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Lockdown Pages

Another lockdown.  I wake in a spin.  Half-heart, half-headless chicken, I beat myself against these morning pages, trying to figure out what to do – what to do – what to do.  

 At the end of a long and much-needed break from the university, I throw myself back into my teaching, full of big plans that I hope – I want – will make a difference to anxious students who feel let down by life. A new year, but January throws me headlong back into old fears and feelings – what is happening – what will happen – what should I be doing to help others to cope?  And how will I cope myself? 

Where do you put your fear?  I believe that writing can help.  Finding a container for our thoughts and feelings – to document them, record them, bear witness to them – can hold them for us as well as separate them from us, to give us some distance between ourselves and these thoughts and feelings.  Once written, we can turn the page, find a new clean place and to keep going, to write beyond the churn and loop of questions and concerns.  My own morning pages confirm the desire – the need – to offer that practice, somehow – here and to my students.    

I have been tinkering with a morning pages workbook, and this third lockdown convinces me that it is more essential than ever.  Fear works on our minds and bodies in a number of ways:  we freeze, we stick, we want to run.  I work with bright, young writers of all ages – and their fear is palpable.  They’re afraid they’re missing opportunities and running out of time; they’re afraid their learning is being compromised.  And while I seek to reassure them that their engagement need not change, even though the delivery system has, I can feel their disappointment and their disaffection.  

I want to fix everything – but all I have are words.  I can write my own to them, full of support and encouragement for their upcoming assessments; I can listen to theirs and seek to understand.  And I can urge them to offer their own words up, to place their fears in their own containers – as well as one I’ll hold for them.  Most of my ideas come through morning pages, and in today’s, I realise I want to create an anthology of student writing – Lockdown Pages, for lack of better words. I am so busy – we are all so busy – but I plan to pitch it as a project to my students on Monday: wish me luck.   

Morning pages thoughts…

I want to write, but I don’t know why sometimes. I lose track of it. The world gets busy and I get in a spin. My mind chases solutions. I tell myself if I can only clear the decks first – get rid of this task, clear the items on the to-do list, that I will have the clarity to write. I tell myself this a lot. The fact of the matter is that every time I clear the decks they manage to fill themselves. A gust of wind from the world blows to-do leaves straight back on. The list gets ever longer. There is always something that needs doing. There is always something or someone who will call for our attention. How to find balance in this?
Some days, I spend all day trying to clear the decks, and find at the end of it that there is not enough time left for me. Or if there is time, that I feel spent. I am spent. There is no clarity then, even with the tasks all marked to done. There is only a ragged tiredness and the sad, slow feeling that I have let myself down somehow, particularly on a day spent trying not to let others down and trying not to let myself down where others are concerned.
There are times when I tell myself I will write first. I will attend to my needs before anyone else’s – other than the dog’s, obviously, who has no need for writing – how can that fill his dish? I tell myself that I will begin as I mean to go on – and sometimes I do. For days in a row I can start with my own work, particularly when it is already formed. Particularly when I am clear about the way forward with it, when I can see it already as the thing it is or will be.
What comes harder is the early work, the dream-state I need to be in to see the strange and tenuous links that will make something new from my questions, my desires, my research, my worries, my reading. This is, of course, what morning pages are designed to capture – and they do a good job of it, if I can keep my pages from straying into to-do list terrain.
During the pandemic, when the work load kept increasing, I began to write at the ends of days, as the emails were slowing, as the days were still long and bright. It was easy to keep working in the spring and summer when the nights were far away. Now it is autumn and the nights are drawing in. I stumble home from my writing shed in the dark. In this method, I can squeeze another couple of hours into my writing day – but the energy is different at the end than the beginning. Here, I use morning pages to draw a line under the work and try to give myself a fresh start, turning the page from one aspect of myself to another. It works well, but is there clarity? Sometimes. Sometimes there is just relief and exhaustion and another sad, slow feeling of regret. Is this how I spend my days?
How we spend our lives is, of course, how we spend our days. And we have a lot of demands on our time. We carve our precious 24 hours and 52 weeks into smaller and smaller parcels of time to be spent or sold or saved. It changes how we use our time, but it can’t make more of it. We can’t plant time-seeds. Or maybe we can. Maybe we can use the creative time we have, trying to figure out how to make more of it. I would like to.
There are days when this is all the time I have to write. These words. These morning pages. I can rattle through them in 12 minutes – 10 minutes at a pinch. Or I can savour them, as I did this morning. I can look up between paragraphs or phrases. Notice the sun through the window, how it casts shadows in triangles across the shed. Notice how the sunflowers are drooping. Notice that the tree I planted when my dog was a puppy is already turning orange. It is autumn, and I am in danger of missing it.
Maybe these pauses in morning pages can plant time-seeds. I notice time is passing. I check in with my old desires. Another season is coming. Will this be one in which I’m able to find more balance? Will this be one in which I save a little bit more time for me, like a seed I can still plant?

