At first glance, this week’s practice may seem like a ‘cheat’. This practice — which is simply to write three pages of anything every morning — has no history as such, doesn’t belong to any faith tradition, and originates as a method for overcoming creative blocks. So, how is this a sacred practice? Well, I feel it’s fair game for a number of reasons. First, I admit I did want to try to something ‘lighter’ this week in the lead up to the more spiritually challenging disciplines of Lent (which, believe it or not, starts this week!). Secondly, I knew that, despite appearing to be a little light weight spiritually, this practice would be personally challenging for me. Third, part of this exercise in exploring sacred practices is to expose myself (and any readers who may come along for the ride) to as many and as varied practices as possible, no matter when or where they come from. And fourth, as will become clear shortly, Julia Cameron, the author and filmmaker who originated the practice, certainly talks about morning pages as a sacred practice. And so, for all these reasons, I thought it would be an interesting practice to explore this week.
Morning Pages come from Julia Cameron’s creativity workshops, and burst into greater prominence in 1992 with the publishing of her book The Artist’s Way, which has since become a true classic in the field of practical creativity. They are ostensibly a mechanism to move past writer’s block (or any creative block), but Cameron makes far greater claims about their potential and the fruit they can bear:
“It may be useful for you to think of the morning pages as meditation. It may not be the practice of meditation you are accustomed to. … The pages may not seem spiritual or even meditative — more like negative and materialistic, actually — but they are a valid form of meditation that gives us insight and helps us effect change in our lives.”
She later adds,
“It is only when we consciously learn to link power and light that we begin to feel our rightful identities as creative beings. The morning pages allow us to forge this link. They provide us with a spiritual ham-radio set to contact the Creator Within. For this reason, the morning pages are a spiritual practice.”
Setting aside the more abstract claims she makes about morning pages, the concrete benefits Cameron discusses are reminiscent of the benefits I discussed a few weeks ago about journaling. This stands to reason as the two practices have many similarities. Both involve writing. Both are ways of exploring our inner thought world. Both are ways of integrating the inner and outer life: thoughts, feelings, ambitions, and so on. She writes: “Morning pages map our own interior. Without them, our dreams may remain terra incognita.” And, “The morning pages acquaint us with what we think and what we need. We identify problem areas and concerns. We complain, enumerate, identify, isolate, fret. This is … analogous to prayer.” As a long-time journaler, these concepts leap out to me as the kinds of things my journal does.
But there are important differences between the two practices as well. On a practical level, the intentionality behind morning pages lies primarily in the sitting down to the page and in the quantity of writing, whereas the intentionality in journaling lies in the content of the writing. Somewhat related to this, the dynamic between the subconscious and the conscious is flipped: Whereas in journaling it’s your conscious thoughts guiding the explorations on the page, in morning pages it’s the subconscious that is in control: You aren’t really supposed to be thinking about what you’re writing, just writing. Cameron calls morning pages “a trail that we follow into our interior.” Essentially, in morning pages, you follow the words; in journaling, the words follow you.
What is it?
This is as simple a practice as it comes: Write — hand-write; no typing allowed — three full pages every morning before you start your day. Quantity is more important than quality. The goal isn’t to produce great literature or to probe your psyche with a set agenda, but just to write. As I discovered, it’s important to think ahead about what you will consider to be ‘three full pages’. The book doesn’t specify a page size or whether it’s double-spaced or single-spaced, and doesn’t account for size of handwriting either.
As with any practice, I think it’s important to decide what will ‘count’ for you ahead of time, so that you aren’t tempted to develop loopholes for yourself later on. This isn’t to say you can’t adjust on the fly, but that it’s important to be intentional about those adjustments rather than have your practice governed by the whims of the moment.
I knew this would be a difficult practice for me. The focus on quantity over quality of writing goes very much against the grain of how I operate. I’m not a fast writer, and that is likely because I let my mind wander. Normally I consider that natural filter to what I’m writing a positive thing, but in this exercise it’s counter-productive. So, while Cameron suggests taking 30 minutes in the morning to do Morning Pages, I found it difficult to complete the practice in less than an hour. Only one day of the seven did I feel like I was in the kind of legitimate groove Cameron assumes to be normal.
Because of the focus on quantity of writing, and because I have a job to get to in the morning, I found this to be a very stressful practice. The pressure of filling those three pages before I had to get ready for work was very unhelpful for my morning. It was also simply time consuming. I have 80-90 minutes carved out every morning to work on creative projects, and this practice pretty much took up the whole block. I came to resent the fact that this exercise was taking me away from my writing projects instead of facilitating them.
But, did it work? As an artistic exercise in working past writer’s block, I have to say that it did. Not only did the practice get me into the groove of writing instead of thinking, filtering, and editing, but I also did actually have a small epiphany one morning about how to resurrect a creative writing project that has been lying dormant for over a year. And I attribute that breakthrough to this practice. I hadn’t even thought about this project in a very long time and had been quite happy for it to stay dormant. It was a pleasant surprise to have this flicker of renewed inspiration. The morning pages also worked as an exercise in getting in touch with my thoughts and feelings. A couple of helpful insights arose from my writing during the week that I was able to apply later on. That said, I already have a consistent (and more efficient, less stressful, and less time-consuming) journaling practice that plays this role for me, so I didn’t find the practice itself all that enlightening. Finally, as a specifically spiritual practice, I have to say I found it a bit of a dud. I did have moments of connection with God, but that was only when I went there intentionally, rather than anything to do with the practice. And, while I’m not unsympathetic to the theological idea that our creativity can be a way of communion with God’s creativity, I honestly think I would have been better served on this front to have used the time I spent on the morning pages working on my creative projects.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that I’m pretty ambivalent about using morning pages as a sacred practice. I didn’t find that it did what it claims to do in any meaningful way, and I have existing practices that do what it did do more directly. However, as stressful as I found the goal of writing three full pages, I’m really glad I challenged myself to do so and that I didn’t adjust the parameters of the exercise midway. It was a real stretch for me and that was helpful in and of itself. And, I can heartily endorse the practice for certain kinds of situations. If you are a creative person suffering from a creative block, I think this practice could be very helpful. Similarly, if you find journaling hard, or if your journal ends up just being a list of what you did that day, this could be a really beneficial practice in connecting to your inner world.
While I don’t think I’ll be engaging with this practice going forward, this isn’t to say I haven’t learned anything from it. The biggest take-away from the practice for me is to loosen the reins a bit in my journaling practice. I realize that, while I’m pretty open and honest in my journal, I do self-censor and can be overly-focused on my agenda rather than what might be happening in my head or heart at the time. What’s happening in the moment might not be particularly important or meaningful, but it may be well worth exploring. I was similarly challenged by the shift in control between having the words on the page follow my thoughts and having my thoughts follow the words on the page. I definitely think I could stand to gain by exerting less control in my journal. And finally, the exercise was a helpful reminder to use my morning writing time to write. Too often I get sidetracked by planning or editing; these are important parts of the process, but they aren’t the reason I get up early every morning. I want to write and so I must write. And so, I will write; it just might be three paragraphs of one of my projects instead of three pages for the sake of writing three pages.