I’ve struggled with Morning Pages for years. I would do them for a bit and then quit. Start again. Quit again. Repeat. Then last week I finally worked out why: I understand the problem with Morning Pages and I know how to fix it.
If you don’t already know, Morning Pages is a writing practice started by Julia Cameron, aimed at blocked artists. The idea is to write, by hand, three pages of stream of consciousness writing first thing in the morning. You can write about anything and everything – whatever comes to mind. Don’t think, don’t second guess, don’t worry about punctuation, spelling or grammar.
Don’t worry about how well you’re writing or whether it even makes sense. Purge, rant, whine, complain, rage, go round in circles, bore yourself silly. It doesn’t matter.
You don’t have to be blocked to use Morning Pages. Writing like this can clear all the junk and clutter out of your head so you’re free to write ‘for real’ later. The idea is to “catch yourself before your ego’s defences are in place”, which is why you need to write longhand. Writing by hand seems to make it easier to access your emotions and get what’s in your head out in a similar way to talking therapies. Your journal or the empty page acts as an unconditionally accepting sounding board and creates space for you to hear and accept your feelings. Sometimes you might not even realise you’re feeling or thinking something until you’ve written it down.
Morning Pages? Yawning Pages
When I first started practising Morning Pages I found it hard to write first thing in the morning because I had a day job. My brain would take a long time to warm up once I’d hauled myself out of bed and grimaced at myself in the mirror. I could barely hold a pen, let alone write anything. I was too concerned with all the other things I had to do: getting dressed, eating something and dragging myself to work. Writing waffle about nothing wasn’t high on my list of priorities. So my first attempts simply wasted ink and paper and time.
It also seemed self-indulgent. Julia Cameron would say that’s precisely the point – to get all the bullshit out of the way so you can get down to some proper creativity. But in my case the same issues would come up over and over, ad nauseam. Maybe I have a spectacularly dull life, but I couldn’t see the point in complaining endlessly about trivial things I probably shouldn’t have been obsessing about in the first place.
Also, because I knew I didn’t have long to write and only three pages to fill, I never relaxed into it. My mind was always focused on the next thing I had to do. If I did uncover a feeling or thought that needed further investigation, I knew I didn’t have the time or space to get into it. So my Morning Pages felt like a wasted opportunity.
Free writing is a great therapeutic tool and I use it regularly to excavate and explore. I’ve written myself through many crises and confusions, issues I couldn’t put into my ‘real’ writing because they were still too raw and undigested. But I can’t do it at a set time and only for a fixed number of pages. Doing it that way goes against the nature of the practice. The whole point, it seems to me, is to do it when you need to do it.
I used it to dig myself out of a slump last week and it took hours. I stopped and started and paused to think and, in the end, covered nineteen pages. Nineteen! But that’s what I needed to do in order to reach a breakthrough with that particular problem. It takes me a while to get down to the right level to let rip. Once the ball is rolling – or the pen is moving – I can keep going until I can literally no longer hold the pen. Which isn’t necessarily a good thing.
Julia Cameron says you should stop after three pages to avoid “self-involvement and narcissism.” That’s good advice. There have been times when I’ve recognised that I’m going in circles and it’s time to stop. Sometimes writing about stuff just makes it worse. However, if I had stopped in mid-flow last week I wouldn’t have got to the breakthrough and that time writing would have been wasted, and more importantly, I would still have been blocked.
This brings me to the problem I have with free writing in general, and Morning Pages specifically. The idea is to empty your mind and loosen it up so you can get into the flow and write more freely – but then you have to stop writing.
Why stop just as you’re getting into it?
You have to stop because you’re doing the writing before you’ve started your day. You get up, quick trip to the loo, perhaps a glass of water, and then write. Then you stop, have breakfast, sort yourself out and do whatever else you have to do, before returning to your writing at some point later in the day. After which, time has passed, your head has filled with all the usual crap again and you’re back to square one. So what was the point of the Morning Pages?
If you did achieve a breakthrough in the morning, perhaps you can pick it back up when you return to writing later, but you might have to wade through all the usual distractions first. So here’s the thing:
Morning Pages are unproductive and a waste of time.
There, I said it. You can shout at me in the comments if you disagree, but hear me out first. Here comes the solution.
A Writing Practice That Works
There are good reasons for writing first thing in the morning. It can be the best time for creative thoughts because the brain has only just woken up and the prefrontal cortex is still ticking over from dreaming. So this can be a good time to get some writing done.
The problem with Morning Pages is the undirected nature of the writing. If you want to write first thing and make the most of your dreamy brain, then you need to be prepared. It makes no sense to just write any old crap when you could be using the time more productively. This is especially true these days when we’re all so busy. Writing in an unfocused way is just brain vomit.
