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.

  1. Helia – Huge thanks for the guest post – what an interesting approach and one I’d quite like to try out. I have to admit that I’m the opposite when it comes to my scribbling. I tend to horde ideas and thoughts away in my head and spend very little time actually writing.
    Again, be very interested to hear what others make of the idea!

  2. Great post, thanks! I’m a huge fan of morning pages and agree they are totally addictive: I feel quite disconnected if I don’t do some writing like that every day.
    I first heard about them through 750 words even though I still haven’t found the time to read The Artist’s Way yet! Your post has reminded me how much I want to read that book though 🙂

  3. This is a very inspiring post! And I might give that challenge a try. My problem is that with the day job I have to really fight to find time just to work on my manuscript. I wondering if just 15 minutes of jibberish would help unstick any of the claptrap I have to write over anyway. 🙂 Thanks for the post.

  4. Thanks for this. I did a screenwriting course, and my lecturer was always on about freewriting for 10 minutes every morning. I always nodded and agreed it was a great idea and always intended to at some point start doing it.
    This post has reminded me that I intended to do that, and now I have a book to write, it’s about time I pulled my fniger out (wiped it) and got on with it.

    I’ve used tumblr to set up a secret blog which at some point I may make not secret, depending on what I say in my freewriting/morning papers.

    Great stuff. I’ll let you know how it goes. I hope it doesn’t make me dump my boyfriend.

  5. thanks for feedback guys! i’ve found morning pages to be invaluable – though i’m not quite as strict with them as I should be (it’s 4pm and I still haven’t written them today! oops).
    *Marisa & Hannah – you should definitely make time to read The Artist’s Way. It’s really a great great resource for anyone who wants to lead a creative life – not just writers.

    *Joanna – glad your speedy fingers are finding typing better! Hope you keep it up

    *Lisa – you should definitely try and find the time, it will really help. Best of luck in your project!

    *Sophie – I hope it doesn’t make you dump your boyfriend either – unless he deserves to be dumped 🙂

    Thanks Iain for letting me go off on one about the morning pages.

    And everyone – let me know how you get on – I’d be really interested to hear!

    xheliax

  6. I want to big up the Morning Pages too, especially since Helia gave me a copy of The Artist’s Way and has turned me into keen advocate of its processes as well. It’s no overestimation to say that it’s totally transformed my creative life/made my life much more creative.
    The brain drain of the Morning Pages is a really useful way to purge yourself of all that clutter that jumbles around in your brain all day and gets in the way of focusing on your own creative activities. If you think of your mind as a bed, it’s like making it every morning.

    Julia Cameron also describes it as like wiping the mirror and being confronted with yourself – pretty scary sometimes, invigorating other times. Also, unexpected things pop up there that can become seeds for new stories or projects or help you better understand what it is you’re trying to write/paint/make.

    Has to be said that JC is coming from a religious/spiritual perspective which can turn some people off but it’s quite easy to substitute that with a secular perspective; it certainly doesn’t get in the way of understanding and using the practical tools she teaches.

    I’ve used Penzu for a while also and they’re right when they say writing things out makes you feel healthier. Also, if you write for a living it can sometimes feel like a drag to write at home; this doesn’t have that effect as, like Helia says, there’s no pressure for it to be sparkling prose – it can easily be a load of jibberish.

    I’d recommend anyone who might be feeling a bit of writer’s block to get a copy soon.

    Great post!

  7. Great post! I think this is just what the doctor ordered for me. I like the 750 words site and that will be my project for the next three weeks. I’ve heard it takes 21 days of repetitive behavior to make something a habit.

  8. Helia – Thanks for this post and for the pointer to Jennifer’s post as well. I’ve been reading Cameron’s book – i started a week or so ago. I’m going through a very stressful time right now and finding very little time to write. I’ve heard such glowing things about the morning pages – not only related to helping to get rid of writer’s block but making the most out of small blocks of writing time. With two small kids, our mornings are pretty hectic since we usually wake up to a screaming child who needs to go to the potty. So I’ve been hesitant to attempt the morning pages, but your saying that you don’t always do them first thing and yet still get a benefit from them is very reassuring. So I’ve signed up at 750words and I’m giving it a try! So far I’ve done it for two days. What I’m finding so far, however, is that it has less to do with writing and more about ruminating about to do lists and stressing out about things. I’m hoping that this will diminish the more I do it … any thoughts on whether it helps you to reduce your stress or whether it actually increases it?

  9. Helia, earlier in life the “junk” kept buzzing around in my head. I had a friend who encouraged me to write a daily checklist of all the things I needed to do that day. I found that by writing this down in an organized daily rhythm that it took a lot of the pressure to remember away. In essence it is “outsourcing” your brain. This works well and I accomplish what I need to in a day, rather than simply thinking I’m a “free spirit” and I’ll get to the important things. There comes a point at which you can just be on overload.

  10. If anything, I would call this “night pages”. I think about more stuff at night, before I go to bed, while I’m IN bed, trying to sleep, and my mind is running at full speed. In the morning, the only thing I’m thinking about is “What am I gonna wear?”

