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Wednesday, December 03, 2008


Writing morning pages

I've mentioned before, I think, that I follow the advice of Julia Cameron, author of The Artist's Way - one of the few books on writing I'd recommend, and recommend highly - in that I write what she refers to as 'morning pages'. Morning pages, for those unfamiliar with the phrase, are pretty much what they sound like: every morning, first thing, you write three sides longhand of anything. Really, anything; analyse your emotional state, reflect on the nature of politics, grumble about the chores you have to do today, plan your Christmas list, anything. It doesn't matter what you write, it matters that you write.

My cyber-friend Nicole from Slacktivist asked me: can I tempt you to expound on whether you do "morning pages" regularly and, even if not, what you get out of the exercise when you do it? Well, that's a good question, so let's see.

First: yes, I do them regularly. I started doing them about a year ago, and in that time I've missed maybe five days, either from illness or because my routine was so disrupted I somehow managed to forget. Once I missed two days in a row, and I didn't like the experience: I started to feel out of touch, disconnected somehow. Writing them isn't always fun, but it's a way of touching base. It makes me feel stabilised.

I cheat a bit, in that I don't always write them first thing in the morning. If I'm in a hurry or have an overnight houseguest, I sometimes have to put them off; there have been times I've written them last thing at night because I didn't want a day without morning pages. What counts as first thing in the morning can vary - before showering or after, before breakfast or after, and sometimes I move them forward to post- breakfast, shower and e-mail checking (I'm doing that today, in fact), because I want to write them immediately before I start working on my novel. They can be a wonderfully good way of getting over the fear of starting: by the time you get to the novel, you've already started writing for the day, and beginning is less scary when it really doesn't matter if you spend three pages writing 'bananas bananas bananas'.

So that's the first thing I get out of them, and it's a big one: they reduce the fear of writing. Writing can be a scary business; I don't know why, but it is. Morning pages are a way of getting over that hump. The experience of writing without worrying about whether it's any good is an invaluable one: it thaws the perfectionist freeze. One of Cameron's pieces of advice is to resolve that you'll take care of the quantity and God can take care of the quality, and it's a good one. You're not likely to write any worse because you're worried about whether it's any good; if anything, the worrying will take up energy that might otherwise go into your imagination. Stopping the fretting process is a huge blessing when it comes to writing.

It's good to make writing physical, at least some of the time. As I've remarked previously, I have pretty dire handwriting, so I tend to compose fiction on a keyboard. Different people have different ideas about what the best method of writing is, and as with so many things about writing it's a matter of finding what works for you, and typing is generally fine - but writing with a pen is more intimate and connected in many ways. Getting to do at least a bit of it every day is a good way of keeping that connection healthy. Morning pages can be the writing equivalent of taking exercise.

Another huge benefit to writing is that morning pages are my most reliable method of solving plot problems. If I'm stuck on what to do next, I get out the pen. Other things can work too - there are a few people who've helped me immeasurably by bouncing ideas around, for instance, but you can't call people up every time you're not sure what to do. Thinking about it seems to do little good, in my case, because my thoughts slide around, I get distracted, and it's too easy to loop back to plain worrying. Writing, though, is linear; you can't slide away from it when it's on the page. I discovered this accidentally through morning pages one day when I was just complaining to myself about not being sure what to do next - and then I suppose I could do this, and - hey, how about that! The ideas started coming, and as I wrote them down, more followed. This can happen in morning pages; there have been times when I've done my morning pages for the day but do some more because I'm stuck. It doesn't always happen, of course, because it's an unpredictable process, but it's a fantastic way of getting over obstacles. I wouldn't believe this myself if I read someone saying it, but it's definitely worth trying.

Those are the main benefits to writing. There are other benefits as well. If you have an inner voice that attacks you - and most people have at least one - morning pages help you identify it. Write down what you're thinking every day, and you'll notice when certain things recur. So when you've seen it come out on the page, you get familiar with it - and that means you're better able to identify the attacking voice in general life, not just when you're writing. The little demon whispers a thought while you're in the middle of something? 'Aha,' you can think, 'I've heard from you before, haven't I?' Recurring negative thoughts are one of the banes of life, but once you've noticed that that's what they are, recurring negative thoughts rather than facts, they become much easier to ignore. If you say them out loud, you can wind up talking yourself into believing them, but writing them down puts them in their proper perspective.