Morning pages and writing for the long haul

I’ve been talking about morning pages on Twitter all month, and some days it makes for long threads. Yesterday’s was particularly long, and I know today will be long as well, so I’m parking the content here instead. On Twitter, I’ve talked about “how” we might do morning pages as well as “why”; I’ve offered lots of ways in to the practice and given prompts for how to use them more creatively, to generate and develop new ideas. Morning pages are a big part of my writing life, particularly when I’m working on long-form projects – work you have to try to sustain over months. And sometimes it can be hard to keep a piece of writing going, particularly when your life and your head are very busy. So I’m particularly invested in this process of using morning pages to break long-form writing down into morning-sized chunks, because it’s how I’m going to have to work for a little while. Maybe it’s how you’ll have to work too, once we turn the page into September and new sets of priorities and challenges beckon.

Here’s what I do. As I start a project – or another draft – I use one set of morning pages to tell myself the story. I just type out what happens, however much or little I know at the time. In a first draft, I might just be telling myself what the big story is – who my characters are and what they want and what happens to them to make them respond – to change. (I try to remember to focus on how the story develops “because” something happened, rather than just “and then this happens. Once I’ve written that very rough version of what I think the story is, I cut and paste it into a new document. I use Scrivener, but you might use anything else you prefer.

Whenever I have the headspace, I start to break that story down into smaller chunks – scenes, if you will. This is easy to navigate in Scrivener, as you can have as many documents in a folder as you like – and it’s an easy place to cut and paste into – but Word will work as well. From that scrappy document, I use morning pages to approach each chunk, each scene, one morning (or whenever I can manage it) at a time. In 750 words I can flesh each scene or each idea out, cut and paste it into its own new document, and get on with my to-do list and whatever the day requires. Later – or when I have headspace – I open the scene and find what feels like a very rough draft or a treatment of a scene, but it’s enough to get me writing – to flesh it out, to finish it off. Those first 750 words might be scene setting, using sensory details that I think are there but also ones that affect me as I’m writing, but there’s usually emotional temperature there as well. I’m usually writing with a sense of where characters have been and where they need to get to. This also means that, in a first draft anyway, I don’t have to work logically or in a linear fashion. I can jump around. And sometimes that jumping imposes itself on the structure of the story I’ll tell – in a good way – as I’m following the heat.

To the right is a screenshot of how my scenes look in their binder in the first draft. Right now, I’m rewriting a rough first draft banged out during lockdown. I am looking at the structure and order of what I wrote and jettisoning a lot that I don’t like. That’s OK. I’m approaching the rewrite in morning pages, telling myself the story again, as it has evolved, and then I start the process again in Scrivener, breaking the story into bite-sized scene-chunks, using a print out from my rough first draft as a guide for setting, time, emotional temperature etc., but writing with a clearer sense of what’s going on and what’s at stake. Building on these little steps of words means I rarely face a blank page and it reassures me that I am making progress, even when it feels slow. It will organise my thoughts and what I have to accomplish, with a goal to finish the rewrite by the end of half-term. Can I do it? Watch this space, as they say.

If you struggle to stay on top of longer projects, why not change your tools? Using software, time, planning and morning pages might just make a difference. Whatever keeps you writing – write on.

