An ineffectual friend can be much more frustrating than the most effective opponent.

I remember once watching an informal televised debate between Michael Coren, an intelligent and articulate Canadian conservative who never fails to get my blood boiling, and a liberal U.S.-based journalist. She had not done her homework. He had. He deployed incisive rhetorical skills while she rambled and counted on the intuitively obvious superiority of the liberal standpoint. It was infuriating. There was more going on there, of course -- he ruthlessly took advantage of gendered expectations and dynamics, and the network itself created the set-up by pairing a strong conservative with a sentimental liberal rather than a left feminist with solid analysis -- but a lot of it came down to someone on "my" side, or at least as close as I was going to get in that situation, omitting important material and making poor choices with what she did present.

I feel kind of the same about Julia Cameron's Right to Write: An Invitation and Initiation into the Writing Life. I find many things she says about writing to be useful, and we are, broadly speaking, in the same camp philosophically with respect to writing. But there are just too many differences for me to be comfortable saying, "She speaks for me."

Many of the practical things that she says about writing may appear self-evident and straightforward but, like much wisdom that could be described that way, they are important and need to be said. For me, her most profound message is just to get writing already: You cannot produce good writing if you do not write. You cannot produce published writing if you do not write. You cannot produce writing that will enchant your sweetheart, scandalize your mother, or set the world on fire if you do not put your bum in your chair, pick up a pen, and do something with it, for goodness sake!

She pays quite a bit of attention to the various excuses we use not to write even when we want to. As well, she provides many tools to get people past those barriers, both internal and external, and onto the page. Some can feel a bit silly but I think their details are largely irrelevant; if they get you funnelling yourself into words, then they have been successful.

I have, in fact, been using one of her core tools for years. The first book of Cameron's that I read was The Artist's Way, when I was making my transition from a burned out science undergraduate to an unemployed proto-writer who was not sure exactly what he wanted to be doing. This book introduced me to the idea of doing three pages of stream-of-consciousness writing every day. Minus a couple of large stretches between 2001 and 2003, I have done them far more days than not since I first read that book six years ago. I don't know if they are quite as magical as she maintains but I find them useful to keep myself grounded and to get writing.

This may make it sound as if I am all set to be a solid Cameron partisan. Alas, it is not so.

The general school of thought of which Cameron is a well-known proponent is called "writing process." It places emphasis on helping people get writing, and get comfortable writing, rather than on the details of what they write, what the final product might look like, or where it might get published. The psychological significance and benefits of writing receive quite a bit of attention, as well as the relationship between writing and identity, and the maintenance of a healthy relationship to the act of writing. Again, it is tied to the idea that you are only going to get more confident and more skilled at writing, and derive its benefits, if you actually do it.

I have an affinity for approaches that emphasize process in lots of areas of life, including social change work and interpersonal relationships, and this way of thinking about writing makes sense to me too. I fully support the participatory vision of culture embedded in this philosophy over the dominant model of a small coterie of expert producers and a large mass of passive consumers. A process approach to writing includes a strong dose of do-it-yourself attitude, and I like that.

Unfortunately, Cameron's particular take on this field tends to polarize and simplify the debates around philosophies of writing, and she infuses her work with a New Age sensibility tied together with an overriding individualism that smacks of a certain kind of liberal privilege. This results in a picture of writing that feels, to me, to be partial, and that in part mystifies rather than explains.

Writing is many things. Cameron and I would agree that one function of writing can be (and, for us, is) purely psychological and internal. It orders thoughts, clarifies feelings and values, and brings out that which is submerged. We would also agree that there is a spiritual component to writing, a kind of communion with the universe that is also only tangentially related to whether the work will ever be read. I think this element is much more central for her than for me, but I fully acknowledge its existence.

But writing is also -- some would say "mainly" -- a social act. This is not to diminish the experience of those who write for themselves alone, but for a great many people writing is intended to connect one person to one or more other people. It is communication. In particular, people and cultures which see the world through more of a community lens than is common in mainstream North America would be more likely to see the verb "to write" as being incomplete if there was not an inherent assumption of someone other than the writer reading that work. In addition, where writing is an act of oppressed people claiming their voice, the beneficial and liberatory aspects also assume a social component: Discovering your voice and telling your truths are not merely acts of personal ego, but of claiming social space, power, and identity.

