The theme of my most recent newsletter was New Wine, Old Oak; encouraging readers to be comfortable with both the old and the familiar as there are plenty of lessons and insights to gain.
Like a decent bottle of vintage red, a good example of a relatively old title continuing to appreciate in value is The Artist’s Way – a book written by the screenwriter Julia Cameron over 25 years ago.
Five or so years ago I heard whisperings of it as a great guide to unlocking anyone’s creative potential, but I didn’t take real note until Brian Koppelman – the host of my second favourite podcast, ‘The Moment’ – mentioned it in a number of episodes. He cited the book and one its main messages as a crucial part of his day and also his wider practice as a creative professional.
I was intrigued.
Then, as with many good recommendations, I did… absolutely nothing.
Many months later, I was midway through my coaching certification course at the New York Open Center. Browsing the center’s book shelves one lunchtime, ‘The Artist’s Way’ seemed to leap out at me. Perhaps it was indeed The Moment.
By this point I’d already been practicing Morning Pages, one of the book’s two main pillars – and the one Koppelman had recommended so enthusiastically. Reading the book just set it in place more firmly.
Three years on, and I’ve been hearing more and more people talking about starting Morning Pages. Because kicking off anything new inevitably has some hurdles, I wanted to share my process as well as a few of the things I’ve learned along the way.
For the uninitiated, Morning Pages are the simple practice of writing three pages of freehand each and every morning.
There’s no direction, no filter, no end goal. Just write.
Or as the author Neil Gaiman says – there is one rule: you can write, or you can choose to do absolutely nothing. You just can’t do anything else. (Gaiman wasn’t talking about Morning Pages specifically, but it’s a good rule of thumb for just about any writing)
There are a few reasons most people take on the practice of Morning Pages:
- Clearing out the cruft and junk from your brain
- Giving you confidence and clarity to feel it’s possible; the pen is moving!
- An additional / alternative meditative practice
- Some magic may show up (if you’re lucky)
A lot of people wonder if this is journaling. Somewhat. But if you look up the definition of a journal you’ll see:
A journal is a scholarly publication containing articles written by researchers, professors and other experts.
Your personal journal may not feel quite like this, but it’s definitely going to be thoughtful (if not scholarly).
Morning Pages are different – because there’s no filter, no curation, no blockers – not even any craft. There’s little directed, conscious thought.
For even the most tentative writer, this is empowering.
But writing every day… just writing?! It can still feel tough.
Here’s how I’ve taken on the practice so far.
Cameron recommends doing the 3 pages of Morning Pages on paper, longhand.
This is the classic way to go, and when it comes to writing kit there are myriad notebook and pen combos you can geek out on.
However, many people – including me – inevitably use their computer (or a phone, if you have particularly potent digits).
As a guide, 3 pages comes out at about 750 words.
I use my computer as:
a) my handwriting is a disgrace; and
b) I like having all the entries in one place in case I want to do anything with them (more on that in a moment).
In terms of software, I started with Evernote before abandoning it due to having license issues (I didn’t want to cough up for a Premium account to use it on both my desktop and laptop). I switched to Notion for a bit, but then went to Scrivener as I found Notion less intuitive for long-form writing.
My Scrivener account syncs to my Dropbox account, so as long as I remember to close the file first, I can access and create the Morning Pages on either device.
I’m tempted to make another switch (maybe back to Notion, maybe elsewhere) but for now having Scrivener on my desktop lets me pretend I’m a mercurial screenwriter about to come with Tony Gilroy levels of magic.
2. Doing the do
Morning Pages should be done in the morning – as you have probably surmised.
I aim to do mine as early as I can. However, this is where doing them digitally can be an issue. I’m more likely to write in a notebook early in the morning with breakfast or a coffee than make the intention step of sitting in front of my computer.
Note to self: I may test out some handwritten days and see if it switches my mood and output.
In either case, I’ll look to do my Pages before 9am. Sometimes at weekends I’ll flake, but not often – and I’ll definitely do them every single weekday, unless for some reason I forget or have a crippling hangover. As is often the case with age, the latter is becoming more rare and the former more common.
Once writing, I’ll aim to follow Neil Gaiman’s rule of writing or nothing. Koppelman says to never let the pen leave the paper. This one’s a bit tougher, and I do sometimes find myself having a thought and trying to immediately jot it down somewhere else. This inevitably leads to distractions (again, a downside of the digital method).
As I mentioned above, 750 words is about the ‘right’ amount to aim for. I probably get to this point 50% of the time. The other 50% I’ll get tired, bored, or distracted (what a trio!), and top out somewhere around the 400 word mark.
However – and this is the beautiful irony of course – the really good stuff only seems to come out at 500+ words. It pays to dig in.
With a bit of doing nothing, and maybe the odd little distraction, it’s worth setting aside 15-20 minutes to get the 750 down – and maybe longer if you’re just starting out.
Once I’m done, I’ll save my Scrivener file, close it, take a breath, note down any big breakthroughs or to-do’s that the Pages threw up, and settle in to my day.
3. Checking In
In the book, it’s suggested to review the pages regularly – particularly if you’re following the course-style format the book takes.
Others tend to review their pages occasionally – once a year perhaps; either lightly skimming them as part of a personal review; or more systematically, analysing for most common words or themes.
Meanwhile, Brian Koppelman never looks at the pages at all. Once written, that’s it. They’re gone, bound away in a book somewhere, never to be seen again.
I keep mine stored, but bar the odd skim for a particular date I’m thinking back to, they never get touched. Hundreds of thousands of words – never revealed again… killing your darlings, indeed.
How you review is up to you.
There’s no need to add anything to the practice – after all, it’s just a stream of consciousness at its core.
However, I’ve added a couple of extras – mainly to save me the hassle of a bunch of different introspective bits each day.
First is the Day Rating. I stole this from Jim Collins – author of ‘Good to Great’. Very simply, rate each day on a scale of -2 to +2: with -2 being terrible, and +2 being wonderful.
Collins does this in a spreadsheet at the end of each day to maintain freshness and accuracy. Because I’m lazy, I add this number at the start of each Morning Pages entry, rating the previous day. The vast majority of entries come in at 0 or +1, but it can be interesting to observe when there are a row of highs or lows. The streaks can reveal hidden themes.
The second thing I’ve added is ‘3 from yesterday’. Typically these are 3 of the most positive things from the day before, but could also be as mundane as calling someone on the phone, or making a decent lunch. Again, I lifted this from elsewhere (hey, everything’s a remix): Tony Robbins talks about the concept of ‘3 to Thrive’ which is very similar.
So, my Morning Pages practice takes place every morning, usually first thing (before 8:30am wherever possible), for at least 350 words, and with those two little additions.
I found it to be one of the few practices I do keep up just about every single day, and when I get on a good streak of doing it early and letting the keyboard fly along, the odd magic moment of levitation and lightness starts to appear.
And even if there’s not that sense of sorcery, I always feel just that little more clearer and that little more capable as I head into the day.
Give it a try, and see how the pen flows.