Morning pages prompts

This week on Twitter, I’ve been talking about how morning pages can be used creatively. Using prompts and sets of words that you wouldn’t ordinarily reach for can help your writing move in new directions. This can be especially welcome when it feels like our own words are stuck in a rut or repeatedly circling old issues.

We use this same practice in workshops, introducing simple, open prompts – such as “I could see it from here” or “it had never been so cold” – to get new stories started or playing a game of “word cricket”, whereby writers write as quickly as they can and “catch” words as I throw them out. (I learned this game from Vanessa Gebbie – thanks, Vanessa!).

Want to play a game of word cricket? Here are 10 words for you. Set a timer for one minute. Every time the timer goes, grab another word here. It isn’t quite like me chirping in the room with you, but in these days of social distancing, it will have to do. Let’s play!

Set a timer and start with: The door was open.

Minute one: Fox

Minute two: Mirror

Minute three: Shoe

Minute four: Candle

Minute five: Knife

Minute six: River

Minute seven: Milk

Minute eight: Key

Minute nine: Moon

Minute ten: Window

How do the words work? Did they take you in any new directions? They may have been the kinds of words you would ordinarily reach for – or they may have been an unusual set. I like them because they’re simple nouns that can also (many of them) work as verbs. Maybe you played around with them and used them as you saw fit – I hope you did. Prompts are only there to be played with. If this system works for you, you might make a jar of words to guide you – which is something friend and author Claire King does.

If you like the idea of using morning pages more creatively, come find me on Twitter @Peggy_Riley – tomorrow there will be new ideas!

Morning Pages

Over on Twitter, I’ve been inviting people to experiment with morning pages and to consider how they might work for them. There are daily prompts looking at “how” to do morning pages – when and where, how often and how long. (Hint: there are no rules except for maybe this one from Natalie Goldberg. Keep your hand moving.) Dorothea Brande did her pages on the typewriter, Julia Cameron does hers longhand, and I rattle them out online at – there are no rules.

Screenshots from Twitter

This week, we’ve been talking about “why” we do morning pages, how they work to make a bit of room in a busy head. Because it is hot – so hot – many of us aren’t sleeping, and sometimes dark unsleeps become opportunities for self-torment, for me. On waking, I feel brittle. All resilience is gone. And on these days, I need morning pages all the more to talk myself around.

Next week, I’ll be moving on to creative applications for morning pages. If you’re particularly worried about morning pages being nothing more than naval-gazing, this week might be for you. (But I say, what’s wrong with naval-gazing? Who else is going to look at it with such curiosity and compassion?)

Do you do morning pages? What works for you – and what doesn’t? And if you haven’t tried them, what would help you to start?

A Writing Workshop

Hello! As a few writers had trouble with today’s Zoom link for The Stay-at-Home Literary Fringe Festival, I’m putting my workshop here on line – in word form. Grab a pen and get writing!

We began by grounding ourselves in place and time, settling into our senses, before freewriting from the simple words: I want. For 3 minutes, we just wrote to the prompt – I want – however we wanted to. The task in freewriting is to keep your hand moving – any time you get stuck, just write – I want. After that, we talked about how we were going to think about wants – and desires – and objectives for the rest of the hour.

We got going with a game of word cricket, a game Vanessa Gebbie plays: I must have played word cricket in one of her workshops about 10 years ago now. Golly! To play word cricket, you need to “catch” words as they’re “thrown” to you – in my game, I held up cards from The Literary Witch’s Oracle, one at a time, introducing 10 cards and 10 words in 10 minutes.

We began with the image of a house. I asked writers to picture a person inside the house – maybe upstairs – and to choose a simple objective. Did the person want to get out of the house – or to stay in? And then the cards came, 1 after the other, until the writers had to accommodate 10 words in their story – 10 words they might not have chosen for themselves.

I drew the cards at random from the pile – and this is what they got: knife, teacup, moon, wings, wolf, doll, lantern, bees, milk, spider. I asked the writers to consider letting the words pull their story forward – driving the character – or using them as obstacles to stop the character from achieving their simple objective. After 10 minutes, the writers had a story. A simple story – but a beginning, nonetheless.