To get the most out of Morning Pages focus on something specific that you need to work out, like a story idea you’ve been mulling over, or perhaps something that came up in a dream the night before. I often wake up with new ideas, solutions to problems or connections between things I’ve been thinking about. That’s what you should be writing about when you get up – not wasting your creative juices doing mental house cleaning or purging brain vomit.
If you focus on an idea that’s interesting and inspiring enough, the distracting chatter in your head will fall away of its own accord and you’ll be free to get on and write.
If you’re blocked and you find it hard to get past the critical part of your brain, even first thing in the morning, then that should be the focus of your Morning Pages. There’s a reason for all that noise in your head – you’re spinning your mental wheels trying to get away from something. It’s resistance. And you know what the Borg have to say about that – Resistance is Futile!
Stream of consciousness writing is perfect for digging up the bones of your past and helping to confront your subconscious. Your shadow is where your greatest treasures hide, heaped under mounds of denial. It’s a shame you have to wade through so much shit to get to the good stuff, but that’s where your treasure is buried.
When you’re blocked it’s usually because there’s something in your shadow that you’re avoiding, so the solution is to move towards it instead. Investigate, ask yourself questions, write about the blockage and your feelings about being blocked. Doing that will free you up – eventually.
None of this writing has to be done first thing in the morning. If it works for you, then great – keep doing it. If it doesn’t work, then perhaps you could try my new improved version of Morning Pages:
- In the morning, before breakfast, write for 10 – 20 minutes on whatever project you’re working on, any ideas that have come up overnight, problems you need to find solutions for, etc. Just get what’s in your head out and onto the page without worrying about it too much – but keep it focused.
- If there’s nothing to write about – don’t write anything! Sit and meditate for 10 – 20 minutes instead, if you like. Or just stare out the window. Whatever. Don’t worry about it – just be with whatever is present in your life at the moment.
- Later when you come to do your actual writing, begin with a session of free writing. In a notebook, write for however long it takes to breakthrough into the flow state. As soon as you feel your mind relaxing and the words start to come easily – jump into your project and write like the wind! You can switch to the computer at that point if you want, or write in the project’s notebook – whatever routine you have. If you don’t have a particular project (story/novel/poem/play) on the go, then you can use the ideas that came up in the morning writing session, if you had one.
Doing it this way means you’re not losing momentum. You can jump straight from the free writing into your ‘proper’ writing and hit the ground running. That way, if you only have a limited amount of time in which to write, you don’t waste it dicking about.
If you want to really kick start your writing, then you can include a spot of meditation just before you begin the free writing session. This can help to ease you into writing by clearing away much of the noise before the pen even meets the page.
There’s one more thing I need to address: Julia Cameron would say that Morning Pages aren’t meant to be productive. You’re not supposed to write about anything in particular. You’re meant to just write and not worry about how it turns out. Having a specific goal in mind can interrupt the flow and cause blockages. It’s a kind of stage fright. The red recording light goes on and you get self-conscious. The ego gets hold of the idea that writing is important and then you expect too much of yourself. And then you get blocked. That’s the beauty of free writing – it removes the pressure.
It may look like you’re not trying to achieve anything when you’re writing Morning Pages the way Julia Cameron advises. But don’t be fooled. The intention behind the action is to clear the mind and unblock the creative juices. That’s a goal. You might approach it in the spirit of play – just write and see what happens. That’s another goal.
Anything you do is an intentional act – you just have be honest with yourself about your true motivations.
Most people write Morning Pages because they want to become better writers. That’s a good goal to have. All I’m doing with Productive Pages is moving them to a point in the day where they’ll be of most use to me in my writing practice. It’s still free writing but within a more focused context.
Including the option to not write is also important. It’s possible to get too attached to working in one particular way. Morning Pages isn’t the only way to unlock your writing and find your voice. Listening in silence to nothing is also helpful. One of the things I realised during my big free writing session last week was: maybe I don’t always need to write. Maybe sometimes I can stop trying to achieve something and just be.
I found that unfocused Morning Pages tended to make the noise in my head worse. The same old stuff would keep coming up and it never changed. Even after a breakthrough, the worn out old patterns would start up again at some point. I’ve been writing my way through problems for 25 years and only recently realised I would never be free of this stuff if I just wrote about it.
The same old stories and fears I’ve had going around inside my head since I can remember aren’t even touched by words. No amount of writing will shift those patterns. My deepest and darkest problems have emotional roots that are pre-verbal. There’s only one way that I know to shift them – and that’s to uproot the self altogether.
Surrender in silence to the stillness of my true Self.
And when I listen to that silence, to my inner voice, this is what it tells me:
Do you write Morning Pages? Share your experience below…