How I do morning pages
For the last year and a half I’ve been doing morning pages, a writing practice introduced in Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. I did them daily for the first few months of 2015, then fell off the wagon, returned in fits and starts for the rest of the year, and then committed to doing them as part of my 2016 productivity practices. I’ve written them daily (with two exceptions) since 3 January; there are a group of us on Twitter who check in with each other as well. Now that I’m on Twitter hiatus I’m not checking in but I’m still doing them.
I wanted to write about how I do them, because one thing that became clear was that the four/five/six of us on Twitter don’t all approach them the same way. Cameron is somewhat self-contradictory on whether there are rules: she says there is no “right” way to do pages, but she also says you should do them longhand and you should do them in the morning. She makes a distinction between journaling and morning pages, and she really does see them as the expression of your stream of consciousness. Her blog posts on the topic address quite a few of the questions that come up about the “best” way to do them.
My method has worked for me in part because I have followed the two basic directions, but also because they have been pretty low stress in terms of how I approach them, so even though what I write in them has changed over time, my ability and desire to write them hasn’t. I don’t always want to do them, but I know that if I’m really stuck I can just write “blah blah blah” over and over again. I haven’t done that yet, but having the option helps.
I have to do them in the morning, that much I’ve learned. It’s not just that I won’t do them later in the day, it’s that they don’t have at all the same function. My mind is in a different place at 3pm or 8pm than it is at 8am. Even doing them mid-morning rather than as soon after I wake up as is practical makes a difference in what I write and how I feel. And I really need that stream of consciousness approach. It leads to discoveries (intellectual, emotional, practical) that don’t emerge consistently any other way.
Stream of consciousness is harder to do than it sounds. It’s easy to say, just write down whatever is in your head. But at any given time there are plenty of thoughts running around up there, and even first thing in the morning your mind can be a jumble of stuff. Humans like to construct narratives to make sense of information, so the tendency to journal rather than brain-dump is strong. And we all try to avoid thinking about things that make us uncomfortable, so easy thoughts rush in to cover up the hard ones.
Over the course of the last year and a half my morning pages have gone through various incarnations. When I first started I had lots and lots of angry ranting about things going on in my physical and online world. It was a relief to be able to let it out, knowing no one would see it and I wouldn’t be inflicting endless complaints on friends and family. Then, eventually, I stopped ranting. Outside the pages I was managing to fix things that were leading to the angry ranting, so I just had less of it to expel. I found that I could write about the non-immediate issues, too, the things that were lurking in the background that I was afraid to think about. It was slow and difficult, but it happened.
But getting rid of the angry ranting, satisfying as that was, made me wonder what I would write about. It’s a bit like therapy; when you’ve made the big breakthrough, what next? I didn’t want to quit writing them because they were obviously useful to me, but I wasn’t sure what was supposed to be on the page anymore.
But I kept going, and what I’ve found is that I’m closer to stream of consciousness than I was when I couldn’t wait to get stuff onto the page. If I’m a bit at a loss, I just write what’s uppermost in my mind. A lot of it is pretty mundane, some of it is self-pitying, but there’s always something. And I still find that there’s a shift in what I’m saying around the last 250 words (page three). If I’m going to figure something out, that’s usually when it happens. And I can’t predict when it will happen. Some days are just blah blah blah, other days have epiphanies.
I follow the other “rule” and always write longhand in a notebook. I’ve figured out how much space 750 words takes up in the various notebooks I’ve used and I keep to that length. The only modification I’ve made is that I let myself write slightly less (about 500 words) on the weekends. It lets me have a bit of a break but I still keep the practice. It takes me 35 minutes, more or less, to write 750 and about 25 to write 500.
Of course anyone who has physical issues with writing longhand should complete the pages in whatever way works best for them, but I’ve found that longhand makes a difference. It’s not just the slower speed, it’s the physical action of writing. I’ve found the same difference in academic writing; I do better with generative and spontaneous writing when I write longhand. Once I have the ideas more fully fleshed out, writing on the computer in a scholarly paper format works well . But if I’m stuck, or if I’m still thinking things through, I’m better off writing in a notebook.
I miss checking in with my Twitter people now that I’m not tweeting, but I still do my pages faithfully every morning.
I end up doing mine after feeding the cats and eating breakfast on the weekend. Weekdays, I don’t do them until I’m at work or have checked on stuff at work if I’m working from home. I just can’t manage to do them right away. But I definitely find value in them!
I can’t manage to do them right away either unless I have a forgiving schedule. I wake up early, but I still have stuff to do before breakfast. One of the days I missed was a weekend where I had to be at a work event by 7:30 am. Even though it would have been a short day’s pages, I just couldn’t get up at 5:30 to fit them in. 🙂
I almost always do mine before I get out of bed in the morning. Which is not quite first thing because I can’t seem to stop myself from reading Twitter first thing, though I mean to try. Sometimes I cut them a bit short (maybe always? I went to 4 notebook pages, but I’m not sure even that is really 750 words. I should count again) but usually I manage to wake up in time to give them 20 minutes, which is about what it takes me.
I’m consciously trying to shift my pages more towards stream of consciousness; often they end up being a lot about the day before. Maybe that’s really what I wake up thinking about–often there’s some emotional stuff to clear away so I can start the day fresh–but I wonder what might happen if I didn’t start by focusing on yesterday.
Either way, they’ve helped me a lot through a rough month or two, and I’m glad I had the habit in place before that hit.
Oh, interesting about focusing on yesterday. I do that occasionally, and sometimes I wonder if I should do it more. I’m always surprised when something big that happened the day before doesn’t come out spontaneously in my pages, especially if it was a focus the previous morning.
Last year I stopped when a few things were spiralling out of control, because I was almost afraid to write what was in my head (in case once I started I would never be able to stop). But it was a mistake, in retrospect. It would have helped to write through it.
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I’ve had to step back from the morning pages because I started doing more fiction writing and it got physically painful to do both regularly. But I still find them helpful on days when I resist my fiction writing. I don’t always remember to do them then and a regular habit of doing them everyday would be helpful with that, so I think Cameron’s advice on that score is very helpful.
When I did them, it was never in longhand (too painful with my wrist issues, although I think longhand has a lot to recommend it otherwise), but typing in my word processor. I was pretty religious about doing them in stream of consciousness and typing at least 750 words.
And I agree completely that the third page — usually it was the bottom half of the third page — is where the magic happens. Somehow, if there was a corner to be turned, I generally turned it there.
I keep track of them in my diary, even though I do them every day, in part as a reminder. I didn’t do them while traveling and it felt weird, even though they didn’t seem as important to do (when you’re just sitting in a car you don’t need to clear your mind for anything).
I wish there was some way to do them that wasn’t so hard on wrists and hands in cases like yours, but I don’t know if dictation would work. Or maybe that would make them even more like therapy!
Yeah, I don’t think dictation would work — it’d be hard not to feel self-conscious dictating rants or flights of fancy, and that would make it hard to keep going. I do think of them as being, like Cameron says, a way of taking out the garbage. Sometimes it is a great feeling to get stuff out of there.