At the end of January of this year, I read a New Yorker interview conducted by Rachel Syme with Julia Cameron. I knew about Julia Cameron because my late wife Jenny loved her book “The Artist’s Way,” which was published in the early 1990’s. The book spoke to her, and she worked with the program on and off over a period of years. I always thought of the book as her thing, especially since at the time I did not consider myself an artist. I looked the book over but I never read it.
But then I read the interview, in which she spoke of a spiritual crisis brought on by the pandemic. It is a great interview. She covered her history and talked about her methods. Her two primary methods are “Morning Pages” and “Artist Dates.”
At the start of the interview, Syme asked her “did you do your morning pages today?” Cameron answered that she does them every day. It impressed me that she has being doing them for, what? Forty years. Jenny had a hard time doing them daily and I know a few people who started doing them for a while, and then stopped, just as Jenny did. I didn’t know anyone who was doing them, except, here is Cameron doing them every day for decades.
As I read through the interview I could see how her methods help people “unblock” and just do better. By the end of the interview, I sat back and I decided: “I am going to do this for the rest of my life.”
What are morning pages? They are three pages of long-hand writing on full-sized letter paper. Hand-written, not typed, and not on a computer. Three full pages, not 1, 2, or 4. What do you write about? Anything. Nothing. Whatever.
There are no rules about what to write, only that it has to be three pages of long-hand writing. This is not quote-unquote “writing” where you are writing to publish, or trying to write well, or even coherently. You write what comes into your head, and if nothing comes into your head, you write “nothing is coming into my head.” The point is to get the crap that is in your head onto paper. It is like meditation with writing, where you work to take what your “monkey mind” comes up with and put it down on paper. They are “write once, read never.” They are not a journal. You never go back to them: rather, they are just to get yourself to flow and to unblock your brain. They are unedited. There are no rules, This is id stuff, with ego and, well, you all mixed up. What is on your mind? Write it down. After three pages, you are done. You do this every morning.
Cameron’s other method is the “artist’s date,” which is a once-a-week “date” with your inner-artist, and only your inner artist – i.e. yourself, to do or see something creative, or to do or see something inspiring. Things like watching a great movie, reading poetry, taking a drive to a beautiful place listing to music, taking photographs of my favorite places, and of course museums and cultural centers. Taking time out to appreciate beauty is beneficial and inspiring, and it has helped me appreciate life more, and to be more creative.
It was the morning pages that clicked with me. I like the idea of writing without having to be good at it, or edit it, or publish it. I like the freeness of it. Because it is stream of consciousness, I knew I could fill up three pages fairly easily every day, even if I had to write “I have no idea what to write” over and over for three pages. Just the fact of putting down words unlocks not being able to find words, and we can move on. It is writing and creating with no judgement, not even self-judgement. This is why I made such a definite decision to do them for the rest of my life: I could see that it is a very doable thing, and I could see that this type of writing, this pushing it out there, would break the cycle of worrying about how “good” it is. It is removing Marley’s chains for three pages, every day.
I decided to start the next morning. I bought the latest edition of The Artist’s Way, and I thought about how I wanted to write my morning pages. I knew that they are meant to be written and not read, so I suppose any letter-sized paper would do, but I didn’t want them to be ugly or cheap or to be piles of loose-leaf paper. On the other hand, I saw no need to buy expensive hard-bound notebooks. I always loved hard-cover Moleskine notebooks and I have several that I have used over the years. They are the best quality, the pages are gorgeous, they are bound perfectly, but they are overkill for morning pages. However, Moleskine also makes soft-cover and less expensive 120-page “Cahiers” which are sold in three-packs. They are easy to carry and the paper is high quality. The XXL size is 8.5 x 11 – perfect. I ordered a set.
The next question was, what pen to use? Writing three pages a day is a commitment. A cheap, crappy pen just will not do. I have disposable pens, but they are not meant for this. My favorite pens are Fisher Spacepens. They are romantic (they were designed for astronauts!) and they write anywhere from any angle. Fisher sells a number of different styles, and the one I chose was the X750 using a bold blue cartridge. It feels good in the hand, and the ink flows fast and well. I ordered the pen, and a couple of refill cartridges.
There were two goals for choosing these materials: to have the tools to commit to the process, and to ensure the tools were the correct tools to make the process pleasurable with as little friction as possible.
The next day was January 30. I wrote my first three pages, mainly about starting doing morning pages. I have not missed a day since. I’ve gone through four Cahier notebooks and three pen cartridges. That’s a lot of pages, and a lot of ink! I can’t help but feel accomplished.
In the book, Cameron elaborates on the purpose of the morning pages. Yes, there are no rules, but there is a purpose, which is to unblock creativity. She makes the point that morning pages are not only for writers, but for anyone who wants to be more creative and to develop or unblock their creative nature. They help you to discover yourself, to understand yourself, to understand who you are and to uncover and address your fears and your loves and your “imposter” side, if you have one. They also get you into a space where you feel up to finally doing whatever you want to do. One point she made stood out to me: there will come a time when you are tired of complaining about something day after day in the morning pages to the point where you decide to actually do something about it. I found that to be true.
