the practice

I think I would have first heard about the practice of the morning pages during my Masters, if not before then. I further think that I was put off the idea by the name; mornings were not a thing with which I was well acquainted for many, many years, and the idea of actually getting up in the morning (whether absolute or relative) and sitting down to write before anything else, even breakfast, was less absurd than it was simply unthinkable.

More years passed, and I met a few more people who had incorporated the practice into their lives, creative or otherwise—but the same resistance was there, bolstered by the (admittedly sincere and well-intentioned) evangelism of those who recommended it.

(One of the defining tensions of my personality is a dialectic between on the one hand wanting to feel I belong to something, and on the other hand a fierce flinch away from getting involved in anything with the faintest smack of proselytism. This has almost certainly made for a rather lonely life at times, but I dare say it also served to save me from worse misadventures than the ones I still managed to get mixed up in over the years. Selah.)

Exactly why I finally decided to give the morning pages a go—and not just the pages on their own, but the full Julia Cameron Artist’s Way programme with which they are most strongly associated—is unclear, even in hindsight. But it boils down, I suspect, to a deep if inchoate recognition that I needed to change the way I approached my work and my self—a recognition triggered by the trauma of finishing my doctoral thesis, the grief and fury that followed the Brexit referendum, an extended bout of pneumonia that went unrecognised as such for months, a severe depressive breakdown, and assorted other more minor and more personal dramas.

Whatever it was, I decided to start doing the morning pages almost exactly three years ago, in January 2018; I also quit smoking at the same time, and there may well have been some half-baked (pun very much intended) theory in play about exchanging one bad habit for a better one.

Much to my amazement, I have done the pages pretty much every day since then. It’s pretty simple: you get up, and straight away (or, in my case, after having fed the cat and put the stovetop coffeemaker on the gas) you write, by hand, three pages of whatever the hell is in your head at the time. The picture above shows a year’s worth of them; I always have a number of notebooks on the go for different projects or workflows, but the morning pages get their own dedicated books. I’ve come to realise that a lot of folk use notebooks with much smaller pages than I do; three pages for me takes around 45 minutes. But I think the amount of time or words you do is less important than the fact of three pages, of whatever size and style works for you. Austin Kleon’s, for instance, are a mish-mash of writing, doodles, mind-maps, collage and whatever the hell else; clearly works for him. Me, I’ve always been a words person—and pouring out the first thousand or so words that appear in my head of a morning appears to be what works for me.

I may have missed a dozen days in three years, and most of those were in the first year. The pages are so much a part of my life now—in the habitual sense, but also in an emotional and psychological sense—that I sometimes find it hard to imagine how I did without them. (Though of course I know exactly how I did without them, which is to say “not very well”.) I have come to think of them as a kind of psychological sump-draining process, a cleaning of the machinery before the day begins properly. What’s interesting is the extent to which there is not just the cleansing effect, but an increased awareness—and hence acceptance—of psychological fluctuations, and the various overlapping frequencies of such. Some mornings, a bit of actual work to be done will kind of fall out of my head partly or even fully-formed; book review, in particular, are very amenable to this, if I’ve finished the book in question the day before, but sometimes chunks of essays or papers just turn up unnannounced as well, waiting only to be transcribed and tidied up. Other mornings, by contrast, I wade through a word-treacle of anxiety and doubt, which often turns out to be indicative of something I need to deal with, whether in my work or in my personal life. It’s incredibly reflective, in other words—and I feel that it’s done me more good than my encounters with counselling and therapy and cognitive-behavioural malarky ever did, or indeed ever would. With the awareness that it sounds exactly as off-puttingly woo as it did to me when I first encountered the idea: the pages have allowed me to come to know myself, and thus to change myself.

My relationship with the rest of the Artist’s Way programme is a bit more ambivalent. Ms. Cameron, as I tend to think of her, created the programme in a time when there was more slack in the world, and her rather generational assumptions about what is possible for an aspiring creative was something I really wrestled with the first time through. (Put simply, it’s not as easy to just dial back on work and other commitments and make time for your creative self as it was at the end of the Eighties, particularly not if you don’t already have a toe in the door of the industry you want to break into.) The fact that the template is drawn from the twelve steps of the AA programme is likewise troubling to me, as is the associated woo-ish spirituality that underpins a lot of it.

But the practical aspects of it—the practice, particularly (but not exclusively) the specific practice of the pages themselves—have proven their merit to my satisfaction, and far more so than I had ever hoped they would. Furthermore, there’s enough utility in the other stuff that I’ve re-read The Artist’s Way every year since I started, and am about to start again; there are bits I routinely skip over or scoff at, but there are also bits that hit just as hard as they did the first time. And that’s a mirror, too—a mirror of a broader realisation that we can find and take the truth and the useful where we find it, and leave the rest aside; a realisation which was, perhaps, the one I really needed to reach more than any other. As I’ve read more widely and openly over the last three years, it’s become apparent that the majority of “how to be creative” guides and programmes tend to repeat a certain core set of attitudes and practices, accompanied by a bunch of stuff that’s clearly crucial to their originators. Were I to try to produce my own—which, to be clear, I have no plans to do; I don’t feel that my own particular path, still very much in the process of its own self-forming, is so successful as to be worthy of emulation by others—then I think it would lean hard on the idea that you should seek answers everywhere, but take only the ones that fit in your bag, so to speak.

Ms. Cameron is quite clear (though not exactly strident) on the value of evangelism in the context of her programme, and I’ve always resisted that—for reasons hinted at above, but also because of an abiding belief that the best way to proselytise for anything you feel to be worthwhile is to just do it, and wait for people to ask what it is and why you do it. (“Show, don’t tell”, innit?) But after three years, I feel I can say with certainty that the morning pages, at least, are something I can recommend without any hesitation or doubt. The other stuff, I dunno, maybe—you can try them for yourself, if you want, fill your own toolbox with the things you find you need.

But the pages? They’re the closest thing I have to a religion, I suppose.

I will not—could not, in fact—suggest you follow my path; the world is too large for that, and we’re all starting from (and heading toward) different places, and I’m already feeling a deep cringe-y resistance to hitting publish on this post as it is.

But I’ll gladly and sincerely suggest that you find your own path… and that the process of mapping that such a seeking requires might be well started by picking up a pen or pencil every morning before breakfast, and telling three pieces of paper what’s currently at the front of your mind.

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