I’ve never put effort in living a creative life. I mean, not mental effort — not the psychological kind that required me to sit there contemplating what I could do to bolster my natural impulses to make stuff. When I was three and trying to teach myself how to draw hearts, for example, I sat at my parents’ coffee table for hours scribbling tomato-shaped blobs because I couldn’t figure out how to make two connecting lines make a “V” at the bottom of the shape.
Hours of destroying my Crayola markers. Hours. Days, even, because I couldn’t get my three-year-old brain to process why, when I looked at the shape of a heart that my father had drawn as an example and the pink tomato-blob repeated on pages of dot matrix printing paper, that there was a point that I was trying to make, but I wasn’t quite able to translate it with the tool that I had: my hand. My stupid three-year-old hand was failing me, and I was wildly frustrated about it.
The effort was always applied through sheer stubbornness. Executed again and again until finally I made my fingers cooperate, and I had a heart on a page, and I was hollering at my mother to put it on the fridge, for god’s sake woman — the fridge is my testament! My forum of achievement! My proof of a slavish work ethic!
I’ve never needed to adhere to any rigid principals that funnel me into any other category. I’ve always just liked what I liked, and I’ve been labelled accordingly: writer, designer, artist.
It’s not aspirational, it just is. I aspire to be a published author, but I’m not an aspiring writer. I am. I am a student of the craft, and I work my ass off at it to better my chances of becoming part of the 1%. I battle the same anxiety that most people face when confronted with a blank page, and although I’ve internalized a lot of that inner frustration, there are places where I’m very up front about it.
My partner hears a lot of it. My journals more. Today I’m going to talk about the latter forum for venting all the things so I can be level-as-fuck the rest of the time.
The Writing Process
My peaks and valleys in this particular pursuit are a constant challenge that requires negotiation, and that negotiation requires the additional effort of reflection and contemplation and note-taking that often gets overlooked in favour of the final product. I’ve only been asked the question, “What’s your process like?” with respect to writing in the bullet journal community. Everyone else (who is not a writer) favours a line of questioning that ends in, “When is your book going to be finished?”
My answer to them is that it’s never finished. The work is only abandoned.
Writing is a practice. It’s like Kung Fu or Yoga or Pranayama breathing. I wish I was far more monk-like about it than I actually am, but I’m getting better at the “discipline” side of things. For example, I’ve stopped throwing around furniture like a disgruntled poltergeist when I’m frustrated.* I have never punched a wall.** I don’t try to drown myself in alcohol when it’s not going well — I’d never get anything done if I hung out at the bottom of a wine bottle all the time.
Doesn’t mean I’m not prone to fits, I’ve only learned to work through them.
(For what it’s worth, my inner monologue often follows the path of: you’re not doing enough, you’re not producing enough, you’re not progressing, you’re never going to get there, you’re never going to get better. MOMENT OF ELATED JOY WHEN SOMETHING GOES RIGHT. Repeat the cycle.)
Today I’d like to introduce a new practice I’ve chucked into my method to help deal with the highs and lows of novel writing. It doesn’t involve booze, which while I’m sure is a disappointment to some, I’m not about that life.
* I may be exaggerating a bit. I don’t think I’m physically capable of throwing furniture. Also, we have heavy furniture. Except for that crappy Ikea LACK coffee table that I refused to get rid of when we moved here.
** I may be exaggerating a lot. I like my knuckles in tact, okay?
The Mourning Pages
To begin with, I’m riffing on the name with a homonym. If you google it, you’re probably get a recommended correction to your search query.
They’re called Morning Pages. Not “mourning” pages, though adopting that title was a ba dum dum tsch for me, given my predisposition to death culture and memento mori and the simple fact that I write horror, ergo, my life’s soundtrack is a dirge. Morning Pages refers to the act of purging yourself of mental clutter first thing in the morning before you start the day, and it comes from Julia Cameron’s book, The Artist’s Way.
Morning Pages consist of three hand-written pages, executed when you first get up for the day. They are intended as a clearing exercise to get rid of all the bullshit nonsensical jibber jabber that’s in your head before you start your work. Creative work. Design work. Writing work. Work that requires focus and that lovely brain-hum that suggests you’ve caught the flow and you’re allowing the world to fall away.
The world does not fall away when you’re thinking about doing the dishes, scrubbing a toilet, or thinking about what you’re going to make for dinner. Did I clean the cat litter? Did I forget to lock up the werewolf last night before the full moon? Etc.
Fun fact! In her introductory video, Julia Cameron mentions that the homonym “mourning pages” is appropriate, because the practice of writing Morning Pages is a little like saying goodbye to the old things that no longer serve you, in order to make way for the new.
Check out her introduction to Morning Pages here:
The Basics of writing Morning Pages
There is one objective: get out the excess clutter in your head. This is not about perfect penmanship, this is not about doing it “right”. I’m giving you the license to be messy, to be truthful, and if the only thing you can put to the page at seven a.m. is “I’m tired” a hundred times, then write “I’m tired” a hundred times until you start writing something else.
In my experience, my output at seven and eight a.m. is wildly different from my evening reflection pages that I include in my Bullet Journal. Pre-caffeinated, I’m a monster. I hate literally everything. I hate getting up, and I hate taking showers, and I hate not being able to put sugar in my coffee because it’s bad for me, and I hate the morning commute, and I hate that it’s snowing, and I hate that my legs hurt from overtaxing myself doing yoga the previous day.
There are occasions where I wake up hating the work I did the night before.
