Julia Cameron burnt herself out boozing and schmoozing in LA. But the book based on her recovery is a best-seller among thirty-somethings with a career crisis
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? So why is The Artist's Way being gobbled up by angst-ridden and hard-bitten thirtysomethings alike?

"I'm a native New Yorker, a child of the Eighties and a dyed-in-the-wool cynic," says Jill Selsman, 32, a freelance TV producer now working in Britain. "And while I'm all too aware of how like the Twelve Steps the book is, I've been doing it for a while now and it really does work - it's helped me. Your thirties are usually a time when people start to find God - or something. By that age, many people have either been married and it hasn't worked, or their careers haven't been as successful as they would have liked. Either way, they begin to realise that things are moving forward with or without them and they are looking for some kind of artistic or spiritual fulfilment."

"Somehow the author manages to be quite self-deprecating and funny," says Gary Tarn, 33, a musician who makes advertising jingles. "You get the impression that she has done drink, drugs and is just like us. She's not perfect. I'm not a self-help book type of person looking for answers, but this book is a breath of fresh air. She has got a couple of good ideas and you can ignore the New Agey language."

But not every career-weary thirtysomething seeking a new direction in life is so uncritical. "It's not for me," says actor Jim McKechnie, 30. "How can one person lay down a spiritual path for anyone else? How can you be artistic and original by following someone else's process? Art is about a purity that is natural and organic and an expression of something inside you. The book is dot-to-dot art for the spiritually crippled."

Perhaps McKechnie has a point. The thought that all those office clowns, karaoke queens and wannabe Damon Albarns might start to take themselves seriously doesn't bear thinking about. We can all sing, dance, draw and write a little bit. But just how far should we be encouraged to pursue the natural latent artistic abilities we all have as a new career alternative is another matter.

'The Artist's Way, A Course in Discovering and Recovering Your Creative Self' is published by Pan and costs pounds 9.99.


List three old enemies of your creative self-worth

Please be as specific as possible in doing this exercise. Your historic moments are the building blocks of your core negative beliefs. (Yes, rotten Sister Anita from fifth grade does count, and the rotten thing she said to you does matter. Put her in.) This is your monster hall of fame. More monsters will come to you as you work through your recovery. It is always necessary to acknowledge creative injuries and grieve for them. Otherwise, they become creative injuries scar tissue and block your growth.

List your five major activities this week

Where does your time go? How much time did you give to each one? Which were what you wanted to do and which were shoulds? How much of your time is spent helping others and ignoring your own desires? Have any of your blocked friends triggered doubts in you?

List 20 things you enjoy doing

Rock climbing, making soup, making love, making love again, riding a bike, reading poetry and so on. When was the last time you let yourself do these things? Next to each entry, place a date. Don't be surprised if it's been years for some of your favourite things. That will change.

List five people you admire

Now, list five people whom you secretly admire. What traits do these people have that you can further cultivate in yourself?

Describe yourself at 80

What did you do after 50 that you enjoyed? Be very specific. Now write a letter from you at 80 to you at your current age. What would you tell yourself? What interest would you urge yourself to pursue? What dreams would you encourage?