“Upheaval” is just one possible name for a novel one could write about the events of 2020 to date. (We could have said the same back in April, for that matter, but 2020 continues not to disappoint.) I know we always say it about the times we’re living in, but these are strange, confusing, disorienting times.
More to the point, our entire working situation has been thrown into upheaval (again), and that’s why I missed my quickie yesterday. (We’re giving up on full-time face-to-face learning for all students in favor of a hybrid model.) Emergency meetings. Students and parents in a panic. Heck, teachers in a panic. Dogs and cats living together.
So I come to you this morning, and I vow to come again this evening.
Apropos of nothing at all, yesterday marking the end of “normality” in our school happened to line up with me closing the book on my latest handwritten journal. (I (try to) write about three pages every morning during the week by hand. I do this when I first arrive at work, because if my wife catches me about it at home, she teasingly remarks “dear Diary” as she walks past with her coffee, which as a man, I cannot abide.) Where, at one time in my life, I would have ascribed some cosmic significance to this unexpected alignment, I am now happy to declare it a coincidence and move on.
It’s still interesting, though, to ponder the symbolic possibilities of such things. Filling out the final pages of one journal and writing anew on the pristine pages of a fresh one has that lovely poetic feel of “old things finished” and “new things begun” that any writer worth his salt would do well to put a fine point on if they were writing such a thing into a novel. (Though why the novel would focus on a person’s journal, and specifically on finishing one journal and starting a new one, is a head-scratcher.)
I mention it only because it really is strange that these two things should align. By all accounts I should have finished this journal weeks ago, but for the fact that — as regular readers may have surmised — I lost a bit of gumption over the summer and neglected the daily write more than was reasonable. Further, I was certain that our schools would make this change earlier than we have.
So did the universe steer me to this moment, where pen and paper and pedagogy (yeah okay that was a stretch) collided?
No. The universe has better things to do, and certainly doesn’t care about us, and for that matter, is not conscious. These things just happen.
The post that I wrote the other day, about Morning Pages? That was not the post I set out to write.
The post I set out to write was this one, but to talk about what I want to talk about here, I first had to talk about my morning pages. What they are, how I use them, my process in writing them. All that is here, but that post turned into a 1500 word gallivant, and my unofficial limit for these things is 1200 words so … yeah. I’ll credit the fact that I was able to rattle off 1500 words on a thing I didn’t even intend to talk about to the fact that my creative wellspring has sprung anew (again, see the previous post).
Anyway. The thing I wanted to explore is this: in my writing, I swear at myself. Like, a lot.Tirelessly. And with great gusto.
The situation doesn’t much matter. It’s equally likely to happen when I’m talking about something I love as with something I hate. I use it to express positive and negative emotion. Basically, I just use it. I love swearing.
Part of it is because I’m of two minds about words that carry a taboo. On the one hand, my critical thinking brain reminds me that words mean only what we agree they mean, and therefore have only the power we give them. (For a lesson on this, I heartily recommend the short story “The Appropriation of Cultures”, by Percival Everett.) Being an atheist helps, here; there’s no higher power dictating that this word is bad and this word is good and this word if spoken earns you a one-way ticket to eternal torture. Words are just collections of letters and sounds that we as a culture agree mean certain things. On the other hand, our culture has certainly agreed that there are words you shouldn’t use in polite company. And since my job in large part entails cultivating future humans into actual productive humans, that’s a standard I’m more-or-less obliged to uphold.
That’s why I take pains not to swear (too much) in my online interactions; even though my online persona isn’t necessarily identical to my walking-around persona, they’re close enough that it behooves me to be cognizant of the things I say around here. I keep a lid on the things that would otherwise come out of my mouth.
But in my not-for-public-consumption writing? In my morning pages, my first drafts, my notes to myself in the margins of my writing projects? The lid comes off. If the use of certain words could condemn you to eternal torture, I would probably owe several infinities’ worth of torture to whatever loving deity were meting out the torture. I call myself rude names. I lambast the things I’ve written. I call myself out for the things I need to write in future drafts. It’s self-abuse of the most vile kind, except I don’t view it that way. It doesn’t make me feel bad when I read over it again — it makes me laugh. It’s just how I talk to myself. It’s the opposite of a Big Deal; my own private joke with myself on the public-facing me who can’t speak or write that way.
And it made me wonder how other people do the same thing. Not if — because I feel it’s a pretty safe assumption that anybody who does any sort of extended self-talk, via journal, notes to self, or otherwise, has their own style of idiosyncratic talking to themselves — but how.
