YouTuber. Beautiful morning-light shot after shot as she performed the routines that have made her so successful. She drank water, took her vitamins, made tea, and set out a notebook and a gorgeous pen on a blond-wood table in preparation for her morning pages. Watching from home, I gave her a 10 out of 10. Journaling in the morning is promoted on lots of lifestyle channels, but this was the fourth video I’d seen in less than a week where morning pages were mentioned. She was also the fourth out of four people who admitted that they hadn’t actually read the book that popularized morning pages, Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity (1992)… Unlike the others, though, this YouTuber had acquired the book and said she intended to read it soon.
This felt like a sign. I, too, had an unread copy of The Artist’s Way, collecting dust on the bottom shelf of my bedroom bookcase! On round one I’d evidently made it to the end of the introduction, where Cameron describes how she’d become blocked after she quit drinking. Alcohol had been essential to starting and finishing her writing, though with increasingly destructive effects on her health, and she wasn’t sure how to proceed without it. When she found coping mechanisms that worked for her, she started teaching them to other blocked creatives and eventually turned the program into the best-selling book.
When I bought The Artist’s Way Sonny was in elementary school and I’d stopped all professional and most personal writing, although I still had music for a creative outlet. I remembered trying morning pages, but not how long I’d done them or why I’d stopped.
The Artist’s Way is a set of activities and prompts intended to be used over the course of 12 weeks. The preamble before Chapter One discusses the elements of the program. First, of course, the morning pages: “three pages of longhand writing, strictly stream-of-consciousness.” Second, the “artist date,” which involves going somewhere alone once a week for a treat (none of the Youtubers has mentioned this element, so I think I must be farther along in the book already). The purpose of morning pages is to clear the mind in order to face the work of the day; the point of the artist date is to gather inspiration.
I didn’t hear about Cameron until the 2000s, but I’ve been free writing since the mid 1980s, when I crept into a church basement for my first fiction workshop. The instructor started most sessions with exercises based on Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones (1986). Start writing and don’t lift your hand from the page for 10 minutes, 15 minutes, whatever. No cross-outs, no revisions, just turn on the spigot and see what happens.
Like The Artist’s Way, Writing Down the Bones doesn’t try to teach craft. There are no sections on plot construction, setting, description, showing versus telling, or characterization. No grammar hacks. No sample query letters. The intention is to provide habits of body and thought that get around one’s internal resistance to writing.
Over the years I’ve done so much free writing that I can meander for as long as my hypothenar and adductor pollicis muscles hold out (along with those pesky palmar interossei). But practically, it usually only takes a few minutes until I focus on an interesting idea or image, and then I start writing for real (aka the hard way).
Cameron explicitly positions the morning pages as a meditation. As I’ve hated meditation more every time I tried it, maybe this explains why I’ve been stuck for years on page 20 of the book, but who knows what might happen this time? I double my page count with a trudge through “Week One: Recovering a Sense of Safety.” It’s a struggle at points due in part to her dismissive language towards anyone who isn’t pursuing an artistic career full-time. The chapter tasks run from the mundane—morning pages, the artist date, and affirmations (which I will skip, as I like affirmations even less than I do meditation)—to the rather thrilling: starting a war between “enemies” and “champions” of my creative self-worth. There are a lot of rules. I suppose if I see the morning pages as a substitute for the ritual of drink-writing, the rules are a bit more understandable, substituting for the rituals of bottle, pen, glass, words, sips, connections, words…
If I’m going to give the method a try, I’ll have to bend a morning pages rule or two. Handwritten: no problem. Three pages, okay, that’s a reasonable goal and doesn’t take too long. Stream of consciousness: nope. Permission to abandon a line of thought without apology or transition? Heck, yeah! By the time I make it to my comfy chair by the journal most mornings I have some kind of question to pose, even if it’s just “How did I sleep last night? or “What fresh hell is this?” My first morning pages question, three days ago, was why I had hated the Mannerist paintings (I’m taking one of those online art history things). That led to an exploration of sarcasm and beauty and autism and embarrassment, and after I was done with my three pages, I felt calm and fairly focused. Success?