‘Morning Pages’ and my writing classroom

“What are morning pages? Put simply, the morning pages are three pages of longhand writing, strictly stream-of-consciousness: ‘Oh, god, another morning. I have nothing to say. I need to wash the curtains. Did I get my laundry yesterday? Blah, blah, blah…’ They might also, more ingloriously, be called brain drain, since that is one of their main functions.

There is no wrong way to do morning pages.  These daily morning meanderings are not meant to be art.  Or even writing.  I stress that point to reassure the non writers working with this book.  Writing is simply one of the tools.  Pages are meant to be, simply, the act of moving the hand across the page and writing down whatever comes to mind.  Nothing is too petty, too silly, too stupid, or too weird to be included.” (The Artist’s Way, Cameron 10)

This description of “morning pages” is from Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path Toward Higher Creativity, one of the texts I’ve been thinking about using in a course on “Writing and Creativity.”  I didn’t realize this when I first started researching books on creativity, but there are swarms of texts out in book-land about being a more creative person, especially in the “how-to” genre.  Some of these guides take the shape of workbooks, where the reader journals through the different ideas and exercises; others bill themselves as a self-led “course”—this is where I found Cameron’s The Artist’s Way.  A few of the books feel like effusive spiritual manifestos.  (I’ll admit that Cameron’s book definitely reads like one of these as well.)

When I first learned about “morning pages,” three daily pages of stream-of-consciousness longhand each morning, I mostly felt a happy sense of recognition as a writing teacher.  Disorganized, ungrammatical, brain-dump free-writing is a welcome part of most composition classes.  It’s a great focusing tool, especially right before a group discussion.  I use it now in my freshman courses, and I’m willing to bet I’ll use it in upper-level classes when the time comes.  But when I read The Artist’s Way this summer, I liked how ritualistic Cameron made it sound, an air of seriousness I’ve never been able to communicate when I introduce “free-writing” to students.  The kind of morning writing Cameron describes—scratched out before the morning coffee has had time to cool down—has a sacred quality to it.  Cameron herself boasts of the fact that she’s barely missed a day of completing her morning pages in several years of committing to it.

I will say this about The Artist’s Way: her conviction is absolutely compelling—it’s probably one of the reasons the book has become so popular over the past decade.

But it also feels deeply personal, and so very developed from her own particular vision of creative work, that I wonder if students would be receptive to it.  I’m not sure I would ever “assign” morning pages—that seems to work against everything they stand for.  My fears about even bringing up morning pages in class, or assigning the book that advocates them, are a little complicated:  Cameron writes with such conviction that this practice is one of the most essential tools toward unlocking our creative potential.  She’s so convicted, in fact, that I worry this kind of “creativity dogma” would only make students bristle.  In other words, I’m worried that presenting popular creative practices from the mouths of fairly good rhetoricians will make my students question their ability to come up with good practices themselves.

[Interior View with Man Seated at Writing Desk][La Hypnerotomachia di Poliphilo : cioè pvgna d'amore in sogno, dov'egli mostra, che tvtte le cose hvmane non sono altro che sogno, and doue narra molt'altre cose degne di cognitione] ,Colonna, Francesco, d. 1527 Feliciano, Felice, 1433-1479 ,Woodcut ,[1545] ,Woodcut, c. 1499. The book is unpaginated; the plate is located on page 438, and it is the 164th plate in sequence, counted from the book's frontispiece.,

Someone busy doing his morning pages:  “Interior View with Man Seated at Writing Desk,”  Colonna, Francesco, d. 1527 Feliciano, Felice, 1433-1479, Woodcut [1545].   From the J. Paul Getty Museum’s Open Content Program.

As a writing teacher, though, I do love her description of “the Censor,” the nagging refrain in our minds that tells us we are merely impostors masquerading as thoughtful human beings:

“The morning pages are the primary tool of creative recovery. As blocked artists, we tend to criticize ourselves mercilessly. Even if we look like functioning artists to the world, we feel we never do enough and what we do isn’t right. We are victims of our own internalized perfectionist, a nasty internal and eternal critic, the Censor, who resides in our (left) brain and keeps up a constant stream of subversive remarks that are often disguised as the truth. The Censor says wonderful things like: ‘You call that writing? What a joke. You can’t even punctuate. If you haven’t done it by now you never will. You can’t even spell. What makes you think you can be creative?’ And on and on.” (Cameron 11)

Now, I don’t necessarily agree that our Censor only lives in the left side of the brain—that claim strikes me as a bias against people who wouldn’t normally think of themselves as “creative.”  That’s exactly the myth I want to bust with this course plan, so I don’t want to endorse it.  But she does make a good point about how our first instinct is often to criticize ourselves and our ideas.  I like the thought of “morning pages” barreling through the fog of negativity and self-criticism.  If there’s anything this practice gets right, it’s that it acknowledges the frightful existence of a Censor and makes a tangible game plan for beating it down.

One of the biggest things I’ve struggled with while brainstorming this course is how personal the cultivation of creative practices can be.  If I ask students to write morning pages and then report back, have I broken that option for them as a creative tool in the future, simply because I asked them to do it for class?  Does sanctioning a creative practice within the confines of a college classroom somehow diminish the potential these exercises have for students?  Am I killing creativity by trying to make a class about it?  (Oh, gosh, let’s hope not—but it’s a thought that’s definitely crossed my mind.)