I remember that I had to read The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin in a college course, which contained several excerpts from his journals, his lists of personal maxims, stories of his early writing jobs. And I remember thinking: personal journals? Bull Sharknado. Maybe some polished versions, sure. But it’s not like he went into whatever random entry he wrote to himself on Bleptember the blargteenth, schleppenteen schlippity bleven, said “yep, that’s the one” and dropped it into the book. You just know that the margins of his journal were full of comments like “Ben, you self-important, pompous, wig-wearing f***. How can you take yourself seriously writing this s***?”
Maybe it’s just me.
Anyway, I wrote this entire entry to tell you about that one weird little thought that crossed my mind: Ben Franklin scribbling insults at himself with a quill pen in between drafting the backbone of our nation.
I know, I know! I start these things and go off them, and start and go off, like a chronic yo-yo dieter with short-term amnesia, like a kid climbing on and off the high dive pretending he’s really gonna do it this time. I’ve tried bullet journaling (god, I hated it so much) and plain ol’ page-a-day, write-about-what-happened-today journaling (not bad but felt more like a chore without a payoff than anything beneficial). They only lasted for a few weeks each. But I actually think I might stick with it long term this time, and I think it’s because I found a journaling system that seems to be working for me.
Here’s that system.
What I’m doing for my daily journaling (well, 5-6 days per week journaling, a man deserves his weekends off, don’tcha think) are Morning Pages, popularized by Julia Cameron. Some time ago I actually wrote a post about how I was given one of her books about process and creativity: I got frustrated and annoyed with her endless romanticization and frippery about writing and gave it up. But the more I read into the habits of the successful (and especially of the successful creative), the more I heard Morning Pages mentioned. So I re-looked them up and gave them a try. I’ve been doing them for a solid six weeks, and I’m pretty sure I read somewhere that you need thirty days to form a habit, so obviously I’ve got this one sorted.
Anyway, a brief explanation. Morning Pages are not journaling per se.
Sorry for the detour. WordPress apparently doesn’t recognize “journaling” as a word so it’s underlining it in red all over my draft, which is really futzing up my zen for this particular session. I’m irked, but I hereby release the irkitude. Carry on.
You know how when you wake up in the morning and the first thing you have to do is head to the bathroom? Me, (not that you asked but I’m in that kind of mood) I like a nice feisty deuce in the morning. Partly because physiologically it has to be done, partly because I guess I’m conditioned. Anyway, I like getting it out of the way early. Cleans me out, lightens the load, I can go on with my day. Morning Pages are like that, but for your brain.
In short, you wake up, do your bathroom thing, and before you let too much time pass, you sit down and write. You can write about whatever you want, whatever’s to mind, but you have to write three pages. And you have to write longhand. No typing.
It’s a brain dump. And it’s working for me.
Now, I’m not hyper-adherent about it. I do mine when I arrive at work, when I have a little time to myself. I’ve gone for a run, gotten the kids off to school, kissed the wife goodbye. (Technically you’re not even supposed to do all that stuff — you’re just supposed to roll off the mattress and embrace the blank page. Fargo that, I say. You take a thing and you make it work for you. I’m already waking up before 5 AM on run days, I ain’t waking up thirty MORE minutes early.) I come in, set my stuff down, start a bit of music on the computer (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hHW1oY26kxQ is my playlist of choice the last few weeks), start the electric kettle for my cup of tea, then I crack open the notebook, ready my pen, and set about writing.
I write about my worries for the day (and boy do I have a lot of those! Speaking of which, I’m still scaling back on the meds. That’s going great. Maybe I can post about that later). About what I’m thinking about. What irks me. What excites me. Sometimes a story idea will bloom in the middle of writing and I’ll noodle that around, invent a character and let her splash around in the tidal pools of my brain farts for a few lines. I’ll roll in other journaling ideas, like jotting down things I’m thankful for, things to focus on for the day.
You notice that the things I write about are diverse. They sort of have to be. Because to just sit down and write three pages without having a central topic to write about is … well. It can be tough. Inevitably one starts to doubt one’s self: This is dumb. Why am I even thinking about this, much less writing about it? Who even cares about this? I’m literally just vomiting words onto the page. Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah. (I’m pretty sure I actually wrote two lines of just the word “blah” once — that’s how stuck I got.) But that’s kind of the point. One of the only rules about Morning Pages is that you’re not supposed to stop writing. Don’t stop to think about what you’ve just written. Don’t stop to think about what you’ll write next. Just press on. And in that regard, Morning Pages become a mighty tool.
When you take away the ability to stop, to pause, to critique and evaluate, then you must embrace the necessity of writing literally whatever comes to your mind. Mind’s a blank? Write about how your mind is blank. Distracted by an odd smell coming from the next room? Write about how it makes your nose wrinkle in disgust. The process is meditative, in its way. You express what’s front-of-mind and tune out the rest. And when you have to fill three handwritten pages, well — your mind tends to wander a bit. Morning Pages allow you — nay, force you — to wander with your thoughts, to explore what’s lurking in the subconscious brain, to get down on paper what’s clanging around in your skull so you can move on from it.