From there, we talked about how objectives build characters. We might not know a lot about those characters, in 10 minutes, but we will know how they respond – to objects and obstacles. We know what she wants – and we see her trying to get it. But how do we raise the stakes of a simple story? We explore what the character is willing to do to achieve her want – her objective – by learning what is at stake.  Who will the character be if they get what they want?  What will happen if they don’t get what they want?  

To learn what’s at stake, we have to consider what will happen if she leaves the house. We might need some backstory to show why she wants to leave – or stay? We might need information about her relationship with the house. Something has happened that made her want what she wants – to stay or go. Characters begin in stories fully-formed, of course. Even in the opening lines of a story, we see characters coping – or not coping – with the world they’re in. Before anything changes – we see who they are (and have become) with what has already happened to them. I asked the writers to consider – what happened in the house before the story you just wrote?  Is she in the house – alone?  Is there someone else usually there? Has someone just left – or is someone about to come?  How does what has already happened influence what they want? We talked about how we would learn about what had happened – before – through how the character perceived her environment as well as the obstacles and objects that arose.

How else do we raise the stakes? We give information on what staying in the house or leaving it means to her. What is the deeper desire – why does she want what she does? If she stays in the house, what will happen?  What does she want to happen for her, in the house?  Who does she imagine she will be?  If she gets out of the house, what will happen?  What does she want to happen for her, outside the house?  Who does she imagine she will be?  This gets at her yearning, her dream.  After all, in a simple story like Cinderella, we know she wants to go to the ball – but what she really wants is to fall in love – and get out of the bad house she’s in.   

Take some time to sketch out this cause and effect, these stakes.  Did the character get out of the house? Did she achieve her desire? Or did the obstacles you placed in front of her – through these words – make it harder for her to get what she wanted?  If she gets what she wants, it’s a happy ending.  If she doesn’t, it’s a tragedy – or she changed her mind. But a story is made more complex – and more compelling – through things being as difficult for characters as possible. How far could you push this simple story to make it matter for your character – and you?  

Stories are lit and fuelled by desire. Characters are driven through the story by what they want – rather than responding to story circumstances. Characters act – even when they are reacting. The reactions – to story elements like the things on the cards – still have to push and pull the characters closer to or further away from their desires, their objectives.  

So what are our objectives? At the start, you wrote – I want – I want. How do obstacles (like things on cards) push and pull what we want? How can we stay active in our own lives, our own stories? What is the yearning that is pulling us forward in the stories of our own lives?  In these strange days we’re living through, how can they not become just another story about a virus – but about a person who was changed by virus – whether through meeting it or avoiding it or trying to keep it out of the house – and survived.  And thrived.  And changed.  

That’s a story we all want to read, isn’t it? However these days are treating you, find ways to keep writing. And why not join me online next week?   



Thread and Word

Here’s a link to the sound installation made by Thread and Word from my short story for them, called “Your Last”. Click to listen to me or any of the other lovely stories found there which were shared in Margate for The Listening Post at the Book Buoy. Many thanks to artists Elspeth Penfold and Sonia Overall: it’s always painful listening to yourself read anything, but they made it trouble free!

The Listening Post

Do you want to hear a story? The Listening Post will have plenty of them, for you to listen to – and add to, if you wish. This aural collection of short stories, curated for Margate Bookie, are written by local writers (like me!) as well as some of our MA students at Canterbury Christ Church. Intrigued? Come down to the Book Buoy, put on a pair of headphones, and set sail…

A Million Words

There seems to be no agreement on which author first said a writer had to write their “first million words” before they were really ready to write. Some attribute it to Ray Bradbury, while others cite Elmore Leonard namechecking John D. McDonald. I was certain it was Kurt Vonnegut, because he gives so much good advice. Whoever said it, I’m happy to reach my own million-word milestone. While I might not count them, draft after draft, I have proof of them in the form of morning pages: a million words, typed over my first cup of tea. Want your own badge? Join in at As for me, I’ll see you in the morning – doing pages!

MsLexia Short Fiction deadline – coming soon!

I got my start in MsLexia, as they are kind enough to remember. It’s not too late to get your story in for the next Short Fiction Competition Deadline – 30 September. Want more information? Check the blurb below.

Got a great little short almost ready? Get writing!

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