On Morning Pages
The value and pitfalls of a daily writing practice.
I had big plans on January 1st, and who doesn’t? Sure, more and more of us are ditching the New Year’s resolution game, or maybe we are, I don’t know, I just saw some articles about it but I can’t really remember them now. As 2022 was drawing to a close, I looked back over the year that had been and thought about what worked for me and what didn’t. Like, on a lot of levels. I won’t get into details, but like most people, I imagine, there were things that were great and other things that were really, really difficult. Years, man, am I right? Anyway, one of the things that really stood out to me was how good it felt when I took the time to sit down and write about nothing in particular. It felt good to do it, and even better when I realized that what I wrote during those sessions was some of my best work. Okay, maybe not my best work, but it was crossing into territory I found exciting. I decided, right then and there, that I wanted to commit to writing every day for the next year.
I write for a living, so I do write most days anyway, but still there was something about writing purely for the sake of writing that felt different. There is a lot that goes into writing that doesn’t actually involve the specific act of putting sentences down on the page. With journalism, topical essays, and narrative nonfiction in particular, there are a lot of other components you have to pull in, like interviews, and hours spent in archives, and doing online research. Then you have to organize it all, and sometimes translate it, and think through your story beats. Even when I was writing, I wasn’t always writing-writing. If I hit a period of weeks when sentence crafting wasn’t on the agenda, it was easy to fall out of practice.
There is an adage I’ve heard used by parents of young children, that “sleep begets sleep,” meaning that a baby who is well-rested during the day will also have an easier time falling asleep at night. This can be true for adults too: if you’re overtired, it can actually make your insomnia worse. Similarly, I have come to believe that writing begets writing, in that the more you write, the easier writing becomes. Perhaps that sounds obvious, but there are certainly divergent opinions on this. If a student or a friend feels like they’re blocked, I usually recommend writing something other than the thing they’re blocked on—fan fiction, an angry screed, anything at all—just to get the gears moving again. It may not work for everyone, but regardless, many writers do believe in the power of writing something every day, no matter what. A common form this takes is a practice called “morning pages.”
I first started writing morning pages back in 2005 or so, after rediscovering Julia Cameron’s book The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity. Morning pages are one of the foundations of her program, along with things like taking yourself out on weekly “artist dates,” and creating a sense of abundance through small acts of care and indulgence. The idea with morning pages is that you write three pages longhand, stream of consciousness style, first thing in the morning. You roll out of bed, put pen to paper, and go. I was primed to accept this practice, since my college writing mentor, Mary Oliver, always stressed the importance of a daily writing “appointment.” (I know I mention her a lot, but her teaching had a big influence on how I write and teach, so it can’t be avoided.)
In the years after graduation, however, I had stopped writing poems. I stopped making appointments to write things that could turn into poems, and so poems had stopped landing on me, as I walked around, going about my day, the way they used to. I wasn’t sure I was a young poet anymore, but I did still seem to be a writer. I wrote, or tried to. I went to journalism school. After a while, I opened up The Artist’s Way again, and started writing morning pages. Cameron has described it as being akin to “a tiny whisk-broom that dislodges dust from every corner of our life.” And it worked for me, I think, on that level. But the problem with my morning pages was that what I tended to be left with in the end was just that: mental dust.
In Cameron’s defense, morning pages are not really meant to produce shareable prose. On the contrary, it’s a private exercise, intended to clean out your mind and encourage the habit of putting your thoughts and feelings into words. They are almost as popular in self-help circles as they are with writers looking to hone their craft. It’s an opportunity to get out of your own way. After all, The Artist’s Way is not strictly a writing manual, but rather a “spiritual path to higher creativity.” It’s right there in the subtitle.
I maintained a practice of morning pages—which could also just be called journaling, I guess, usually first thing in the morning—off and on for years. I would try to write three pages on whatever came to mind, or vent my concerns, just to get them out of the way. It wasn’t quite a diary, but there were diaristic elements. I wrote about the things that were happening. If I ever went back and read through my old entries, there were certainly nuggets of observation and description that were usable, so to speak. They might get shined up and repurposed for a new life elsewhere, in a book or an essay. But most of the time, the act of re-reading them was just…stressful. They had been a repository for my quotidian anxieties, and so when I revisited them, anxiety was what I found.
Many years ago, I attended a workshop with the poet Marie Howe. Here is an assignment she likes to give:
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