Further, there’s a concept in exercise called “greasing the groove”. In short, it entails working out at a capacity significantly below what you’re capable of to improve muscle memory, so that when you do go hard, the muscles are better tuned-up. Morning Pages are that, all over. The stakes couldn’t be lower, as I’m certainly not sharing them with anybody for proofreading. It doesn’t matter if I make grammatical mistakes or swear my entire face off on the page (something I actually try to be careful about here on the ol’ blarg). Writing a whole bunch where the stakes don’t matter gets my brain tuned up for the more important writing where my plot, characters, and general goodness or badness of the story do matter.
The first few times I did Morning Pages, it took me about half an hour. I kept stopping and starting, second-guessing myself and the process, allowing myself to get distracted and zone out. Lately, I crank ’em out in about fifteen minutes, which is basically as fast as I can reasonably write them. And yeah, I could certainly finish faster by typing, but there’s something that’s almost, but not entirely unlike, magic about actually creating words through the motion of your hand. It’s slower, but I like it. (Especially since I got my new pen.) It forces you to connect with the words more than typing does. It’s hard to explain.
Anyway, I write my three pages, then close the notebook and don’t think about it again for the rest of the day.
And it’s incredibly freeing! For one thing, the process triggers that same “I DID SOMETHING” dopamine rush that exercising first thing in the morning does. You get that zing of having written three pages, and hey, the rest of the day seems that much easier to face. Plus, it stimulates the brain like hooking up jumper cables to a dead battery. Writing about my worries, my to-do list, my whatever — it forces me to focus thought on those things, and often, answers and motivation are the result. More than once has it happened that I poured out a problem into my Morning Pages — a snag in the story, something that was bothering me about a colleague, a messed-up situation that was driving me nuts — and an answer takes shape just from writing about it.
I feel better immediately after writing my Morning Pages. And that helps me set a good trajectory for the day.
In that vein, I want to posit: it’s no mistake that I’m back to working full-steam on my current novel in the weeks since I started doing Morning Pages. Just reminding myself that, yes, I’m capable of the physical act of writing, seems to have, if you can believe it, reminded me that I’m capable of writing, of fixing this story, of pushing through a roadblock.
In short, writing my daily Morning Pages sets the stage for a good writing day, and anything that does that is welcome in my world. Julia Cameron may be a bit of a ridiculous hippie but I think she’s got something with this practice.
Have you tried Morning Pages? Do you journal in a similar way? I’m always curious to see how other people are making it happen.
I’m in another creative slump lately (I know, when am I not) and I haven’t been able to put my finger on why. There’s been the show and the end of school drawing closer, but that doesn’t feel like it — for the last few weeks I’ve had as much time to myself at work as ever. And the slump started before I got really keyed up over that stuff. It started right around the time I started takign time out each morning when I first got to work to write a page-a-day.
Why should that be? I’ve read about journaling dozens of times over the years, and virtually everything I read about seemed to suggest that a bit of unstructured morning writing would be a great way to prime the pump, creatively speaking, to clear out the lines for the juices to flow later in the day. But here I am, flagging on my novel, and — well — just look at the dearth of posts around the blarg of late. Pitiful!
For that matter, I’m not really sure what the journal is doing for me, if anything. Most of what goes into it is irredeemably trite, absolutely worthless, and not fit to be read by anybody but myself, and even then, only at my most masochistic. It’s just me driveling on about any old thing and, a lot of the time, I end up boring myself until I don’t know what to write about. Which, I thought, was why I was journaling in the first place — to kickstart my ideas!
I dunno. It’s only five minutes, after all, and it seems hasty to scrap the practice; with writing, I’ve learned, things sometimes take time to take root, and you don’t always see the benefits right away.
The funny thing is, I wrote most of this post as part of my five minutes yesterday morning. Which is to say that when I turned my attention to my frustration with my creativity and my process, suddenly the thing I was doing to help my creativity and my process actually worked, and I scribbled out a pretty good rant in those five minutes.
So maybe instead of reflecting, I just need to use my morning pages to tear myself a new one each morning.
Believe it or not, it’s a thing I wasn’t doing before. But the more I read about productivity and best practices and the habits of “successful” people (and especially writers!), the more I came across it. So I took it up, opened a blank notebook, and started a habit.
But because I’m me, on some level I fear that I’m doing it wrong, or at least not doing it optimally. And because it’s the 21st century, I turn immediately to Dr. Google to allay my fears and correct my faults. And what’s the first thing I see when I google “journaling”?