To complete the act of writing and make it social, the words must travel a three-stage path:

  1. from the writer to the writer's page (or screen or speaker or...);
  2. from the writer's page to the reader's page; and,
  3. from the reader's page to the reader.

Cameron's approach emphasizes step (1) and pays much less attention to (2) and (3). She never puts it this way, but it is almost as if she regards (1) as genuinely about the process of writing but sees (2) and (3) as more about outcomes, and therefore as things to stop yourself from thinking too much about.

I would argue that even the first of these steps has social dimensions. Having time and energy to do three pages of stream-of-consciousness writing a day plus whatever other writing one might wish to pursue is about more than having the willpower to make changes in routine -- some people with less access to racial, gender, and class privilege have less control over their time, whether because more of it must be spent earning money to survive or because of unequal divisions in unpaid labour. Also, though many of us have an "inner writer" wounded by formal education, the extent and nature of those wounds are not the same for everyone. Even access to literacy is an issue, and an unevenly distributed one at that -- being able to attain basic literacy skills in existing educational institutions can also have a lot to do with privilege. Just exhorting readers to sit down and write is not necessarily enough; the path to the page cannot be the same for everyone.

Concern with (2) and (3) can be simplistically interpreted as obsessing about publication and reader response. I agree that excessive attention to such concerns can inhibit creativity and productivity. The path from writer's page to reader's page and on to the reader herself is much more than those things, however. I would argue that paying attention to those stages of the path becomes unhealthy only when it leave unexamined the judgments of the institutional structures and cultural practices which serve as gatekeepers restricting access to publication and acclaim, which we are taught to internalize. Rather, it should be about understanding those forces -- both the fact that they are oppressive and not your fault, and how they work so they can be opposed, subverted, and overcome. It really helps to understand that what writing gets valued, what writing gets published, is about more than random chance, individual talent, and the vagaries of taste. Similarly, the channelling of certain work into certain forms rather than others, certain themes rather than others, is not just about closed minds and negative thinking. Writers need to understand this landscape as an essential element of the struggle to make our work social, and we need a good understanding of the tools necessary to do so in the face of a mainstream that can be hostile.

Cameron's undervaluing and underdiscussion of craft is related. One way of understanding "craft" is as the things a writer can deliberately do with her writing which will help shape the more social parts of the word-path -- in other words, how it will fit in one or another context or venue, how various sorts of readers might regard it, and how it suits different media. As described above, a writer does not have full control over these things, but our creative and technical decisions do have repercussions. Cameron's message not to obsess about received definitions of "good" and "bad" as it applies to writing is vital, but craft also means having control over the ways in which you claim a public voice. The more control you have over your voice when it is raised, the more empowering its use becomes.

I hasten to add that I am not arguing for Cameron's work to become a "how to get published" guide, nor would I suggest she change her books to be about technique. What she does is more useful than either of those. But it would be consistent with the spirit of her work and of immense value if she were to include some general consideration of the social landscape of getting your work into the hands of others with a bit more depth than her helpful but simplistic advice to just go ahead and self-publish. As well, a more sophisticated discussion of the role of craft and how it relates to process would be useful.

There is also a final piece of negativity that I am embarassed to admit, and that makes me feel like the elitist old curmudgeons she rails against and whom I have little patience for either: In many places I feel no more than lukewarm about her writing itself. She uses unexpected comparisons (something that has the potential to be very effective) in a way that can feel oddly predictable and not particularly powerful. She engages in wordplay that I'm sure is intended to be light, playful, and fun, but that sometimes feels self-consciously clever. I agree with her point that well chosen detail can be essential for grounding a piece of writing, but there are places where detail included with such intent feels more like distraction.

These are just my reactions. Yes, I feel like a stick-in-the-mud for saying such things. She "shows up at the page," as she puts it, which is worthy of great respect. She imbues her writing with a feeling of her as a person, also admirable. Best of all, most of her advice is simple and profound and effective. So if she thinks process is the most important thing, and I think process is the most important thing, why even mention that last nasty paragraph up there? Well, because writing is social, and reader response, on some level, matters. The fact that I say these things should not have the power to silence her, but it is still important to say, "I react to this piece of writing, this technique, this form in such-and-such a way."

So thank-you, Julia, and keep writing. I'll do my best to do the same.

Make your own free website on