Mourning My Morning Pages

From March through the end of August, I experienced a major creative dry spell that convinced me I wasn’t a writer anymore. I was just a person who happened to write sometimes. But my dad, another evening writer, gifted me The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron because his friend said it was life-changing. I’m sure it is, but I barely made it past Week One, all because of the Morning Pages.

Julia Cameron describes the Morning Pages as, “three pages of longhand writing, strictly stream of consciousness… they might also, more ingloriously, be called brain drain, since that is one of their main functions”. The rules are simple: don’t stop writing and think for any reason, do not reread a single word, and do them first thing in the morning, as soon as you wake.

Admittedly, I got all excited to try out this new approach by setting out a new Moleskine journal on the table with my favorite pen so I could simply wake up early and write. It didn’t happen. When my alarm went off at 6 AM, I forfeited creativity for rest like the sloth that I am. Day 1: failed. I felt awful that I’d let myself down, and even worse that I couldn’t even muster three pages when I finally got around to the task.

Maybe it was the commitment I struggled with so much, or the self discipline. But I actually grew angry at these daily pages. They took me away from the things I wanted/needed to do. It became a chore to scribble three pages of utter nonsense. And the muscles in my hand, wrist, and forearm absolutely ached with the labor of writing so much with an actual pen. I hadn’t handwritten that much since high school, especially since Cameron said not to stop for any reason (and I’m a staunch rule-follower). It became a punishment, and I was done. Washed my hands of the Morning Pages.

Then I discovered Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg. She happens to be BFFs with Julia Cameron (in fact, the two each wrote a foreword for each other’s books), but Goldberg has a punchier style of writing—good for those who like to turn pages rather than refer to a dictionary. To my amazement, she prescribed the same thing: daily flipping pages. However, her take was a little more relaxed. “My rule is to finish a notebook a month. Simply fill it. My ideal is to write every day.”

This method felt more comfortable, without judgment, without fear of failure. I fit it into my schedule when I could (in the parking lot before work, mostly). And I didn’t force three pages, just a minimum of one. If I had the chance to return to the pages in the afternoon, great. It was like a sigh of relief for my creative soul.

It’s been over a month since beginning this practice, and frankly, I wouldn’t go back to anything else. In my notebook, I try new words I wouldn’t normally use, write however I wish despite tone or voice. The freedom to behave any sort of way on the page is rather liberating, and the best thing is, it’s totally private. No one should ever read my pages, not even me (for at least 8 weeks, Goldberg’s rule). While I write, I allow myself to pause briefly so I can better plan how to say what I’m thinking or describing. Out with stream of consciousness, in with creativity (which, by the way, has changed).

I’ve noticed that my levels of creativity are not quite higher or lower, but much more vast. Writing in these pages almost daily has increased my confidence as a writer, which results in stronger creativity. I’m not as scared to try new things, own my voice, and write what I mean. In my fiction writing, I’m more aware of details that can hinder or help my plot and characters. Goldberg’s pages helped me level up. Cameron’s, however, did not.

My impression (mostly from Cameron’s book) was that Morning Pages were literally groundbreaking and I was the black sheep who hated them. Fortunately, this is not the case. Emerson Dameron, who writes for The Writing Cooperative, said, “If you suffer from self-indulgence as a tricky form of stage fright, and Morning Pages are a substitute for public expression, they can further entrench your central demon. If you spend too much time freestyling, strictly for your own benefit, you can get stuck in your own habits, your own head, and your own ass.”

He’s not wrong. While therapeutic, short quick sentences about how bored you are might not help with creativity. In fact, it might anger you the way it did me, since I felt I was wasting my time. But another online blogger addressed the Pages with honesty. “It wasn’t until my good friend Shelby (a.k.a. Little Coffee Fox) told me how much her morning pages had changed her life that I finally took them seriously.” (At her first attempt, she chose sleep over creativity as well). “I had real, noticeable changes in my workflow that were worth the 30 minutes it took me to write the pages each morning. Besides the external rewards like higher productivity, I also felt my morning pages added quality to my days. That alone is inherently valuable.”

You can do some research yourself, or go ahead and purchase The Artist’s Way to get the full Morning Pages effect. The outcome might bring prolific changes to your levels of creativity and your writing. Or, you may side with Natalie Goldberg’s more relaxed daily pages instead, and just attempt to fill a notebook a month. Whatever you try, be patient with yourself and keep your mind open to all possibilities. It just might change your life, or a single morning at the very least.

Just be sure to pour up some coffee first.