I don’t know where I first encountered the concept of morning pages, but it was probably Pinterest. It’s something that crops up in conjunction with bullet journalling and other planner and organization-related topics.
Self-Help for Skeptics
Unfortunately, the idea often served up with a good dose of your standard self-help nonsense. If you’re anything like me, you’re very skeptical of claims on the lines of “Why Everyone Should Do X” and “How To Improve Your Life And Become Awesome In Every Way In X Easy Steps” and so on. The self-help and actualization movement is full of predatory entrepreneurs, creating a false demand from people’s insecurities.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t find the occasionat gold nugget. And, thankfully, the very first blog I read about morning mages was an unusually sensible one for its genre. I decided to give it a go, and two months later, I’m very happy I did. And although I don’t want to wax evangelical, I wanted to present the practise and why I do it.((If you want to know more about what the originator of the idea was thinking, google is your friend. I think they wrote a book about it, and they are probably giving courses and seminars and such.))
How to Do It
Morning pages is a kind of journal written according to certain rules, which go as follow:
- Use a notebook and a pen (not a pencil).
- Write first thing in the morning.
- Write stream-of-consciousness. No planning ahead.
- Stop when you have reached three pages. Do not stop before then.
- Do not read previous entries, and do not let anyone else read them either.
This is really all you need to know to get started, but if you’re not convinced or tempted to sidestep a few points, keep reading and I’ll explain why I think the rules make sense.
Usigng pen and paper slows me down and means I can’t edit my writing. Instead of worrying too much about phrasing, I know beforehand that this won’t be my best literary style, and that’s okay. Flowery – or even correct – language is not the objective here. If I were to allow myself to use an easily editable medium, I would get stuck editing instead of letting the words flow.
Obviously, if you are physically unable to use a pen, use whatever equipment works best for you. But if your physique falls within the bell curve and you simply avoid it because you find it uncomfortable or painful to write more than a paragraph, well, you’re doing it wrong! Learn to hold the pen correctly and use the muscles in your arm instead of your wrist and fingers, and you’ll do fine. Here’s a guide that helped me.
Writing first thing in the morning
When I get up in the morning, I make a cup of tea and visit the bathroom, and that’s it. Morning pages comes before everything other than those base needs. If I’m not at home in the morning, I write whenever I have the time, but often the writing has a very different character then. Once I’m properly awake, my thoughts are much more structured and focused on whatever is ahead of me. That makes it difficult for me to relax and employ proper stream of consciousness.
Stream of consciousness
Stream of consciousness means exactly what it sounds like: Writing what is going through your mind. This can be really tricky! I often have to actively make myself write what I’m actually thinking rather than planning ahead. Which means sometimes my writing gets rather meta, as I start writing about the writing process itself. That’s okay.
The point is to get whatever is important enough to be at the top of my mind first thing in the morning, out of my mind and onto paper.
Three pages exactly
This one is a little silly, because “page” is not an exact measurement. Even if we agree on how big a page is, everyone will be able to fit different amounts of text in. The important thing here isn’t the exact length, but that you set a limit and stick to it. I started out with a lower limit and then increased it as I got into the swing of it.
As arbitrary as it is, this is actually the most important rule for me. Making myself fill the pages even when I don’t feel like writing what’s in my mind, or when I feel like my mind is empty (which it never is), forces me to deal with whatever is actually there.
Also, I work best within limits. When I’ve kept journals before, sometimes I would skip days when I felt like I had too much to write. And then I would skip more days because of the backlog. If I know I have a set limit beforehand, I will write whatever comes to mind first, and know that if there’s something I didn’t manage to fit in, if it still feels important in the future I’ll probably end up writing it down then.
Do not read previous entries
I didn’t realise this before I started doing morning pages, but reading my old entries was actually a huge hurdle whenever I tried to get into journal-keeping before. It’s incredibly distracting, bringing up old feelings and experiences which may colour my feelings about more recent ones. It takes time and energy away from the task at hand. And of course, the longer I kept the journal, the more there was to read!
My morning pages often end up similar to journal entries, but far less structured, and far more likely to repeat themselves. Usually I barely remember what I wrote the day before, but I can say with nigh 100% certainty that some topics have been written about repeatedly. To an organized, logical mind this may seem redundant, but I actually think this is a key feature. If something is important enough that I keep bringing it up, then it’s worth writing about more than once. Perhaps it’s something I need to process.
As for not letting anyone else read them, that is so you won’t censor yourself. For me this isn’t that much of a problem, but I guess it could be for most people.
I’ve explained what each rule contributes to the whole, but not why the whole is a good thing. Why, two months in, am I so devoted to this? Well, what I get out of it is different from day to day.
The Immediate Benefits
Some days, I get very obvious therapeutic or practical benefits. I may I end up pouring out anxiety or other negative feelings, and in some cases the very act of expressing my feelings in writing yields new insights that help me deal with them.
Sometimes I get great ideas (which I quickly jot down on a separate notepad). Sometimes I realise ideas I had before were … not so great.
A lot of the time, what I write is just mundane stuff like what happened yesterday, my plans for the day, what I think about the pen I’m using or what I want to do with the garden next year. And this is still very rewarding. The sense of accomplishment when I write the last line is an incredibly good way to start the day. Also, by the task of writing I have forced my mind into a more wakeful state.
Thinking About the Past in the Future
Obviously these notebooks are not going to go unread forever.((I’ve decided on an arbitrary quarantine of three months. Since I’ve only been writing for two, I have yet to test this time limit out.)) If I really meant to never, ever read my morning pages, putting them in a notebook rather than burning or shredding them would be a bit silly. I write them because I want to remember.
Hoarding mementos is a habit I’m trying to get out of – I’d much rather hoard the memories themselves, in written form. I like having a record of myself and my life. The human brain is actually really terrible at remembering things, and every time you access a memory you alter it. If I don’t document events and feelings as they occur, they’re most likely lost forever.
I have kept journals on and off throughout my life, but never managed to keep going for very long. Morning pages provide me with a framework and a routine that seems to be exactly what I need.
Whether there is any real benefit to doing this or if it’s all just in my head, I do very much look forward to fulfilling a dream I’ve had since forever: Having a bookshelf full of used notebooks. I think it’s a dream instilled in me as a child by Myst. All these worlds full of gorgeous old books, some beautifully lettered, some full of scribbles – all inviting you into other people’s minds in a way printed text never could. And, of course, some of them quite literally take you to other worlds.
I have no idea if morning pages is for you. It probably isn’t for everyone – it takes time and effort. You’ll have to get up earlier, and if you don’t already know how to write easily and without pain, you will need to learn a new skill. But, I think, for people who spend a lot of time in their own heads, allowing their minds an outlet first thing in the morning isn’t a terrible idea. I hope I’ve inspired you to try it out, or to adapt the idea into something that you think will work better for you.