They say that the best way to start a story is in media res—with the plot already unfolding, so I’ll spare you the introductory post and get straight to my first topic: Morning Pages. If you write professionally or as a hobby, you may have come across the technique promoted in Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way.
Morning Pages are a freeform writing exercise performed at the beginning of your every day. The premise is this: Sit down and write three pages by hand. Don’t edit. Don’t stop. Don’t try to make sense. Just dump the contents of your head onto paper. When you’ve filled three sheets, stop and carry on with your schedule.
Cameron recommends letter-size paper and a three-page limit as providing the right amount of effort to get your mind unstuck, but you can hack the technique to suit your style. You can time it, use a word processor, or jot down your thoughts in a notebook. One writer friend dropped her pages into the fireplace after she was done, creating a purification ritual. (If you lack a hearth, a shredder might offer an appropriate page purging mechanism, or you can simply chuck your words into the recycling bin.)
Since I’m not what you’d call a morning person—my workdays often start at noon and can extend past midnight—I have cheekily dubbed this exercise Mourning Pages. This dour monicker is at times à propos, as I often scribble about my struggles with writer’s block, crazy deadlines, or other assorted miseries during this mind-clearing ritual. When I remember to do them, that is.
You see, my biggest problem is routine. I follow established workflows and hit daily targets after I’ve started a project and accepted its deadline. But outside such a framework, I can be undisciplined. And so, Mourning Pages are often neglected while I gorge on social media content. My first espresso is inviolable, but my daily writing exercise is not.
Partly, it’s because Mourning Pages feel like going to the gym. If conjugating verbs—as I did for years while learning French—is callisthenics, this feels like riding a stationary bike, and I would much rather hit the open road, even if only to write a quick e-mail to let a client know to expect a finished file later in the day. The free association thing sometimes works, but often, I find myself registering the day’s complaints. And that belongs in my journal.
Some days, I do Mourning Pages as they are intended. I spout random streams of silliness that silence my internal censor and permit me to spend the rest of the day writing without second-guessing the placement of every comma. That rare, miraculous occurrence reveals a greater truth. Thirty years later, writing still does not come easy.
You may marvel at the prodigious output of Stephen King (63 novels and counting), but don’t assume that writing quickly makes it any easier. On some days, I can pump out 2,000 polished words in about four hours, but most days, I need twice as much time. Even when the words are flowing like the mighty Mississippi in the rainy season, writing is never easy, and I’ve not yet met a professional writer who thinks that it is.
I guess my beef with Mourning Pages is this: The only way to fire up your neurons and start writing is to plug away at your work. At times, you may need to free-associate to break past a creative block. Making it a daily ritual feels hokey, especially as I find my daily pages devolving into journalling, which I try to do anyway.
Maybe the problem resides in my not being a morning person in any sense of the word. Of late, I find that journalling longhand, and with intent, just before bed, acts as a nightcap, helping me to process the day, and calming my mind before going to sleep. It’s a way of expending the mental energy that often keeps me awake, and such scribbling often sparks creative ideas for the next day’s work. Mourning Pages may work for you, but I find the best use for longhand writing is to wind me down rather than up.