My work schedule is such that I usually start writing fiction from 8 p.m. through 11 p.m. That gives me a couple of hours to have dinner, prep for the next day, and watch Netflix to disengage from my daytime schedule before setting up shop on the chaise in the living room with my laptop. You better believe that I usually go to bed with the last scene in my head, and if it didn’t go well, by the time I open my eyes the next morning I’m extra grumpy and I’m definitely obsessing over what didn’t work.
That goes into my Mourning Pages, and that’s when things start getting constructive.
Using a notebook and scribbling about whatever I put into the writing always helps me think my way around it. Always.
You get outside of it. You stop immersing yourself from the point of view of the character or the narrator, you extract yourself from the trees and take a good hard look at the forest.
A couple of tips
Finished, not perfect
If you’re not accustomed to writing by hand, don’t be intimidated: these pages are for you alone. It’s not a gun show: you don’t need to show off your handwriting and no one is going to judge you if you have to slash out a few spelling mistakes. They do not need to be perfect, they only need to be done.
Be truthful. Take no prisoners. Show no mercy.
Finished. Not perfect. Finished. Not perfect.
Do it before your brain has a chance to process what you’re doing
Get up, grab coffee, grab pen, do the thing. Some people offer leniency on when you ought to be writing morning pages, regardless of the hour of the day. From my perspective, I wouldn’t be calling them morning pages if I was writing them in the afternoon.
I am not a morning person (if you require a reminder, please see the list above referencing all the things I hate before noon.)
Practically, carving out the extra time at an ungodly hour is the sort of discipline that sets the tone for the rest of the day: it’s house cleaning. It’s necessary. It makes you feel like a god.
When I’m especially busy, it’s the most important to make the time. Carve it out like it was a pound of flesh: you know it hurts, but you also know it’s good for you.
The best thing about respecting that time slot, however, is that it’s just like exercise. If you hate exercise, and you especially hate exercise that’s done before your day job starts when you’re sluggish and tired and you definitely don’t want to, understand that in electing to roll out of bed and put on your sneakers before your brain can process what you’re about to do to your body is the best way to dupe yourself into getting it done. Show up and shut up. It’s highly unlikely that once you’re up and at your desk you’ll find an excuse to crawl back to bed.
Pick up the pen.
A note on tools
“Oh, but Kira, my hand cramps when I don’t use my computer.”
Get a fountain pen. If you’re using a fountain pen, you’re putting less strain on the muscles in your hand because you don’t need to press so hard on the paper to get the ink to flow.
The more you do it, the more you build up the muscles in your hand. The stronger the muscles in your hand get, the faster you write. Soon, your forty-five minute Morning Pages writing session is taking fifteen, and you’re swilling your second cup of coffee while finally able to focus on the important things: your plot, your theme, that insane thing your protagonist is about to do to utterly eviscerate their chances with boy!crush #2.
I’m using a dead-cheap pink Lamy Safari pen and an old journal I’ve had sitting around that I wasn’t sure what to do with to get the words down. My writing is in six different colours, and if I need to switch to gel pens for some reason because I’m feeling plucky, then I do it. (These bad boys cost me thirteen bucks and the ink flows great.)
And guys? My Morning Pages book? It’s ooglay. It’s a pretty journal on the outside, but it’s ultra gross on the inside.
Why not a computer? Why not my smart phone?
I’d like to reference Julia Cameron’s article on this one, as she puts it far more eloquently than I can as I flail my hands and bemoan our lack of analog tools in a digital world (and I am so dependent on my MacBook. I am the worst culprit of having my phone attached to my person at all times. If I can do this, you can too.):
When we write by hand, we connect to ourselves. We may get speed and distance when we type, but we get a truer connection–to ourselves and our deepest thoughts– when we actually put pen to page.
Think of writing Morning Pages on the computer as if you are driving 80 miles an hour. “Oh– wait, was that my exit?” we exclaim, glancing back over our shoulder at the destination we have blown past. When we write by hand, it is more like we are driving 60 miles an hour. “Here comes my exit,” we say, well before we get to it. “Look, there’s even a gas station there. And what beautiful foliage…” In other words, we notice ourselves and our surroundings. And in doing this, the paradox is that we are ultimately more effective– and, yes, efficient– throughout our day.
I recognize that this may seem a little daunting at first. Three whole handwritten pages first thing in the morning sounded like torture for me. I was barely getting out of bed on time as it was, and the prospect of adding another half hour to my morning routine sounded dreadful.
The thing that really pushed me into doing it (because “Do or do not, there is no try,” you know) was the slog of the midpoint in my latest novel’s revision. Now, granted, what started as a very simple and straightforward horror novel morphed into a dark fantasy trilogy pretty quickly, and despite my preparations to tackle the rewrite, it’s still hell. I’d gotten to the point where I could not see how things were ever going to knit together, so I bit the bullet.
Morning Pages creating a bit of a paradigm shift, since doing it helps me flip the on/off switch when it comes to writing immersively while in the draft, and writing about the work critically. After a couple of days, I quickly began to see a game plan formulating where there was none before, and even better, I had edit notes.
When I sit down to the draft at the end of the day, I’ve got a point of reference to work with, but I also feel better: I’m not restricting use of Morning Pages to writing. If I need to talk (bitch) about real life, I do. It takes a real weight off, letting me focus on important things.
Finally, writing by hand has triggered a love of fountain pens. I used to be intimidated by these things, but it really makes the physical process easier, and also, they’re super pretty. (That’s a whole other story. I’ve developed a craven lust for the Kaweko Al Sport and the Lamy LX. Want. So. Hard. Seriously, such a pleasure to use. An inks! You can buy a an adapter cartridge and load them with your choice of ink! I’ll save that jibber jabber for another time.)
Are you writing Morning Pages?
Tell me how they’ve helped you in the comments. I’d love to know how they’ve helped your process.