Morning Pages: The Lazy Writer’s Friend

I’m not much of a self-helpy type of person. As a student of critical thinking and A.J. Ayer’s verification principle, I don’t like meaningless sentences, and as a steadfast hater of routines I have arrogantly rejected anything approaching discipline in my adult life. Hence why I realised last year that I was really wasn’t writing much and actually wasn’t getting anywhere and didn’t even have a few short stories that didn’t completely suck.

Some context: I write for a living. I ghostwrite. I edit. I work with words on a daily basis. And yet I was never quite managing to write much fiction of my own, which in part was due to a refusal to actually learn how to do it and in the other part was due to a terror of being shit.

I’d had enough of this. I wanted to be better. I wanted to actually write.

And so I started Morning Pages.

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.
– Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way

I was inspired to this by Peggy Riley, the author of Amity and Sorrow, whose cups of tea and Morning Pages fill up her Twitter feed first thing every day. When I started, I bent the rules massively; I sat at my computer rather than at a notebook, and worked on stories that were half finished or were just starting out. Of course, this didn’t work at all. The idea of Morning Pages is to take your fresh thoughts and to see where they go, not to try and force them into a template that you’ve already created. Working at a computer also unleashes the distraction of the entire internet, your iTunes library, bits of work that you didn’t finish and social media notifications that call for your attention. For someone like me, it was a horrible idea.

It was a conversation with another writer that made me go back “inside the box”, back to the rules as set out by Julia Cameron, as I realized that I was barely doing the thing that she’d talked about in the first place. I dug out a gorgeous notebook that I’d bought with the intention of writing a diary (never happened), grabbed a black biro (my weapon of choice) and started to write – longhand, in scribbles that were barely legible, in nonsense sentences with horrible structure. And something magical happened.

I went from sitting at my computer staring at half formed stories to watching my own ideas unfold on the page in front of me.

Now my Morning Pages happen as soon as I get out of bed, with unbrushed teeth and eyes that are barely open. Morning Pages are meant to be messy, unplanned, reactive. More often than not, I start my four pages (my book is too small to fit 750 words on three pages) with a kernel of a thought, perhaps a reaction to something that happened the night before or something that I read in a book or saw in the paper, and I gently pull these thoughts apart. These pages turn into a conversation with myself. I ask questions and suggest answers and link experiences and ideas and follow the thought wherever it wants to go. By the end, I have something new to play with, whether that’s a nugget of a story, an idea for a new style or just a thought to consider in future.

An example: One night I went to an exhibition of works by Austrian gore artist Hermann Nitsch. He orchestrates huge performance art pieces which are orgies of the odd and the very physical; naked bodies stage mock crucifixions in front of animal carcasses and with pig blood running out of the mouths of the “victims”. Piles of animal entrails and viscera are massaged and spread around while fresh tomatoes and mixtures of blood and red paint are thrown around. The next morning, I couldn’t get it out of my head. I started by asking myself why our reactions to his works were so strong when we knew it was all staged and fake. Was it the displacement that was really uncanny and uncomfortable? Organs outside of the cavities they’re meant to be inside? A friend had mentioned to me that she was bothered by a story in which I wrote about “soil on sandwiches”, another something that existed where it wasn’t meant to. I pulled this train of thought further and further and by halfway through page three I had a fully formed idea for a short story and was ready to start writing. My own process had shown itself on the pages. It was a revelation to me.

Of course, it’s not always like this. When I’ve been sick, or tired, or simply not in the mood, my four pages have been meaningless ramblings, repetitive sentences describing in dull detail every minute agony in my body or what I had done the day before. But it doesn’t matter; Morning Pages are meant to clear your head and to set an intention. They get all the clutter out of your way and put you on the path to creative productivity. If you can make something out of that clutter, great. If not, you’ve at least swept your mind clean for the day to start. They pull you straight into the process of writing so that you’ve no excuse not to carry on. They stop you being a lazy writer.

And for me, at least, they really work.

Inspired by the success of my pages, I procured a copy of The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity, the Julia Cameron book from which the idea of Morning Pages is taken, and read the whole thing. I was hoping for more practical, useable tricks and tips that would propel me even further forward.

I did find some of this. The concept of the Artist Date was one that absolutely struck a chord with me:

The Artist Date is a once-weekly, festive, solo expedition to explore something that interests you. The Artist Date need not be overtly “artistic” — think mischief more than mastery. Artist Dates fire up the imagination. They spark whimsy. They encourage play. Since art is about the play of ideas, they feed our creative work by replenishing our inner well of images and inspiration. When choosing an Artist Date, it is good to ask yourself, “what sounds fun?” — and then allow yourself to try it.
– Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way

I didn’t need to try this to know that it was true. I’m never more full of ideas than when I’ve spent an afternoon wandering around a gallery on my own, or had a weekend away with a friend or a partner taking in a new city and drinking excessive amounts of coffee. The Edinburgh Festival fills you with stories; a day of fun makes you desperate to write. Julia advocates a structured approach to the Artist Date, but I didn’t feel this necessary; simply engage in life and art away from your desk once in a while. It always works.

And yet beyond this, there wasn’t much in the book that I even wanted to engage with. What I found was a lot of armchair psychology, a lot of God (even when dressed up as “God who can be just your creative spirit if you prefer”, you’re still talking higher powers), and advice that seemed to glorify selfishness and arrogance. Cameron assumes a fragility that brings out condescension in her writing, and she plays to that truly awful ego present in all of us that says You Are Special Because You Are A Writer. Screw your friends! she says. They’re in your way! Focus on you! YOU ARE A MAGICAL AND UNIQUE SNOWFLAKE!

Well. Perhaps that’s not what Julia says. Perhaps that’s what my cynical, too-rational mind simply turns her words into. Perhaps she really is attempting to draw out the best of us, to make us productive and successful, and perhaps our ideas of success and productivity are just a little different.

No matter. I am clearly not Julia’s audience. I already have far too much ego and I’m unwilling to stoke it further. But all this is really irrelevant. Ask any religious person and they’ll tell you that you don’t need to agree with the entirety of the source material to appreciate the general idea. Julia Cameron has given me at least two fantastic tools with which to draw myself further towards being a good writer and further away from being a lazy, semi-scared bum.

And even outside of Morning Pages and Artist Dates, there’s at least one thing that Julia and I agree on:

“We’ve all heard that the unexamined life is not worth living, but consider too that the unlived life is not worth examining.”
– Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way