As expansive and impressive as the mind is, it’s also lazy.
Left to its own devices, it recycles tired thoughts, takes rutted paths, and steers clear of unfamiliar and uncomfortable territory.
Are you stuck creatively?
Is your brain forever chattering away, anxiously looping around and around the same problems you’ve been facing for days, weeks, or even months?
I got an early hint of it in high school when my mom suggested I try something she’d been doing, called “morning pages,” where you write three pages of stream-of-consciousness writing first thing in the morning. You just write what comes to mind, no matter how disjointed, meaningless, or negative it is. The idea is from the gazillion-selling creativity bible, The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. My mom has been doing it for years, and I know some of you do too.
But what are Morning Pages, and how do they work?
What Are Morning Pages?
The Morning Pages practice was introduced by artist Julia Cameron in her 1992 book, The Artist’s Way (and further explained in her short follow-up ebook, The Miracle of Morning Pages).
You might also be familiar with a practice known as freewriting, championed in Accidental Genius: Using Writing to Generate Your Best Ideas, Insight, and Content by Mark Levy.
It turns out the Morning Pages technique and freewriting are truly close cousins.
In both cases, the idea is to write as freely and as close to stream-of-consciousness as possible, without the nagging interference of your Inner Editor (more on him later).
Julia Cameron’s Morning Pages practice adds two additional constraints:
- You have to do it first thing in the morning, and
- You must fill three pages with words
The original Morning Pages technique also calls for hand-written pages, but I think we can be forgiven for wanting a keyboard and infinite whitespace to write.
Web apps like 750 Words encourage you to write 750 words (or roughly 3 published pages) every single day. This app and others were created using the Barnacle Strategy—quite purposefully “barning” onto Julia Cameron’s Morning Pages technique.
For David Cain, the process of producing Morning Pages “knocks something loose in a good way.”
In Accidental Genius, Mark Levy calls freewriting a form of “forced creativity.”
But even if we’re convinced that others are benefiting from the practice, how do Morning Pages actually work?
How to Start Using the Morning Pages Technique
Our minds hold a vast invisible inventory of thoughts and expertise. These phenomena might better help us create ideas and solve problems if we could only reach them, play with them, develop them, and make them practical.
So how do we get those pesky/helpful thoughts out of our heads and onto the page?
- Set a time limit. Levy advocates freewriting to a timer (say like a single Pomodoro?). He even calls it a sprint:
See, when I’m asking you to freewrite, I’m asking you to sprint. Now if I specified that you were to sprint flat out for a short, designated distance—say, forty yards—you’d hoof it. But if I implored you to sprint for a vague range—say, between forty years and forty miles—you’d hold down your speed and wait to see how far you’d have to go. You’d exert yourself less because the parameters of the race were uncertain.
It’s the logic of timeboxing, just in a different context. “In a sense, the timer enforces a self-imposed behavioral contract: You promise yourself to think and write deeply for a certain period, you do it, and then you can put your feet up,” writes Levy.
- Write fast. Don’t fret over word choice.
- Write without stopping.
- Write conversationally. Hey look, you don’t need to sweat over grammar. Or punctuation. Or even writing complete sentences (like this). Just write the way you would speak to a close friend. From Accidental Genius, here’s Mark Levy again:
If you’ve ever been given advice on how to prepare a document for the business community, you’ve probably been admonished to “write the way you speak.” That is, you’ve been asked to make your document sound conversational—and, therefore, easier to understand—by using contractions, plain words, personal pronouns, and a dozen minirules to give the impression that you’re hovering behind your readers, whispering directly into their ears (although if they tried to shoo you away, there’d be nothing there to swat).
However, the “write the way you speak” advice falls short when it comes to freewriting. “During a bout of freewriting, it’s imperative that you get at your raw thoughts before the prissy side of your mind cleans them up for public viewing and, in the process, squelches their effectiveness. So don’t ‘write the way you speak,’ but ‘write the way you think.’”
That means including all the “ums,” “ahs,” lacunae, lost points, digressions, and repetitive loops that plague your mind’s normal inner dialogue. Morning Pages require your unfiltered thoughts to work properly.
- Follow your thought (even negative ones). You might fall down some rabbit holes. You might stray into darker thoughts you weren’t even aware were present. Don’t be afraid to go there—remember, these are your private words. No one else need ever read them. The process of putting all your thoughts—even negative ones—down on paper is cathartic. It can free you of that thought or immediately point you to a solution. There’s already an overabundance of shallow, hedonistic, meaningless thinking in day-to-day life—don’t feel like you need to fake happiness for your Morning Pages if that’s not really where your head’s at.
Morning Pages: Julia Cameron and Mark Levy on the Many Benefits of Freewriting
Cameron and Levy present a number of reasons why freewriting/Morning Pages technique is so useful:
- Get thoughts out of your head.
- Quiet your Inner Editor.
- Get perspective.
- Map your own interior.
- Strengthen your habits.
- Document your own thinking.
- Kickstart your creativity.
Let’s deep-dive into a few of them, shall we?
1. Quiet Your Inner Editor (or Critic or Censor)
You know that nagging voice inside your head?
