Earlier this week, I decided to try to incorporate the process of free writing known as “Morning Pages” into my routine. Morning Pages is an exercise offered by Julia Cameron in her book The Artist’s Way.
The exercise, as far as I understand it (I haven’t actually read Cameron’s book), is to write three pages of “free writing” before you begin your “real” writing or other creative work. That’s it: sit down and write whatever comes to mind. The sentences don’t need to be complete, the grammar doesn’t need to be perfect. No filter. Turn off the brain and write. The theory is that this helps “remove the weeds” in our minds and create space for our creativity to flow.
This is how Cameron describes Morning Pages on her blog:
Morning Pages are three pages of longhand, stream of consciousness writing, done first thing in the morning. There is no wrong way to do Morning Pages–they are not high art. They are not even “writing.” They are about anything and everything that crosses your mind–and they are for your eyes only. Morning Pages provoke, clarify, comfort, cajole, prioritize and synchronize the day at hand. Do not over-think Morning Pages: just put
three pages of anything on the page…and then do three more pages tomorrow.
Advocates of Morning Pages claim it helps you clear your mind, work through issues that are weighing on your subconscious, get better in tune with your intuition, and unlock your creativity.
My First Experiment with Morning Pages
I first heard about this exercise a couple of years ago. I was seduced by the promise that it would help me find clarity in my writing and decided to give it a try.
I engaged in the exercise by using the same writing tools that I use for most of my writing: the Drafts app or Byword app on my iPad. I wrote a lot, but never quite felt that the increased clarity and other benefits I was promised, and I did not stick with it for long.
One of my challenges was that I didn’t know when to stop writing. Some days I would write 2500 words and still feel that I hadn’t yet “cleared the weeds.” I was spending my limited writing time writing Morning Pages, and had no time left for my “real” writing.
It seemed to be getting in the way of the goal, which was to create more content that I could put out to the world.
Recently, my curiosity about Morning Pages was piqued again by an article that Matthew Trinetti wrote on Medium about his new Morning Pages habit. Todd Henry, who has written about the benefits of Morning Pages on his blog, mentions it in his excellent new book, Louder Than Words.
The universe seems to be sending me a message. I decided to give Morning Pages another chance.
This time, however, I’m making two changes in the way I approach the Morning Pages exercise:
Change 1: Writing in a Physical Notebook
First, I am doing Morning Pages in a physical notebook this time, rather than in a digital notebook. This is, in fact, the recommended way to do Morning Pages (even though Cameron does say that there is no wrong way to do it).
In addition to whatever reasons Cameron proffers for doing Morning Pages in longhand, I decided to use a physical notebook for two reasons of my own:
(1) Natural Ending Point
The challenge I had last time was that sometimes I would write for hours without gaining more clarity. The digital repository gave me no visual clue of when to stop. With a physical notebook, I can set a guideline for myself that is easy to follow.
I started a fresh Moleskine softcover journal in the 5×8 size, and I set a target of 4 pages: front-back-front-back. I did this, by the way, not to be an overachiever and do more than is recommended, but merely because writing 4 pages ensures that each day starts on the same side of the notebook. It works better for ~~my OCD tendencies~~ the visual aesthetic.
I often have difficulty stopping when I’m in the middle of thoughts, and time can get away from me. The physical notebook gives me a clear marker: when the 4 pages are filled, I’m done. Pen down. This also limits the amount of time it will take, and, I hope, allow me to schedule it into my morning routine more easily.
(2) Penmanship Practice
At one time, my handwriting was clear, crisp, and easy to read. Although I write left-handed, I was skilled in writing without the slant and smudges that afflict most left-handers (the trick: turn the paper on an angle). I loved taking notes with a pen to paper.
In law school, I started taking notes on my laptop, and these days, I type almost everything. I still use a paper notebook in certain situations (I really love pen-to-paper), but I do most of my writing, note-taking and journaling in digital form.
Also, I use my iPhone for about 95% of my writing. For real. It’s not unusual for me to write a 1500 word article with my thumbs. The result of this digital progression is that my once-neat handwriting has become really sloppy. Also, my thumbs often feel strained.
Earlier this year, I set an intention to write more in long-hand as a way to keep up those skills and re-gain my once-beautiful handwriting. I also speculated that perhaps writing in long-hand would help remove the filters that tend to pop up when I’m in front of a screen and my hands are on a keyboard.
Writing Morning Pages in a physical notebook seems like a good way to make good on this intention.
Change 2: Mindset
The second change in my approach to Morning Pages is my mindset.
In my last dance with Morning Pages, I thought that doing the free writing exercise would magically clear the cobwebs and allow me to pursue my “real writing” with more clarity. When that didn’t happen, I got frustrated. I was spending a lot of time doing the free writing, but had no time left for writing that I felt worthy of publishing. I quickly gave up the exercise.
The other day, after finishing my four Morning Pages, I sat down to do real writing. My thoughts were still all over the place. I still felt that I lost the point of my message as I was writing. I got absorbed in my writing for several hours, and ended the day with the feeling of “what did I accomplish today?” — even though I published two articles to this blog.
I started to think, again, that Morning Pages is a waste of time.
Then I shifted my mindset: I realized that Morning Pages is not simply an exercise, but a practice. Perhaps if I approach it with the mindset with which I approach yoga, meditation, and so many other pursuits, I will find the space in which to cultivate the practice.
Perhaps the practice will help bring more focus to my real writing. Perhaps it will help me discover my voice. Or, perhaps I’ll discover that Morning Pages really does serve only to further jumble my thoughts. Maybe my morning fitness routine and meditation practice already give me what Morning Pages provides to others.
I won’t know unless I continue to engage in the process for a period of time and see what unfolds.
Viewing it as a practice is how I can hold the space for myself to continue to engage with the process.
What’s your experience with Morning Pages? Whether you’ve been practicing for a while or are just starting out, I would love to hear about your experience and any tips that you can share.