameron near-dismisses during the workshop, wilfully misunderstanding what it is that happens in meditation—“You meditate until you push the problem away,” she says—as most failed meditators and non-meditators do).

My great-grandmother found it in prayer or the rosary.

I find it in the Morning Pages.

But that doesn’t mean everyone will, everyone should.

Julia. You too old to be open-minded?

Sigh.

My last moment of pain comes when Julia wants to talk about God. She’s a highly spiritual person and this, and her highly personal relationship with an anthropomorphic God the Creator, God the Artist permeates all her work. It is another point of contention between us. I’ve had to “get over” Julia’s god thing to work through her books. Don’t laugh. It’s possible. You can read both the New Testament and the Q’ran for life lessons and reject the existence of both Jesus’s God the Father and Muhammad’s Allah. Ditto the Vedas and the Upanishads. You can learn from the Bhagavad Ghita without praying to Krishna, you know?

Siddhartha Gautama, the “first” Buddha, figured it out—he also realized the average person needs God and I don’t expect he’s surprised either by his own deification or the veneration of Boddhisatvas and statues that make some schools of Buddhism look as theatrical as Roman Catholicism. But I digress, yet again. Point: Julia loves God and trusts that he’s running the show.

I think it’s… well, now, occasionally, I think it’s nice. Why not? Whatever gets you through the days and keeps you sober. But I can’t join her there. Not even because, Syrian civil war, genocide in Rwanda, the Jewish Holocaust, and also, the disease my daughter is battling. Just because… it seems so infantile.

Fake.

In the workshop, we first deconstruct, as a group, the idea of god we grew up with. I’m silent. I’ve put the pedophiliac “You are born in sin and you will die in sin” anthropomorphic, misogynist God the Father of my childhood religion away a long time ago. So I think, anyway. Many of the people in the group though had a similar experience. They share it. I don’t understand why anyone would worship, deify, believe in such an entity past the age of reason. Well. I do. Children are impressionable, life is uncertain.

Worship is seductive.

 

Next, Julia wants us to construct a joyous God the Creator, God the Artist. “What sort of God do you, as an artist, want?” she asks. “Let’s make him!” The room enters into the exercise enthusiastically. I’m silent again. I think making art to celebrate a thing that doesn’t exist is, while not as evil as making war in the name of a thing that doesn’t exist (“She was a virgin mother!” “No, she wasn’t!” “He was the son of God!” “No, he was just a prophet of God!”) is just as pointless.

But because I’m not busy building false deity, I am looking inward, and when I look inward, the “Why? to what purpose?” question inevitably looms large.

And because “it’s god’s plan” is not an answer available to me, I must find the answer myself, in myself.

This is hard to do when one is empty…

Julia ends the section, and the workshop, by asking us to first, write a letter from ourselves to this god we create, and then a response from him. (Yes, it’s a him. Of course, no gender neutral pronouns for Julia. We don’t get into it. But I feel we would fight about that too. Anyway, I don’t think she’s thought about it very deeply. Her god has a definite, also material penis. Or so I think as I seethe at her. I told you. I don’t like her. This is not a hagiography.)

At the beginning of the workshop, she introduces us to two characters who will accompany us on the journey, the Tyrant and the Rebel.

The Tyrant is also, I think, the Inner Critic. My Aunt Augusta. “Your list of five imaginary lives is so stupid.” “See, you couldn’t come up with 25 things that you love. I knew you wouldn’t be able to do it, because you suck. You’re stupid.”

The Rebel says, “The teacher is so stupid. Why is she making us do this shit?”

My Rebel is rising, but as I have done since I’ve first started working with Julia five years ago, I acknowledge that she, the Rebel, is absolutely right—but we’re going to do this stupid exercise anyway.

I write:

Dear Creativity God,

You don’t exist because, well, you don’t. I don’t believe in you, or ghosts. But Julia Cameron exists—she is very real, right here, and I believe in her. And in myself. And I believe—most of the time—that my urge to create, to write, to put all these stories down on paper is a worthwhile one. It’s important to bear witness. To document.

Look at that. This is how Jesus and the Buddha became gods.

Julia calls time. Now, it’s time for the Creativity God to write back.

Jesus.

For three minutes, I need to write in the voice of something I don’t believe in, that doesn’t exist. Fun.

Fine.

When I commit to doing something, I do it.

I write.

Yes, M., you’re absolutely right. It’s important to bear witness, to document, to interpret, even. How did you put it in that love letter to your crew? To make sense of the world and share it with other people. Not everyone can see either the whole, or the unique angle with which you can illuminate the most ordinary experience. And so, yes. Believe in your urge and in yourself and in its value. Believing in me is not necessary. Unlike Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, I exist whether you believe in me or not.

Well, fuck what the hell is this?

I hate Julia Cameron.

I love Julia Cameron.

Both statements are true. That’s dialectics, that’s where all the best ideas happen.

(Note to self: re-read American Gods soon. I love Neil Gaiman. But it’s his wife Amanda Palmer who is, occasionally, my teacher.)

We give Julia Cameron a standing ovation to close the day and then, I end up at dinner with three other fascinating attendees, including the woman who asked the question about non-literate people and cultures. (She’s brilliant, Julia, working on a doctorate on how we can use art to heal trauma—you really should have paid more attention to what was behind her question).

We de-brief, dissect. I am very pleased to find myself talking with critical thinkers, not mindless acolytes.

I love Julia, I hate Julia—I think the reason my work with The Artist’s Way has been so fruitful for me is because I fight with Julia, argue with her almost every step of the way. Resist and then surrender, for a little while. Fight some more, grow some more.

She is my most beloved Teacher.

Thank you, Janice Sarich, for giving me this time with her.

xoxo

“Jane”

PS In case you forgot where we started: John Cleese + Sherlock Holmes = The Strange Case of the End of Civilization as We Know It (1977). Give it at least 13 minutes before giving up. The 1970s were a different time: people still expected/accepted awkward foreplay in their books and films.

Made you think? Made you laugh? Made you scream? Tell me.

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