The one telling you to do or say this and not that? The one that bosses you around, tells you that you’re inadequate, and obsesses over what other people think of you?
That is your Inner Editor.
(Well, to me it is an editor, because I think like a writer. For Julia Cameron, it’s the Inner Censor. For others, it’s the Inner Critic. And The War of Art author Steven Pressfield would probably call it the Resistance. Let’s all agree that when I call it the Inner Editor I am referring to all of the above species of inner negative voices.)
Your Inner Editor is a champ at knocking down your creative side. In The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron writes that your Morning Pages are the primary tool of “creative recovery”:
As blocked artists, we tend to criticize ourselves mercilessly. Even if we look like functioning artists to the world, we feel we never do enough and what we do isn’t right. We are victims of our own internalized perfectionist, a nasty internal and eternal critic, the Censor, who resides in our (left) brain and keeps up a constant stream of subversive remarks that are often disguised as the truth.
Make this a rule: always remember that your Censor’s negative opinions are not the truth. This takes practice.
Through the power of freewriting, Morning Pages can (temporarily) force your Inner Editor to take a backseat to your inner creative: “By writing continuously, you force the edit-crazy part of your mind into a subordinate position, so the idea-producing part can keep spitting out words,” writes Mark Levy in Accidental Genius.
Over time, this effect becomes so powerful that you become a kind of conduit for creativity. The words simply come spilling out, sometimes faster than you can consciously register them.
In The Artist’s Way, Cameron talks about turning her writing over to the creative force inside of her:
I learned to just show up at the page and write down what I heard. Writing became more like eavesdropping and less like inventing a nuclear bomb. It wasn’t so tricky, and it didn’t blow up on me anymore. I didn’t have to be in the mood, I didn’t have to take my emotional temperature to see if inspiration was pending. I simply wrote. No negotiations. Good, bad? None of my business. I wasn’t doing it. By resigning as the self-conscious author, I wrote freely.
2. Map Your Own Interior By Writing Into Uncharted Waters
We’re so busy these days, we sometimes get disconnected from ourselves. I call this phenomenon losing touch with your internal feedback loop.
In The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron makes an impassioned case for using Morning Pages to get in touch with your inner self:
All that angry, whiny, petty stuff that you write down in the morning stands between you and your creativity. Worrying about the job, the laundry, the funny knock in the car, the weird look in your lover’s eye—this stuff eddies through our subconscious and muddies our days. Get it on the page.
Morning pages map our own interior. Without them, our dreams may remain terra incognita. I know mine did. Using them, the light of insight is coupled with the power for expansive change. It is very difficult to complain about a situation morning after morning, month after month, without being moved to constructive action. The pages lead us out of despair and into undreamed-of solutions.
This ability to problem-solve on the page as you write is powerful. You might not even be aware something is bugging you until you see it show up repeatedly in your Morning Pages.
Mark Levy is big on using freewriting as a way to push out of your comfort zone or force yourself into “uncharted waters” as he puts it:
You want new. Force yourself into uncharted waters, even if doing so seems artificial or uncomfortable. Pursue novelty and uncertainty; head toward anxiety. Make yourself write and think about ideas that aren’t traditionally “you.” Get beyond the point where you write about what you know. As Ron Carlson wrote, “If you get what you expect, it isn’t good enough.”
3. Kickstart Your Creativity
Your creativity is a hot commodity right now, especially if you can express yourself through writing.
As Nicole Dieker writing for personal finance blog The Billfold notes, Internet publishing is “one of the few Boom Time industries” in the New Economy.
The search engine era has made words into the single most indexed form of expression in human history. And while that’s changing somewhat with image search and voice search, for the time being, text reigns supreme.
Add to that the constant need for fresh new material, and you have a nearly bottomless appetite for articles, essays, and blog posts.
It takes a bit of work, but the three Morning Pages you produce every day can easily be converted to useful written material for other projects.
Mark Levy in Accidental Genius suggests an exercise he calls opening up a word:
When you “open up a word,” you redefine that word (or the phrase that contains it) so it has personal meaning. In a sense, you become an explorer within the word, forsaking the sleepy meaning others have given it, and discover for yourself if the concepts embedded within it are still valid.
Here’s an example of his from the book using the word “empowerment”:
The majority of the business world doesn’t use empowerment as a practice, at least, not effectively. For most businesspeople, empowerment is an untested concept, or a rationalization for a disinterested, laissez-faire management style.
Here are more problems inherent in the conventional idea of “empowerment.” If workers are truly empowered, they’re going to make mistakes, probably in front of the customer. Sounds good in a business book, but not so good when a lengthening line of exasperated customers roll their eyes in front of you. … If workers are truly empowered, they may use their autonomy as a way to justify laziness, explaining away their inefficient service as something they thought was necessary, given the situation.
If workers are truly empowered, they still need monitoring because they’re executing actions out of the accepting norm, actions that may have untold, companywide ramifications.
How much editing would it take to turn that into a pretty effective opening for a corporate whitepaper, let’s say? Not much, right?
You can do the same with your freewriting once you get the hang of it.
My personal goal is to produce 250 words of publishable words every day, or one out of every three Morning Pages.