Last week, I had the opportunity to run a series of morning writing workshops for Whitstable Wellness Week. In these workshops, we wrote, we talked about writing, and we looked at all the ways that morning pages can work for writers. I think a lot about writing and morning pages. In fact, I’m thinking about morning pages this morning, while I write my own morning pages, writing my way into the day.
What are morning pages? They’re an idea introduced by Dorothea Brande in Becoming a Writer in 1934 and re-introduced by Julia Cameron in her transformative The Artist’s Way. But the form might be ancient, of course – any time a writer sits down to write with intent in the morning can be considered some kind of morning pages. Brande asks that we wake through the writing, that we reach for pen and paper (or in her case, typewriter) as early as possible, so that we can begin writing before we are fully awake and before the editor in our heads can wake up and tell us the writing’s no good. Aim for 3 pages in a notebook – or 750 words. What words? Brande suggests it doesn’t matter: you are aiming for “quantity, not quality”. You are simply filling the pages to train your mind and hand that you are in control of when writing happens – no muse awaits you, no editor can stop you.
In this rapid writing, we are able to come to terms with what we think, as we have written it, and how we feel, as we might not yet have been able to express. New thoughts and feelings, memories and impressions bubble up to the surface, summoned. Somehow between the lists of worries and plans and concerns and intentions, there is always something that seems to come of its own accord, a glimmer of something that hints at something new – a new way forward, a fresh approach, an unexpected connection. We write to fill the pages, to train the mind and fingers for the stamina and discipline that writing demands, but we also create the clean white page and the moment in time that allows for breakthroughs, for the work that is in our heads already to come out and show itself. Done regularly, this action becomes a ritual – and then it becomes a routine. It becomes a normal impulse, allowing a writer to set the day up through her words. (What if you’re not a morning writer? Even the idea of “morning” is elastic: morning pages can begin your “writing day”, whenever that time comes. If you’re a night writer, morning pages can draw a line under the day that has happened and create the sense of morning, as you settle in.)
I saw all kinds of breakthroughs throughout the week as writers opened their notebooks or laptops and returned to the page. In the beginning, I offered only gentle prompts to get them started – and these prompts could be returned to while writing, in case of feeling stuck or unable to write anything else. If you come back to the prompt and write it, you are always writing. And if there is any kind of “rule” about morning pages, it is that you should keep your hands moving and fill the page before you stop to think about all the reasons you might stop. We used such simple prompts as: I want/I don’t want; I think/I don’t think; I remember/I don’t remember; or Today I/yesterday I, Tomorrow I… Sometimes we wrote ourselves into the room, using all five senses to root us into time and space: what do we see; what do we hear; what do we smell; what do we taste; what can we touch/what touches us. We wrote our way through light and pressure, temperature and proximity, where we were in our bodies, in the room, the building, the town, the world. And from there, there are always new directions, tentacling out from every sense. Sometimes, writers had a story in their heads as they arrived, and they were able to write their way into their own characters, using these five senses, to root them into story-time and story-place: this can be a powerful way for a writer to slip under the skin of a character, to see the world through her eyes and to capture what she notices. And from those sensory details can come whole backstories, memories, connections and objectives. The senses point at a person who whole and formed, capable of her own thoughts and feelings – we only have to follow them and her, into a scene.
Sometimes I offered first lines, “firestarters” as writer/poet/psychogeographer Sonia Overall calls them in her workshops: some lines I pinched from her. “That was when it happened”, and “I could see the fire from there”, and “I can still see it” are the ones I like to use. Sometimes I kept throwing words out – simple nouns for writers to catch and stitch into their writing: this idea of “word cricket” was introduced by write Vanessa Gebbie in a flash fiction workshop. We also talked about how these batches of 750 words could themselves be made of dribbles and drabbles and pieces of flash fiction that might stitch into something larger, such as Sophie van Llewyn’s novella-in-flash Bottled Goods, or simply hint at new ideas that will lead to new projects. Really, the possibilities are limitless. The form of morning pages are elastic enough to contain any thought, idea or feeling: that is what they are, after all – a container. Morning pages contain – and guard – and hold our writing, our sense of selves as writers, and our desire to engage with the words.
There are morning pages workbooks and journals. There is an online site for morning pages – which I use, 750words.com. But really, all you need is something to write on and with, along with the determination and will to write. If we write, we are writers. When we tell ourselves that this time and this writing matters, that we reach for our writing at the start of the day, we reinforce the idea that our life must align itself around this desire – this urge – to write. And maybe the universe will follow.
Whether you’re down or up, rushed or calm, so busy you can hardly see – morning pages are a fresh start – every day. A new beginning, waiting for you. I believe in their subtle power and have, through almost ten years of writing them, watched them enter and transform my writing life. It was a genuine pleasure to see the idea take hold in this small, evolving group in Whitstable, and if the group is able to carry on, it will be my genuine pleasure to sit among them, reaching for words.
My next outing on the morning pages train will be at Kent Festival of Writing. If you’re coming – see you there!