Open your writing mind with the morning papers

Guest post by Helia Phoenix Earlier this year, I started reading The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron.

The strapline for the book is "a course in discovering and recovering your creative self", and it's one of the best creative guides I've ever read (if you're inclined to, you can buy copies of The Artist's Way from Amazon for under a fiver - check for used copies, lots are in great condition).

I'd like to share one of the tools recommended by the book: the morning pages.

What are morning pages?

Morning pages (according to The Artist's Way) are three pages of stream of consciousness writing that you do every morning. The intention is to clear your mind of all the annoying claptrap that buzzes around, getting in the way of your creativity.

The idea is to get it down on paper as a way of removing it from your mind. Here's an example of the sort of rubbish that reverberates around my head on a daily basis, if it's not shooed off with the morning pages.

Ooo! I need to: change the date the mortgage comes out/book my car to fix the bit that's rusting off at the bottom/order more dog food/call mum/book time off for my birthday/pay in that cheque/do my accounts/book a haircut. Etc etc.

Though Cameron calls it the morning pages, it's a practice that's recommended in many other creativity guides, some that predate The Artist's Way.

I did a Creative Writing Masters a few years ago and several tutors on the course recommended stream-of-consciousness journaling for at least an hour every morning before engaging in other creative work.

We need to get one thing clear though: the morning pages aren't about journaling. Journaling implies creating a narrative, making sense of occurrences by putting them into words and threading them in words across the page.

Morning pages are intended to be jibberish. They jump from one thing to another like the random thoughts they are.

I've had days when I've been unable to think of anything to write, and just repeated the, phrase 'I need to finish three pages / I need to finish three pages,' until something else struck for me to write.

Morning pages include as much bitching and whining about anything and everything that you can muster. They are a useful way for you to exorcise any worries or problems before you embark on your journey through the day.

What about doing the morning pages in real life?

I've been doing the pages since January. It would be amazing to have the luxury of time to get up, sit around, sip a fresh ground coffee and let my consciousness fall on the page first thing in the morning, but unfortunately, I can't function that way.

I prefer to stay in bed until the last possible second before I have to drag myself up and to work, so sometimes they get done at 8am, but sometimes at 11am, sometimes at 2pm, sometimes when I get home from work, and occasionally, just before I go to bed.

I've found it's definitely better to do them in the morning if you're planning to spend a day doing something creative, like focusing on your own creative writing.

And of course, it's not practically possible to write them everyday. I got tonsillitis in March and was in bed for a week.

Obviously, during that time and for the recovery period, the pages weren't top priority. I stopped doing them for about six weeks while I just concentrated on getting better.

The result? I got better - but was very, very crabby. Things got on top of me. I wanted to write, but had no ideas, no drive. For weeks. I started writing the pages again and things have been much better.

So be warned: once you start writing them, you might not be able to stop.

What if I can't be bothered?

Athletes practice and exercise everyday. Runners might not run full marathons all the time, but they'll certainly do stretches to prepare for those big events.

As a writer, your writing muscles need exercise too - and the more you write, the easier it will be to write good stuff - and the quicker those 'a-ha' moments will come.

The pages are like your stretching exercises. You may feel inspired to write them some days, and completely repulsed by writing them on other days.

Cameron says that the key is to keep writing, especially at those times when you feel least like it.

What can I expect to happen?

I can't speak for everyone. I can only tell you what the pages have meant for me (through reading The Artist's Way, my experience is fairly typical of the vast majority of people who work with morning pages).

I've emptied out my closet. I've overhauled my house and thrown away boxes and boxes of crap that was clogging up my closets that I don't need anymore.

I've re-evaluated relationships. I've signed up for a sewing class and a carpentry class. I've made changes in my life over things that were bothering me that I got sick of whining about everyday in my pages.

Oh, sorry, you probably were more interested in what creative writing type stuff has happened.

How about this...

I've signed up to a literary agent. I've stopped working in the evenings and over weekends and started watching films and listening to music instead.

I set up a community art collective in Cardiff and we're running a digital storytelling project collecting stories of people who live here. I've written a sketch for a kooky romantic comedy that's probably going to end up as young adult fiction.

Not bad for a few months' worth of writing jibberish, no?

Jennifer Blanchard wrote an interesting post on what she achieved during her two week experiment with the morning pages. I'm not sure I achieved as much as she did in two weeks, but it's a great example of how the pages can motivate you to make changes. Definitely worth a read.

Do I really have to write, longhand, in a notebook?

The Artist's Way was first published in the 80s, when the core tools for a writer were notebook and pen (and occasionally typewriter), so she doesn't tackle the issues raised by technology for the morning pages.

Personally I prefer pen and paper - something about the action of writing seems to encourage better stuff to come out than when I'm typing. But most of us can type faster than we can write longhand.

Plus there's the added benefit of security with using online journaling resources - handy if you live in a house with nosey kids/spouses/housemates.

Online journals are also easier for most of us to access nearly all of the time. If I forget to take my notebook somewhere, chances are I won't do my pages. I hate writing them on scrap bits of paper and then sticking them in later - it just doesn't work for me.

If you work a desk job that means being attached to a computer for most of the day, why not dedicate the first 15 minutes of that day to clearing your mind?

If typing fits more with your daily schedule, then consider one of the following (free!) online resources. If you Google you'll find there are many more, but the following have been recommended to me by users, which is why I'm recommending them to you.

Penzu

A friend of mine recently started private online journalling in Penzu, and she absolutely swears by it. Penzu is a personal journal and online diary resource.

There's a great page called Why Journal?, which lists the many (many!) benefits of keeping a diary or journal. If that doesn't convince you to get started, I don't know what will!

750 words

This website was created specifically in response to the morning pages from The Artist's Way. It's a secure website (no public publishing like a blog). You log in and aim to type 750 words per day (given that the average page holds 250 words, so three pages = 750 words).

The nifty thing about this website is the stats - you can see how many words you've written to date. A month's worth of morning pages at this rate will give you 22,500 words.

That's a lot of words! Suddenly achieving 50,000 words in a month for projects like NaNoWriMo doesn't seem quite so intimidating, does it?

In conclusion then...

I've been working with and really getting a lot out of the morning pages since I started writing them. Do any of you write morning pages? Do you find them helpful for your writing, or for life generally?

If you don't write morning pages but are a little intrigued, then consider this challenge.

Try them out, just for two weeks (like Jennifer Blanchard did). Set aside 15 minutes every morning to write stream of consciousness (try not to be late for work).

Two weeks isn't a massive commitment. I'd be interested to hear your results/changes/achievements.