Journaling and the Morning Pages

In my previous post I wrote about the value of journaling during my dissertation process. In this post, I’ll share a major shift in my practice after completing my PhD thanks to my discovery of Julia Cameron’s book The Artist’s Way. Cameron’s book is an indispensable tool for spurring creativity, and includes all kinds of nuggets for helping the “blocked artist” out of her rut.* The tip I’ve been using most since reading her book a year ago is what she calls the “morning pages,” a simple but wondrously useful tool that involves committing to three pages of longhand writing every morning. When you write the morning pages, you shouldn’t worry about it making any sense. They are not necessarily a reflection on the day (as my nightly journaling had been) but stream of consciousness stuff. As Cameron stresses:
There is no wrong way to do the morning pages. These daily morning meanderings are not meant to be art. Or even writing….Nothing is too pretty, too silly, too stupid, or too weird to be included (p. 10).

In other words, if you don’t want to write, then just write down “I don’t want to write.” But don’t stop doing those three pages even if you don’t feel like it. Do the pages daily, without thinking about how they will read (I get to them most days). Cameron explicitly recommends not reading them. The point is that surprising and useful information will emerge from the regular practice. And it should be treated just like that – a regular practice in self care.**

For instance, I’m not ashamed to admit that the first half page of many of my early entries looked just like a bunch of cranky sputtering nonsense. Often, this is because I was tired or thinking about all the things I need to get done.  But usually once the initial grumblings got their space (and the coffee worked its magic!), I was surprised by what came out. When I asked on twitter if others use the morning pages, Academic Coach Kellee Weinhold succinctly explained what makes it such a useful tool for creatives and scholars of all kinds: “It’s a fantastic way to clear your head, & I discover amazing things lurking in the background.” Exactly. In the year that I have been writing the morning pages I have come up with book ideas. I have dreamed up activities for my class. I have worked through a entrepreneurial concept I hope to launch next year (more on that at a later date!). And yes, I have had wrestling matches with those gremlins that we all have to confront in our respective endeavors.

I happened to discover the concept of the morning pages at a time when I was frustrated by the amount of work I had taken on. It was last fall, when I was teaching a busier than average class load which became especially stressful when I ran into health problems. Despite my best efforts to plan out my time, I was unable to work on writing projects I had hoped to develop, and I was feeling defeated.

Although Cameron stresses the morning pages are not really writing, I often like to think of them as just that – a form of writing that I am able to complete even when other things seem to get in the way of more formal projects. I may not have a finished publications from this process alone but at least I have ideas written down.

Cameron writes in her book:

All that angry, whiny, petty stuff you write down in the morning stands between you and your creativity. Worrying about the job, the laundry, the funny knock in the car, the weird look in your lover’s eye—this stuff eddies through our subconscious and muddies our days. Get it on the page…

I love that Cameron recognizes and honors that such things impact our productivity. I also love that she thinks of the morning pages as the key to what she calls “creative recovery.” In fact, I wish that I had known about the morning pages in graduate school, and recommend anyone going through that process to try it out. Stuck on a project? Write three pages everyday until it works itself out. Feeling isolated within your program or at odds with your adviser. Get that stuff out of the head and onto three pages. Feeling misunderstood, or without the right words to explain yourself? The morning pages will help out.

*Her blog is also a wonderful tool for creatives.
**If you are interested in writing-as-self-care., there was a  a wonderful conversation going on between PhDs and writers Lisa MunroJen Polk, and Ian Street on this topic around the time that I started my morning pages that inspired my initial thinking about this post.





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