Why Morning Pages Are Working For Me (And They Might Work For You, Too)

So I’m back on the journaling thing again.

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.

Pictured: A cuppa tea, my Morning Pages, my new fountain pen, my project ready-to-go in Scrivener, and a fat stack of (fake) cash because it’s still hanging around my office for some reason even though we closed our show a month ago. THIS IS WHERE THE MAGIC HAPPENS.

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.

Stakes and the Blarg

Boy, oh boy, do I love a good stake. Charred crust, pink and bloody in the middle, melt-in-your-mouth flavor, rancid farts for the rest of the night…

What? Oh. STAKES.

Woo! Vampire hunters and silver crosses and garlic and…

Huh? Ugh. Okay, fine. Just stakes.

I guess there’s a lot to be said about stakes in writing, but today I’ve got the stakes of writing on the brain. Not least of which because I’m passively reading a book called The Right to Write by Julia Cameron. (“Passive” reading is my pleasant euphemism for “book-I’m-reading-on-the-toilet.”) And… well, for starters, I don’t think I’m this book’s target audience. Each chapter is essentially its own workshop and meditation on some aspect of the writing process, and much of it is the kind of rah-rah-rah-you-can-do-it stuff that would be more at home in a literal cheerleading squad than in a book aimed at burgeoning authors. For another, the tone of the book is through-and-through the sort of hippy-dippy, peace-and-love drivel that can give you a toothache if you swallow too much of it. It’s all “writing is a gift” and “the story speaks through me” and “anybody and everybody is a writer at heart”. Then there’s a lot of meditation on the sun rising over her private valley and rumination on her horses as they watch her through the kitchen window, and that’s about when I really want to induce vomiting so I don’t choke on her privilege. Now, okay, those ideas are lovely and all, but it’s all too Kumbayyah for me to ingest in anything other than the tiniest bites.

I don’t need that. I enjoy writing enough in its own right that I don’t need somebody pushing me to do it or ensuring me that it’s okay for me to do it. Whether or not anybody is truly “cut out” for writing is irrelevant, as any list of bestselling books will tell you. Horrible writers still write. This book is aimed at convincing somebody who’s perhaps too timid to leap into the pond that he might, in fact, have something worth writing about in his mind. It’s designed to invite you into the world of writing one baby-step at a time, by writing first about things in your house, then in the news, then about your family, and blah blah blah. If you’re a sometime reader of my blarg, it’s pretty obvious that I do that stuff on my own already.

That said, there’s something comforting in the way she puts her ideas forth.  And even among the platitudes and smug self-righteousness, there are gems of wisdom, little kernels of edible advice embedded in the stew of saccharine crap.

The one on my mind has to do with stakes, and what she has to say about it is this. When novice writers (and sometimes experienced writers, too) sit down to do their capital-W Writing — be it their novel or screenplay or short story or news article or whatever — there is this inescapable sense of pressure and dread surrounding the act. Because it has to be perfect. If I write something crappy, that’s all anybody will ever remember. It’s all will ever remember. Inability to achieve that perfection and to get all the things exactly right is paralyzing; it can lock up the mental faculties like a bit of chain snarled in the spokes of your bicycle. And this is a fear that I’m on a first-name basis with. (Its name is Todd. Like all horrible things.)

The well-hidden reciprocal of that fear is the fact that so many of us, writers and non-writers alike, engage in writing every day in which we feel no pressure at all to perform at some elevated level. These are your e-mails to colleagues about whatever projects you’re working on, your text messages to your spouse about what you need to pick up at the grocery store on the way home. Okay, it’s not Writing, but they are still words that you form for the purpose of communicating an idea to somebody else… and that’s writing, innit?

The trick, then, is to capture that free, unfazed, not-even-aware-of-any-kind-of-pressure feeling associated with e-mails and apply it to your capital-W Writing, to leap into your manuscript with the same abandon with which you fire off a scathing comment on a message board or a snarky response to your sister’s joke about your mom. It’s hard to do, but I’ve felt flashes of it when working on my novel.

It almost made me mad when I realized it. While I was having a chuckle at all the peace-love-dope sentiment in her book about writing, Cameron had thrown a literary dart and pinned my Id-Writer to the corkboard like a doomed insect. In her suggestion that writing doesn’t have to be this big deal that a lot of people (myself certainly among them) make it out to be, she had explained away the entire r’aison d’etre for this blarg. This is my low-stakes writing. It doesn’t matter what I write here; what matters is simply that I write. That I break apart the dam of mud and sticks clogging up the river of my faculties. That I pull the release valve on the hot-water heater of my brain. That I let the toddler out into the yard to run around in circles and scream its head off so that the adult in my Ego-Writer can get some peace.

This, then, is why we read; this is why it’s important to engage critically even when the subject matter seems like a laugh. You never know when the river of sharknado is going to belch up a hunk of gold. I’m going to keep reading Cameron’s book, even though it irks me, and even though I will no doubt find myself rolling my eyes like a hamster on a wheel at its pithy sayings. Much as it gives me the chuckles, there may just be a few more juicy tidbits in its pages.

Also, it was a gift, and I’d feel really bad about tossing it.

Thanks, sis.

No, not that sister. The other one.