One of my favorite authors, Flannery O’Connor, once said, “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” Another fav, writer Joan Didion, said something similar: “I don’t know what I think until I write it down.”
For the record, I can confirm these sentiments firsthand. I cracked open my first diary as a fourth grader and, with only a few sparse years to speak of, have processed (and processed, and processed) my life in writing ever since. I have countless pages of notebooks as proof—brimming with things I never would have known if I hadn’t taken the time to sit down, grab a pen, and find them out.
Many people have told me they wished they could journal, but they’ve found that approaching the blank page is too intimidating—and besides (they often tell me), they don’t have anything to say. Well I have good news for you, friends (or bad, if you were just saying that as a way to get out of journaling). Believing you have nothing to say is pretty much the ideal starting point for writing morning pages. It’s perfectly alright to come equipped with only a blank page, a blank mind (or so you think!), and a pen.
To be clear, morning pages are not exactly the same thing as journaling, although the exercise has replaced my previous diary-style writing, and with good reason. When I look back at the things I believed were important to record as a middle schooler—often starting with a literal list of the day’s events—I notice the way those concrete and obvious items morphed and unfolded into the idle musings, secret hopes, ineffable fears, and embarrassing anxieties of a preteen girl.
Morning pages, in my experience, tend to start with the assumption that there’s likely something below the obvious, concrete, and literal parts of the day. Or rather, that addressing those mundane elements is the first step to accessing something more creative.
The term and the exercise itself come from The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity, by Julia Cameron (yes! three fav female authors ~in one post~. Get over it, okay!!), which I first encountered while living in New York. A friend of mine invited me to join her and a few others to read this together over the course of 12 weeks, during which time we’d access our own inner artists and hold each other accountable to creative pursuits and, yes, eat Chipotle and drink wine in many of Manhattan’s finest parks. Twist my arm!
At the start of the book, Cameron insists on two activities—two “basic tools”—for anyone who wants to introduce more creativity to their life: stream-of-consciousness writing for three straight pages each morning, and taking oneself out on “artist dates” twice a week. If you want to know about the dates, read the book, because I am here to talk to you about the former.
On her website, Julia Cameron describes the power this stream-of-consciousness writing can have for clearing a cluttered mind: “[Morning pages] are three pages of longhand morning writing, done when you’re thinking about anything at all, like: I forgot to buy kitty litter, I need to call my sister back, I need to wash the curtains, it’s time to change the bed… They seem to have nothing to do with creativity, but what they do is clear your mind; it’s as though you’ve taken a little dust-buster and you go poking into all the corners of your consciousness, and you come up with what you put on the page.”
My morning pages—and I’ve got a few notebooks worth of them at this point—are far from art. Most start “I am waiting for the coffee to brew. Now I am drinking coffee. I am so tired. I don’t know what to say except that I’m tired…why won’t this coffee take effect….” Luckily for me, these are not meant to be art. Morning pages are meant to clear the way so that creativity and art can happen. If I gave up the practice when I felt I had “nothing to say,” I’d barely begin, which would be a shame, especially since it’s often on page two or even three that I end up articulating something I didn’t realize I needed to process. I’ve had a big upcoming meeting with a boss and didn’t realize that I was feeling anxious about my performance and role during it. I’d thought I’d gotten over a tiff with my husband and realized I was still harboring some resentment. I’ve felt some fleeting ennui and managed to write my way into an antidote to the experience. All things I didn’t know until I wrote them down.
Seeing those feelings and sentiments outside of me, right there on the paper, means my subconscious doesn’t need to spend energy trying to bring them forward to my conscious mind for resolution. Nervous about the upcoming meeting? I know what concrete steps I can do to prepare for it. Not feeling reconciled with my partner? I can bring up whatever is lingering, which will serve our relationship. Existentially restless? Well, that’s a beast, but in the moment I can put on a pretty dress, grab a favorite book of short stories, and sit outside for a bit. Immediately resolving these concerns frees me to spend my energy (creative, spiritual, social, mental, psychological, and so on) on the projects and people I chose.
Cameron knows this is the case. As she puts it, “…when you put the negativity [or whatever comes up] on the page, it isn’t eddying through your consciousness throughout the day. Morning pages are a clearing exercise, and they are an exercise that make you have much more consciousness as you pass through your day.”
The act of processing, seeing what my mind (and pen!) focus on, and then being able to give attention to those things helps me enter my day with my energy and priorities all sorted out. What was a cluttered mind is often cleared after this exercise, and I can move through the day focused on the things I chose.
Do you practice morning pages? Or do you have another way of “decluttering the mind” on a regular basis?
Ellen Koneck likes reading and writing and thinks homebodiness is a virtue. She has her MA in religion from Yale and works in academic publishing. She has one plant, one tattoo, one baby, and an identical twin. Contrary to all conventional wisdom, she regularly brings up both religion and politics at the dinner table.