Los Angeles Julia Cameron's journey to guru-dom began here 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 film director Martin Scorsese left for singer-actress Liza Minnelli. Cameron was known as a 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 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."
But it's all there in her 405-page memoir "Floor Sample," Cameron's attempt to marry her public life with the very fragile private one, and to use her wrenching experiences - and her resiliency - as proof that the "Artist's Way" works. Cameron, 58, arrived at a Los Angeles cafe one recent afternoon looking a bit flustered, her hair slightly windblown.
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 and had nine more scheduled before she took a red-eye home to Manhattan the next day.
But Cameron, a former magazine writer (she met Scorsese while profiling him for Rolling Stone), spoke thoughtfully about a variety of subjects, including her psychic abilities ("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 "Floor Sample," Cameron characterizes that decision as one of survival. She had work to do and seminars to teach. And remarkably, it all got done despite the breakdowns.
The first big one came in the mid-1990s, after the end of her second marriage to Mark Bryan, her inspiration for writing "The Artist's Way."
Desperate for answers herself 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 a musical. 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.
The big dream
There were other episodes - "allergies" to electricity and walking barefoot in the desert in Taos and talking flowers and more fasts on Venice Beach - before Cameron found the right combination of medications and the stabilizing regimen to keep the episodes at bay.
Still, the people closest to her were traumatized. Her daughter, Domenica Cameron-Scorsese, now 29, and her assistant and collaborator, Emma Lively, recall Cameron's breakdowns with terror.
"I have to look back at it and say, 'Thank God we made it through,"' her daughter said.
Today, Cameron and Lively share a Manhattan apartment, where they keep up an impressive pace. In their eight years working together, the two women have collaborated on three musicals, plus drafts of three more, plus two albums of children's music, all while Cameron taught, traveled to lecture, wrote a novel and her memoir.
A cynic might note that only the memoir has been released. The musicals are still awaiting buyers. The albums haven't been distributed. But Cameron would insist that's beside the point.
"People get so focused on the big dream," she said, "that they forget about the process."
Notions of success
Cameron still describes herself as "fragile" and said she's gripped by anxiety before an appearance.
At a seminar in a Santa Monica hotel, she stood before the usual suspects - struggling actors, a life coach or two, an environmentalist and girlfriends who met in yoga class - and joked about Los Angeles being "in the heart of darkness."
Then she spent the next 45 minutes reassuring them and telling them, "It takes courage to live here."
She stressed the importance of morning pages, an "Artist's Way" daily writing regimen that, she teaches, not only clears the mind but often inspires divine intervention into stalled careers and lonely lives.
It was comforting, accessible stuff for these "dreamers just looking for a way to survive."
Later, Cameron explained that being stuck in traditional notions of "success" was quintessentially L.A.
"There's a lot of pain in Los Angeles," she said.