Using Morning Pages to Tap Into the Subconscious
Sometimes help comes to us from the places we least expect. Julia Cameron, for instance — a writing teacher whose books I’ve been avoiding for a very long time.
I should explain. When you’re a writer, there are books that pop up as “inspired by your browsing history” on Amazon again and again and again. Her most famous title, “The Artist’s Way,” is one such book.
This book has appeared online and in nearly every used bookstore I’ve visited over the past six months, and I was sick of it. I’d flipped through it on multiple occasions but deemed it a bit too spiritual for my sensibilities.
But after my mother-in-law (also a writer) read a passage aloud from Julia’s book “The Sound of Paper,” I knew I had to find it. I searched for it everywhere while on a birthday trip to Taos, New Mexico, but no bookstore anywhere had it.
Then another book was dropped in my lap.
Yep, you guessed it: “The Artist’s Way.” The book showed up battered and worn in a free-books bin at my favorite coffee place in Taos. The pages were literally bent, waterstained, and smudged with dirt, but for some reason that made me like the book more. This copy had been read and loved.
Because the Universe can only scream so loud, I picked it up and started flipping through it while on vacation in Flagstaff, Arizona. I immediately found things I could use.
Since that day, I’ve gotten sucked into Julia’s writing for reasons even I don’t fully understand. Her voice soothing, relatable, and at times, hypnotic. And her books are like a warm cup of tea offered to my beleaguered inner artist. (Coming off a four-book series and getting ready to embark on another, my inner artist has been taking a beating from my type-A drill sergeant psyche.) I’ve been making my way through Julia’s entire canon of writing books, and one tool she writes about constantly is Morning Pages.
The concept of Morning Pages is relatively simple: three pages written longhand first thing in the morning. The idea is to write fast and without judgment — stream-of-consciousness style — to silence the inner critic, break free of writer’s block, or simply to stay sharp.
One key tenet of Morning Pages is that one can write about anything at all that comes to mind. They don’t need to be written well — they don’t even need to be coherent. The idea is just to get words on the page.
“There is no wrong way to do Morning Pages,” writes Julia. “They are not high art. They are not even ‘writing.’”
Practically speaking, you can write your Morning Pages on a legal pad or in a notebook, but Julia insists that you put your Pages away in a drawer somewhere where neither you nor anyone else will read them for a long time.
I’ll admit — I was skeptical at first. I’ve always been a believer in writing in the morning as soon as I get up, but for me, that writing was always targeted, focused, and typed on a computer. But since I was between books, I figured I’d give it a try.
I had nothing to lose. I was heading off to Missouri for Christmas right after I got back from vacation. I wasn’t going to get any *real* writing done anyway. At the very least, Morning Pages would help me shake out the cobwebs and get back into the daily practice of writing before I started the first draft of my new project.
The results were truly staggering. When I first started doing Morning Pages, I allowed myself to just think aloud on paper about the series I was beginning to plan. I thought through some early scenes, wrote my main characters’ backstories, and worked out the logistics of the world I planned to create.
In the end, that story is not the book I ended up writing. Through Morning Pages, I discovered that I wasn’t ready to write that series — no matter how invested I felt in the concept. I’d gone on vacation to the region where the book was to be set. I had dozens of photographs to help me write the setting and a good idea of where it was going. But something about it just wasn’t working.
Instead, I allowed myself to think about another series — the concept of which I worried was too complicated (read: too scientific) for me to tackle. The book is set in space.
I’m not really sure what I was waiting for with this story. Did I think that I would magically start to understand high-school physics someday? Did I think an astronaut was going to stop by my house, ask for directions, and suddenly become my personal source for questions? No. I just lacked confidence in my ability to carry off the story.
Through my Morning Pages, I’ve had several other major breakthroughs. I’ve worked through some strong emotions I didn’t even realize I was harboring and even gotten down details on some pretty incredible dreams that I otherwise would have forgotten.
Now I’m deep in the throes of my new first draft, and I’m still doing my Morning Pages. I even do them on the weekends when I’m not officially working. And because of how impactful they’ve been for me, I’ve decided to incorporate them into my coaching program.
For those of you who want to try Julia’s method, here are a few of my personal pointers:
Write fast. Write sloppy. When I first began my Morning Pages, I really didn’t want to be able to glance back at what I had just written, so I started writing in cursive. Cursive allows me to write faster and stay in flow (no picking up the pen). When I started, it was also very difficult for me to read, but now my handwriting has improved so much that this is not as helpful as it once was.
Get a special folder for your Pages. Right now I’m using a plain legal pad to write my Morning Pages. When I’m finished for the day, I tear them out and stick them away in one of those legal-sized plastic envelopes.
Make note of ideas you want to come back to. I like to write headings in the margins when I stumble upon something useful. You can stick these Pages in a separate folder for writing you want to revisit.
Morning Pages are an excellent way for any new writer to find his or her voice and to write without fear of writing poorly. No one is going to judge your ideas. No one is going to judge your grammar. No one ever has to see your Morning Pages — least of all you.
I’d also recommend Morning Pages to intermediate and even professional writers. They are a great tool for when you are feeling stuck on a project (I don’t like to use the word “blocked”) because you don’t have to write with any specific target in mind. If you relax, ideas will bubble up from your subconscious that you weren’t even aware of.
For people like myself who write for a living, Morning Pages are a great reminder that progress and purpose aren’t measured by the finished product alone. Sometimes progress happens when you’re simply thinking out loud.
Would you give Morning Pages a try? Have you tried them in the past? What did you discover?
Photo by Aaron Burden