One benefit that I discovered is that the morning pages opens up flow.
What the hell is “flow?” That’s a topic for a whole other essay, but briefly, flow is the state of mind where you are truly in the moment and creating, working, and observing. You are focused. Everything else disappears and your creativity flows onto the page, or into the image, or the clay, or whatever your creative medium is. It is a powerful state of being. But flow, as a state, is hard to achieve. And once achieved, if someone as much as hiccups around you, you can be pulled out of it, which is fucking annoying. It takes time to get back into it.
Doing morning pages allows me to mimic flow. Because I don’t have to think about what I am writing, I just write, which puts me into a flow. I am not thinking per se, or trying to figure out what or how to write, I just write without filters or edits. And I do this every morning. It makes actual writing easier.
When writing in this stream of conscious mimicked flow state, I found that what starts out as mundane can develop into some pretty profound areas in the space of three pages. A day’s opening sentence, which could be “Well, good morning again,” starts the ball rolling and I could end up anywhere, such as the fall of the Roman Empire, or how to finally address that issue at work that has been bugging me for weeks. This process naturally uncovers what I’m thinking and feeling. Three pages is an interesting number: the first page is warming up, and then magic happens because the fluff is burned off, and there are two more pages to write. The process of dumping the brain clears out the chaff and clarifies the things that matter.
The morning pages and the artist’s dates help me to reassess and reaffirm my creative place in the world. They remind me of what matters, and keeps the balance between the the crisis du jour and my real life. They affirmed that I am a writer, whether I publish or not, or whether I write daily or not. They helped me write better, and have a better process.
For example, I was afraid to leave an unfinished piece for a day or two, because I was afraid I would come back to it and have a completely different point of view and opinion about what I was writing. As a result, I put in place a fairly rigid self-imposed rule of “one-and-done,” which is to write an article, essay, or any piece, all in one sitting, from first draft to publish. I looked at this as a kind of discipline, to write and publish now, damn it! A lot of the essays I wrote were done that way. But there are obvious flaws with this approach, one of the main ones being that I would never be able to write a book this way. It was a self-imposed blocker, caused by my fear of changing my mind between sessions. The morning pages obliterated that, because the daily cadence reminds me every day of who I am. The essay you are reading started life in early July. When published it will be what I want it to be. I am not that different from who I was a month ago.
The artist’s dates have been subtly positive. These are not a formal process for me – I don’t schedule a block of time on my calendar for an “artist date” and I am not rigid about exact timing, but I do them. As I interpret them, they are not field trips to see ”artsy things,” rather, they are time taken solo to appreciate creativity, art, and beauty. Watching a great movie, or reading something worth reading, or appreciating a beautiful location. An example of a multi-session artist date was reading “Write for Your Life” by Anna Quindlen, which was recommended by a friend. Quindlen relates the value of writing in long hand, on how personal that is, and how handwritten notes and letters are valued by their recipients. This made me think on how I have been writing longhand every day since January, and then I thought that perhaps I should write the first draft of my essays by hand, and then transcribe them into my computer for editing and publishing. Being a child of the keyboard era, I never considered writing anything longhand. However, as I read that section of the book, I thought on how I was writing longhand every day, so why not try? And so I decided to try with this essay as the guinea pig. The jury is out on whether I continue writing drafts long hand, but the creativity is the point, with the artist dates and the morning pages bubbling up a creative idea I never would have had before.
The morning pages and artist’s dates have benefited me across all areas of my life: work, family and relationships, photography, health, and of course, writing. The simplicity of these methods is their virtue, because they morph to what I need. They help me to clarify what I am thinking and feeling. They are meditative. They are productive. I look forward to each morning’s session. They are worth doing and I thought I would pass it along.
What I don’t know is how I’d recommend them to others. For me, I just know I will be doing them for the rest of my life, and I am committed to doing them. There was a time in the second or third month when I didn’t want to write anything else but the morning pages, and I was afraid that they would replace all my other writing. And then there was a time when it seemed pointless. But things do get worked out and that does not happen all at once. So I don’t know if committing to a 30 or 60 day trial will be enough. My wife and some of the others I know who did them quit after a while, and I think (but do not know) that it was during a moment where they were thinking “why am I doing this? What good is this?” And that does happen. It happens on any new process you start. There is a time when you wonder if this is doing any good at all. It seems like nothing is happening… until it does. And it will. And I knew personally it would, and so I persevered. Therefore I recommend just doing it. Get Cameron’s book. And get good letter-sized or A4 paper and pens with refills and start, without an end date in mind. It’s just 20-30 minutes every morning, and it’s transformative.
I have a lot of creative friends, and I know this will help. Let me know how it goes.