  11. – hannah – glad it was a worthwhile gift! and glad you’re getting so much from them
    – cynthia – good luck! report back in 21 days, I really hope you manage to make a habit of them

    – pj – lists and lists and calculations and ruminations are absolutely fine and definitely help to decrease stress, as you’re committing all of it down to paper, which puts less pressure on your brain to have to remember everything (though, strangely, I find it’s much easier to remember what you have to deal with and also easier to deal with it once it’s written down). And no, don’t feel pressure to do them first thing in the morning – Cameron really encourages that but in reality (ie, 2 screaming kids!) that’s just not always possible. I know you can get a lot out of them just by writing everyday, and there’s no need to beat yourself up about not doing them first thing in the morning. If you haven’t time to write three pages either, then don’t let that be a reason to stop – just write as much as you can! Best of luck and let me know how you get on

    – robyn – I know exactly what you mean about overload, and outsourcing your brain – what a great and accurate phrase!

    – marisa – good luck with them and please report back and let me know how you get on

    – celise – there is actually a part of The Artist’s Way where Cameron suggests writing at night time, clearing your mind of all thoughts and asking questions in your writing, then doing morning pages when you wake up and looking for answers there. I guess the idea being that you have all answers for all problems you face within yourself – writing morning pages helps you access the answers more easily (should I get a new agent / should I carry on writing that screenplay or just dump it / what should happen with the characters in the story now / what’s the next line of the poem, etc). Try that approach and see if it works

    – and finally, Iain – you must make time! even if it’s only ten minutes every morning for a quick pages and some lists and ruminations. I promise you’ll see the difference!

    good work to all of you who have started – keep it up!

  12. matthew – glad you’ve been finding them useful. Are you keeping up with them?
    and virginia, thanks so much for the link to your blogpost – I’m certain the morning pages can only help creative work (writing, painting, whatever) – let us know when you get published!

  13. I love The Artist’s Way….and yes I have done the Morning Pages and was quite amazed at the results….although life has got a bit hectic lately and then it was winter (I am not a winter person or a morning person) so I stopped…but reading this post has reminded me how much I got from my morning pages…found it also accessed my subconscious especially if done straight on waking…thanks for the reminder…great post

  14. Helia, This was a treasure of a post, I’m so pleased to have found it this morning. I spend my early mornings reading posts. I guess I do a little morning pages with my morning tweeting as I think about my day to come. I have had Cameron’s book recommended to me a number of time, I will definitely be on the hunt for it now. My creative work is salt and peppered with me running to jotting down notes of things to do or remember – this technique could definitely clear out a whole emotional space in which to work. I also love your reference to how this decluttering of the mind each morning has started to show up in your ways of keeping your home. TY!

  15. Judith – please please do seek out a copy of the book – it can be a bit difficult to get into, but once you’re in the routine of writing, it’s quite incredible the amount of space it clears for you in your life. I’ve just finished working through it (it took me a lot longer than 12 weeks though!) and I’m starting from scratch from week 1 again. Try it out and let me know how you get on, I’d be really interested to see what happens for you in your life!
    Kim – yes I agree completely that it works better straight from waking. I only wish I was better at dragging myself out of bed to do it first thing in the morning before work!!

  16. […] to do the writing in the morning, at the beginning of your day, to get you jump-started. ‘Morning Papers‘ is a writing exercise, from The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, that consists of […]

  17. I really think the morining pages are valuable. I write each morning and “defrag the hard drive” as I call it. I am an architect and the chatter often transforms from chatter to architectural thesis/idea and then I spend the last page drawing ideas in sketch format. Great ideas come out this way. It’s all in there you just have to get by the chatter and it is magic….

  18. […] what I did. It took many, many years too, so don’t feel bad if it takes a long time. The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron helped me, but there are lots of other books out […]

  19. I have been doing morning pages for over a year. It takes me much longer than 15 minutes to write three pages. I write three 8 1/2 by 11 pages. Should I write in a smaller journal? Not try so hard? I love my routine. I wake up, start tea, the cat hops up onto my desk and watches the sun rise with me out the window. My kettle whistles after I’ve finished my first page and I finish my tea, pages and watching the sun rise. It’s been a great habit. The benefit for me is not drinking as much the night before so I am motivated to get up and out of bed to write because my writing is more important than my drinking.

    1. Hey Sara, my journal is a lot smaller than yours, so three pages get accomplished fairly quickly! Though I have heard people say that 8 1/2 by 11 inches is the size you should be aiming for, but I think you should just write as much as you can make time for.
      I must say your morning routine sounds wonderful. I’ve fallen completely out of my routine this year, but I guess that’s just what happens sometimes – life gets in the way. And I completely agree – writing is much more important than drinking.

      Best of luck with your pages!

  20. Hi! Ive started my morning pages since January 1 of this year. What it did for me was that, it cleared all my limiting beliefs about me. It seems like my whole house of belief system has been shaken down to bits and pieces and now i am more free and light hearted and more focused too.

  21. […] promotes a form of stream writing called ‘Morning pages’ where you write 3 pages of A4 foolscap of what ever is going through your mind, it’s nothing […]

  22. I used to write Morning Pages years ago. What a lot of sludge I got out of my head. It transformed my life and gave me direction. Reading this, I don’t know why I stopped. I’ll be looking for a notebook.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Up Next:

Critiquing etiquette: six ways to provide gracious feedback

Critiquing etiquette: six ways to provide gracious feedback