How Morning Pages Saved My Writing

Cover for The Artist's Way by Julia CameronAround this time two years ago, my boyfriend would ask me things like “How’s writing going?” and “What’s your novel about?” and I’d feel the type of dread usually reserved for having multiple cavities filled. These are perfectly harmless—even good—questions (something I realized later), but I’d get all defensive, as if he was asking how many times I’d had pizza that week. Worse, I was envious of a friend who’d been winning big writing awards, and I compared myself to the “successful” writers I promoted as part of my day job. I knew I was in a bad place. More than once, I thought to myself that I ought to try The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. You’ve probably seen it around. It’s touted in book stores, artist supply stores, and, one time, in the gift shop of a monastery I was visiting in Hingham (long story). One look at its pages and I’d cringe. It was full of affirmations, and over-the-top, repetitive fluff about moving past your inner critic. Yet I’d also seen that authors and artists, including Elizabeth Gilbert and Anne Lamott, said that it changed their lives. 

It’s a weird thing, avoiding a book, especially when it’s a book you avoid for, I don’t know, five years? What made it worse was its goal of helping creatives to become “unblocked.” Honestly, who wants to call herself a blocked creative? It sounded miserable, like a disease. And it sort of is an addiction—the cycle of not-writing followed by beating yourself up over it is hard to stop, when the alternative is to call out your fear for what it is, face that fear, and be okay with writing badly. Sometimes very badly. 

The main thing that saved me is what Julia Cameron calls Morning Pages. The practice is simple.  First thing in the morning, before you do anything else, you sit down and write three 8 ½ x 11 pages, longhand. (Julia says that you are allowed to make coffee before you do it. Not that she’s Julia Child or anything, but still). That’s it. You can write anything, and you do it every day. Then you put them away—you don’t read them. The first time I did morning pages, it took me about one hour, but after a few tries, I was able to do them in under thirty minutes (a pen that moves fast, say, the Pilot G-2, is helpful here). The idea is to get everything out on the page, to face yourself. Whatever fears you have, look them in the eye. It’s kind of like giving therapy…to yourself. (And what writer wouldn’t benefit from that?) There were oh-so many fears, far more than expected. There was standard self-doubt about writing, and there were the bad stories I told myself about myself, unrealistic expectations to work through. To my chagrin, the Morning Pages I wrote for the first month were mostly working through negative self-talk. Later, though, they became much kinder, to myself as well as others. And these days, I mostly use them as a warm-up for novel-writing, to write a character’s backstory or work through kinks in my plot.

Most importantly, Morning Pages helped me re-define what success is. I’d love to get published; I was thrilled to receive this writing residency (thanks, PSB). But now, “success” is the consistent act of writing itself, come acceptance or rejection, come good words or sloppy sentences (like this one). And now, when someone asks me how my writing is going, I can respond, with joy and gratitude, that it’s going. And that is enough.

-Catherine Flora Con, 2019 Writer in Residence for Adults.

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