The Breakthrough Sisterhood

Natalie Goldberg & Julia Cameron, bestselling authors of landmark books on unleashing creativity, both found inspiration in their adopted home state of New Mexico.

Attend Writing Intensive with Cameron and Goldberg December 6

Inspired by writing this article, Theo Pauline Nestor created the Black Mesa Writers' Intensive, December 6, 2013: one day, five teachers, at Bishop's Lodge in Santa Fe. It's open to writers of all levels, but space is limited. Early bird pricing of $245 (lunch included) ends October 1st. Bishop's Lodge has extended a special rate of $99/night for lodging December 4-8 for attendees. See the full schedule here.

Long known as the first and second home to more than its fair share of creative types, New Mexico has also been the home, haven, and muse of two of the world’s leading teachers of the creativity process. Both Natalie Goldberg, author of Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within, and Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity, made their way to New Mexico from points east decades ago, and the world hasn’t been quite the same since.

Cameron and Goldberg’s two big books have together sold over five million copies and have been translated into over 30 languages; intriguingly, both authors, separately and inadvertently, discovered their techniques for unlocking one’s creativity here in New Mexico. Specifically, it was in Taos that Goldberg began what she would later call “a writing practice”— the process-focused approach to writing—and it was in that same town that Cameron stumbled on her “morning pages”: the habit of writing three pages longhand first thing each day that became the cornerstone of the self-directed course described in The Artist’s Way and now taught worldwide.

Orginally from New York City, Goldberg first came to New Mexico in 1970 at the age of 22 to attend a summer graduate program at the Santa Fe campus of St. John’s College. After spending a few summers in Santa Fe, in 1974 she returned via VW bus to live in New Mexico, taking a job teaching social studies. In an Albuquerque classroom, she had what she describes as “an awakening experience” that prompted her to relocate to the Lama Foundation, a spiritual community and retreat center near Taos.

“The thing about Taos,” Goldberg says, “is there’s not a lot of outside authority there. So I began to just follow leads and trust myself and leap into things and see how they would work out. I just decided to teach a women’s writing group and spontaneously we all started doing ‘writing practice.’

“It was spontaneous combustion,” Goldberg says of her time writing in Taos in the 1970s. “I trusted myself. I wanted to learn to write, and I knew I couldn’t learn by the usual methods because any time I took a course, it was clear they couldn’t teach me how to write. They talked about writing, but they couldn’t give me the heart of it.”

Her new habit of writing followed Goldberg when she moved from Taos to Minnesota to study at the Minnesota Zen Center. There, she explains, she “rooted” this habit in Buddhism’s “2,500-year old tradition of watching the mind.” She began to see the discipline of daily “writing practice” as akin to a meditation practice. Living in Santa Fe in 1985, Goldberg synthesized what she had learned in Writing Down the Bones, which urges writers to write freely and routinely without focusing on the outcome. “This is the practice school of writing,” Goldberg says in the book. “Like running, the more you do it, the better you get at it.”

Cameron’s relocation to New Mexico, like Goldberg’s, was an inspired one. Originally from the Chicago area, Cameron was a Hollywood screenwriter living in New York City in the late 1980s. “I wrote a movie for Jon Voight, and his partner said it was wonderful, but after that I couldn’t get them on the phone, so I decided to fly out to Los Angeles,” Cameron says. “I was on the flight to L.A. praying for guidance and I heard, ‘Go to New Mexico.’ When I landed in California, I told my girlfriend the idea, and she said, ‘Here’s a thousand dollars, go to New Mexico.’” Cameron rented a car in Albuquerque and drove to Santa Fe, where someone advised her to take the High Road to Taos. “And I was on that highway,” Cameron says, “when I had the overwhelming feeling that I was home.”

“I rented a small adobe house at the end of a dirt road and started getting up in the morning and writing, which was the beginning of my morning-pages technique,” Cameron says. “When I got back to New York City, I found I had a whole storehouse of ideas that had come to me in New Mexico, including the morning pages.” In New York, Cameron began teaching creativity classes, in which she instructed participants in how to develop routines and habits that support the creative process. “I knew that I’d learned how to unblock people. New Mexico certainly helped, because it gave me the experience of working with morning pages myself. What I teach is what I’ve learned in my own creative practice.”

Bonding over their shared love of New Mexico and the written word, Goldberg and Cameron began a supportive friendship in the 1990s. Sometimes they’ll connect in person at a local spot, such as The Teahouse on Canyon Road, in Santa Fe, but during Cameron’s years back in New York City, they kept in touch through phone calls and swapped stories of teaching and the business of books. “What’s so wonderful,” Goldberg says, “is that we could’ve ended up competing, because we’re in this similar world, but instead we just really support each other, and I think that comes from our understanding that you create out of love and support for each other.”

Although Cameron and Goldberg have moved in and out of the state over the years, both writers now live and write in the Santa Fe area and teach in northern New Mexico. Now the author of 30 books, many on the subject of creativity, Cameron teaches her Artist’s Way course through the Unity Church in Santa Fe. Goldberg facilitates several writing workshops a year through the Mabel Dodge Luhan House, in Taos (see below for details), the place she considers her “teaching home,” although she travels extensively out of the state to lead writing classes.

In Goldberg’s latest book, The True Secret of Writing (reviewed on p. 63), a friend remarks to her that she has “a jones for place,” and Goldberg admits to a particular weakness for New Mexico. “It’s true,” she laughs, “I’m obsessed with New Mexico. I love New Mexico; it’s deep, deep in my heart. And when I was away in Minnesota for six years, I ached for it, for the light, the space, the air, Russian olives, sagebrush, the emptiness, being able to see the earth. There’s a stillness here; there’s an emptiness. There’s a saying, ‘New Mexico is like the mind of God: Empty.’ There’s a lot of open, empty space here, and maybe that open, empty space allows you to relax and drop into yourself.”

Cameron also found her imagination drawing her back to the Land of Enchantment. “I went back to living in New York for 10 years,” she says, “but I could never get rid of New Mexico. I was doing a morning-pages activity, and I did a list of 25 things I love. The list included chamisa, green chile stew, piñon, magpies, and I said, ‘This is not New York!’ I prayed for guidance and I heard, ‘Move to Santa Fe.’ I called the same best girlfriend from 20 years before and told her, and she said, ‘What a wonderful idea.’

“I think that New Mexico puts you in touch with the idea that there is a larger benevolent source you can tap into.”

NEED TO KNOW

Interested in taking Julia Cameron’s 12-week Artist’s Way course? Contact Unity Santa Fe (505-989-4433; unitysantafe.org). Learn more about Cameron at juliacameronlive.com.

Want to learn about writing with Natalie Goldberg? Contact the Mabel Dodge Luhan House, in Taos (575-751-9686; mabeldodgeluhan.com), for more information. Learn more about Goldberg at nataliegoldberg.com.

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