This is a term I’ve heard before without actually learning anything about it, and it sounds simply procedural. Journal in bullets! Something something guns! Usually I journal longhand, letting the drivel spill out however it comes, which is usually either in short, choppy machine-gun sentences, or in longer, rambling passages. But bullet journaling? Well, that sounds like just bullet points in a list — rather than mucking about with all those articles and properly conjugated verbs and appropriately undangled modifiers, you just list your thoughts. Okay, far out — that’s all I need to get started! So I try a day like that — and I run dry in about thirty seconds. What gives? On a normal day, I can free-write for an hour if I’m not careful. But when I simply list the thoughts without exploring them, I run out of thoughts quicker than a soda machine at fat camp. So I go googling again.
And … oh. OH.
Bullet journaling, it turns out, is less about writing and more about listing. It’s not so much about exploring your thoughts, it’s just about decluttering your head by putting on paper everything you need to get through in the day. With maybe a motivational quote attached. It’s making a to-do list. Setting reminders. Notes-to-self. Less stroll-through-your-headspace, more inventory-your-tornado-wracked-warehouse.
Uh, okay, but that’s not “journaling,” is it?
But it’s worse still. Bullet journaling isn’t just a practice, it’s a product. In fact, Bulletjournal.com has an array of notebooks ready for you to purchase, not to mention an app, and — coming soon — a book!
I don’t know about you, but the moment I hear somebody saying that their practice will change my life and make me a better person, oh and by the way, buy our fancy stuff to do it properly — well, that reeks ever so slightly of bovine defecation. The best practices in life are the ones you can start doing now, meaning right now, without any special apparatus, without any practice first, without watching any instructional videos. Drink some water, for example. Take a few minutes to just breathe. Get up and walk around a little bit. If “journaling” requires me to slap down $18.95 for a proprietary journal or invest in colored pencils or notecards lined off at laser-accurate increments, then that’s a thing I won’t be doing.
I say that not as a knock on Bullet Journal — the products or the practice. I’m sure that if I were a different type of person, I might even nurse a fetish for such things (apparently Pinterest and Instagram are lousy with people fawning all over each other’s immaculately designed to-do lists, which … okay, I guess?). But that, to me, ain’t journaling. It’s to-do listing.
So Bullet Journal, you are not for me.
For me, the journal is less about a stately declaration to myself of Things I Must Do Today. That — and the Bullet Journal MO, it seems (and again, I didn’t exactly research in depth, so, you know, grains of salt and all) — implies urgency and pressure. Which is sort of the antithesis, to me, of the whole idea of journaling. Journaling, I think, is about writing without rules, without goals, and (perhaps most importantly), without an audience. It doesn’t replace any of my daily writing, rather, it sets the tone for that writing. The journal is a clearing of the throat before I step up to the microphone. A deep-knee bend before approaching the starting line. A rev of the engine before I slam it into gear. It’s a little brain-dump to decrapify my head of all the garbage I don’t want to think about, and to crystallize my thinking about the things I do want to think about.
Here’s how I’m doing it so far:
I take five minutes every morning (and occasionally visit it on the weekend as well) just to jot down some thoughts. What makes it in is whatever’s front-of-mind: muses on the current project, nerves and apprehensions about the day, rants about the idiot that blocked me in while I was dropping my kid off at day care. Usually a reflection on the morning’s workout, since that’s usually fresh in my brain. It’s even more free-form and less coherent than what I post on the blarg, which may tell you something about the state of it. Coincidentally, it almost always clocks in at about a single side of one page. Or maybe it’s not a coincidence. Designers are cagey.
I don’t use an eraser at all, I don’t go back for misspellings, and I try to keep the pencil moving for the full five minutes. And once the five minutes are up, I stop! (I actually wrote out “I STOPS” and conjured in my head a grumpy Gollum hunched over a desk with a pencil and now I’m giggling inwardly, you’re welcome.) I finish the sentence I’m writing, close the book, and don’t think about it again until the next morning.
And, you know, it’s nice. I can’t tell if it’s actually helping my process or adding productivity to my day, at this point, but it’s nice to have a little ritual, since I don’t drink coffee or take the morning paper or anything thoughtful and meditative like that. I mean, I run, and there’s that, but that’s not every day. And as far as the free-form writing goes, there’s something about putting pencil to paper that isn’t quite approximated by any amount of typing in any form. The skritch, skritch of a pencil (mechanical pencils only, DON’T GET ME STARTED) creating words is its own kind of soothing. And the fact that it’s for my eyes only is comforting as well — I have even allowed myself a few unintended sentence fragments and misplaced modifiers (gasp!).
It comes out looking like this:
(Typing was invented for guys like me!)
Notice the total lack of anything like a pretty color, the discounted-for-the-season 25-cent composition book, the handwriting that would put a doctor’s prescription pad to shame.
THAT’S a journal.
What’s yours look like? (And, if you’re a practitioner of Bullet Journaling — what am I missing?)