three pages of longhand navel-gazing with a fountain pen: totally worth it
So what's the point of doing something called "morning pages" when it's nine o'clock at night, anyway? This is something I ask myself when I have days like yesterday. I also periodically ask myself why I still do Morning Pages at all. It's good to reevaluate a long-standing daily ritual, the way you might reevaluate whether some keepsake still belongs on the mantelpiece after all these years. Is it still there for a reason, or is it just there because no one's taken it down? Is this habit still useful, or am I just doing it because I've always done it?
A quick review: Morning Pages is a practice popularized by Julia Cameron in her book The Artist's Way. The book is a twelve-week course in creativity and identity. As the reader works their way through the chapters, they gradually build a new toolbox full of tips, tricks, exercises and inspiration. Morning Pages is the very first tool that Cameron puts in the reader's hand.
Simply put, it's three pages of longhand writing which you do all at once, without pausing for interruption or thought. You just splat your brain down on the page. Whatever thought crosses your mind, deep or petty, banal or beautiful, you write it down from beginning to end. Then you move on to the next thought.
Cameron has a particular warning for writers: Don't "write" your Morning Pages. Just do them. This is not meant to be an act of deathless or even competent prose.
When my kind and generous husband first agreed that I could leave the nine-to-five world and take my writing full time, I made gleeful plans for what my writing day would look like. I would start with Morning Pages, of course. I would then do timed writing exercises, at least three sessions of fifteen minutes each, to really get the juices flowing for the day. And then--
"And how much of your day will be left after you've done all this noodling around?" said one of the self-assigned gurus in the online writing community I frequented at that time. "My advice to you is, don't waste your time. Just write."
This was ten years ago. I was, well, younger and more impressionable and more easily made to feel ashamed then than I am now. Admittedly, we're not talking "college freshman" levels of young and impressionable--I quit my full time job just before my 28th birthday--but "young and impressionable" comes in waves. It's amazing how easy it can be to poison someone else's innocent enthusiasm, no matter what their age.
So I bowed to my unasked-for advisor's wisdom and did the newsgroup version of shuffling my feet in embarrassment, and I shut my mouth. And I abandoned for a while the activities that he disparaged, because every time I thought about doing them, I heard his words in my head again: "How much of your time are you willing to waste with these things?" For months I couldn't even pick up Natalie Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones without feeling ashamed.
Oddly enough, the daily routine my correspondent shamed me into abandoning then is very similar to the one I try to adhere to now. I begin with Morning Pages, and I try to include a 25-minute freewriting session early in the working day. These two things combined take up about an hour, tops, and it's an hour well-spent.
More about freewriting another time, I think. Suffice it to say that my unasked-for advisor might as usefully have told a pianist not to waste her precious time with scales and arpeggios, or a roller derby player not to waste her time warming up and stretching.
"My advice to you is, just play."
How about no?
Anyway. One reason I still do Morning Pages is because they help me focus my mind on the day ahead. I tend to describe to myself what I want to do with my writing time. I also mention other to-do items I don't want to forget. It helps me keep from floating passively from whim to whim. It gives me direction.
More generally, Morning Pages is where I meet myself on the page. I take stock of what's in my head. Maybe I don't want to actually face everything that's in my head, maybe I'm not going to write the crappy stuff down, maybe I'm just going to say, "There's a thing that came up yesterday that I don't want to think about and so I'm not gonna," but even that much is more "facing it" than I'd do without the pen moving across the page.
If I've got a story revision in progress, I sometimes end up brainstorming on it during Morning Pages. "Brainstorming" might be overstating things. I talk to myself on the page. I ask myself questions. I don't always have answers, but it helps to know what the questions are. As previously observed, "How do I find space to include Backstory Point A in this scene?" is much more useful than "How do I get started when rewrites are clearly IMPOSSIBLE?"
Midway through Morning Pages, I sometimes surprise myself by remembering a piece of the previous night's dream. When that happens, I'll pause whatever thought I'm on, maybe start a new paragraph or make a free-floating text block off to the side, and I'll write down whatever dream memory just occurred to me. Then I'll draw a little crescent moon in the margin so I can find it later when I've got a moment to put it into my dream journal.
Morning Pages is where I practice my handwriting. I would like to have nice handwriting.
Morning Pages is a chance to play with fountain pens filled with ink in fun colors. I like Sheaffer pens with fine-tipped nibs and refillable converters. I like saffron orange, peacock blue, foggy gray, purple. Sometimes the ink gets all over my fingers, an indelible reminder all the rest of that day that I Am A Writer.
Morning Pages, even when I don't get to them until nine o'clock at night, is a task I know I can accomplish. There is no question of not being able to finish. And on a day when I get nothing done until that late at night, I need to experience achievement. I need to remind myself that I am capable of finishing a thing I start. You know how one of the benefits of short story writing is that it lets you practice story endings more frequently than novel writing does? Morning Pages lets me practice feeling accomplished.
In the end, there's a sort of faithfulness that happens in Morning Pages. That rendezvous with myself on the page is a matter of trust and self-care. Doing it every day, no matter how late, is a way of reinforcing the assertion that I'm worth trusting, I'm worth treating well, I'm not a lost cause to give up on. (These are assertions I need reaffirmed from time to time. I sometimes catch myself doubting them.) Also that my brain's a worthwhile place to spend time in.
Doing Morning Pages even when it's gone nine o'clock at night is a way of holding that faith up against all the disparagements of the world, the rejection letters we all must face and the dismissiveness we shouldn't have to, all the naysaying, all the temptation to hopelessness, and saying, "No. It's never too late to begin."
So that's why I still do it after all these years.