If you think The Artist's Way, A Course in Discovering and Recovering Your Creative Self (Pan pounds 9.99) sounds like a ghastly Californian New Age self-help book, you'd be right. Not any old New Age self-help book, however. Like The Road Less Travelled (the biggest-selling spiritual book ever), The Artist's Way is megastar. First published in the USA in 1992, its popularity spread slowly but steadily by word of mouth among career-minded thirtysomethings suffering pre-midlife insecurities. Then, last year, it hovered consistently at numbers one and two on the Washington Post and LA Times best-seller lists and sold 600,000 copies in the USA alone. Published in this country last October, it might go the same way here, too. "Sales figures so far have been steady and are following the same pattern as they did in the States," says Catherine Hurley, Pan's editorial director. "We are expecting the sales figures of the past six months to double in the second half of the year." If anecdotal evidence that the book is easy to spot tucked under the arm or by the bed of many an urban thirtysomething suffering a career crisis is anything to go by, she could be right.
What has this book got that the others haven't? For a start, a list of celebrity disciples which reads like a Hollywood Who's Who dream team of power movers and shakers. Madonna, Steven Spielberg, Cher and Demi Moore are some of the names the book's New York press agent mentions. "Too many to list," she tuts busily. Such names confer a hip must-do-too kudos that no amount of press publicity can buy. And then there's the semi-celebrity status that surrounds the woman who wrote it.
Julia Cameron, the ex-wife of the film director Martin Scorsese, a former journalist, screenwriter and now a lecturer in creative writing at an American university, burnt out in her late twenties from overwork and overkill on the LA booze and schmooze party circuit. But she got sober, started teaching creativity workshops, and then wrote The Artist's Way, based on the techniques used in her workshops.
What of the contents? Many of Cameron's ideas are based on the Twelve Step programme popularised by Alcoholics Anonymous. For The Artist's Way is a practical "study book". It doesn't just mete out fleeting advice: it's a step-by-step, work-on-yourself plan complete with checklists and homework in every chapter. And no prizes for guessing, it's divided into 12 chapters.
Cameron's main tenet is that there is an artist lurking in all of us and that to some extent we are all creatively blocked. If the reader faithfully follows her programme over three months, she guarantees that the block will vanish. Cameron claims she's turned judges into sculptors and middle-aged men into prize-winning playwrights.
While each chapter explores different inspirational themes such as "Recovering a Sense of Integrity" and "Recovering a Sense of Possibility", the two basic "tools" or creative unlocking techniques the book hangs on are the Morning Pages and the Artist's Date. Every day, on rising, Cameron recommends writing three pages in long hand in a diary (nothing is too silly, weird or boring). This clears you of early-morning baggage leaving an open receptacle for creative ideas throughout the day. The artist's date is simply a commitment to go once a week to a gallery, play or poetry reading, or some other creative outing.
The rest of the book continues with a kind of Blue Peter school of emotions. You get to spot and unblock the artist's child within and make long wishlists of things you've always wanted to do or be. Each page is marked with prophetic quotes about love, life and art from famous philosophers, musicians and poets. And each chapter ends on mental and emotional soul-searching exercises, tasks and weekly homework.
All sounds highly predictable and embarrassingly simple? …