More generally, it gives me a chance to sort myself out every day, to work out how I'm feeling, to consider if there's anything I ought to do about it, and generally keep my mental/emotional engine oiled. I've gone over upsetting events and worked out why they bothered me and what the best course of action is. I've anticipated difficulties, rehearsed what I might say if they come up and then found myself actually in the middle of those difficulties with a good plan of action already clear. I've psyched myself up to do necessary things I've been putting off. I've weighed up whether or not I wanted to do things I was dithering over. I've worked out the most sensible way of doing necessary things. Stuff that's stressful to think about is often less stressful when you write it down, and since writing morning pages, I've got both more balanced and more efficient.

So yes, I do write morning pages regularly, and the benefits are huge. They're one of those things that you have to put something into to get anything out, but what you get back is so worth the trouble of writing fifteen minutes of nonsense worth a day. In fact, I think I'll go do mine now.

I just wanted to say that I bought myself The Artist's way (actually, I got The Complete Artist's way, which also includes the two other books Cameron did after The Artist's Way) based on your recommendation and I loved it. I haven't done any of the creative exercises yet besides the morning pages (which I'm still kind of spotty on and which technically should be called "daily pages" with regards to when I do those things...), but I have a feeling this will serve me well over the years.

Word verification is "aumme", which is the French spelling of the popular meditation chant "Om."
I'm a bit hit or miss on Morning Pages sometimes but I do notice that I feel better when I'm doing them on a regular basis. I also do a lot of free writing in other places--I even have a small book that I carry in my purse and scribble in when I'm waiting in lines and so on.

Fifteen minutes? How fast do you write? Usually takes me thirty to forty-five minutes to fill out all three pages. (Thirty if something's REALLY bugging me and needs to come out!)

Word verification: adula -- the region of the brain that perceives particularly vibrant shades of blue.
Fifteen minutes? How fast do you write?

Pretty fast. I suspect if you expend time over that 'legibility' thing I've heard the young people talking about, it takes a bit longer.
This is a totally nosy question and feel free not to answer it, but I'm just wondering, what do you do with your morning pages once you've written them? Are they on loose leaf or in bound books? Do you keep them forever, just a short time, or throw them out immediately unless you need them? Do you go back over them when you're bored/sad/procrastinating and read what you wrote or do you never want to see them again?

today's word: outfumen. What happens in Germany when they ban smoking indoors
Stick 'em in a big envelope, stick the envelope in a drawer. I just tear two pages a day off a standard pad; writing in a book is more awkward.

I haven't rearead them, but I keep them around in case I decide to. (As I mentioned, my handwriting is very hard to read, so I'd need quite a lot of desire before I tackled them.) But I may want to reread them some day, so I just put them away rather than recycling them.

Word: 'mathi'; the Maharaja's favourite elephant in the 1820s.
Thanks, Kit. I was very *squee* when I saw you recommend The Artist's Way in the first place. I have not been very regular with morning pages, but I've found them helpful when I do them.

Thank you for taking the time to talk about your experience with them. Some of the effects you mentioned I've experienced myself; others were a surprise. For me, probably the most important effect has been the way it "skims off" whatever surface thoughts I'm brooding on, freeing up my head to think about the work in process.

It's similar to those little demon voices you mentioned--writing down what they say sort of gives them enough attention to satisfy them and make them go away for a bit.

About longhand writing: I can type darn near as fast as I can think, but my handwriting is slow and messy. So switching to longhand does something interesting to my verbal thought processes. Everything becomes both more and less written in stone. More, of course, because there's no backspace key; I sort of have to live with whatever came out of my pen and go from there. But less, because the slow pace of writing allows time for a bit of mental revision, such that by the time I reach the end of a sentence it isn't the same sentence I'd planned on writing. It feels like a process of construction, if that makes sense.

Thanks again!

Word verification: "perantli". Clearly this is an adverb often used by lolcats: PERANTLI MAH TAIL HAS A FLAVR
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