2 October, 2013
On and off, over the past few years, I’ve engaged in a ritual called The Morning Pages. It’s an old writers’ trick, an exercise to clear the mind of any residual crap before getting on with the day’s real writing.
The theory is that we all wake up with ideas buzzing round in our heads. Our unconscious minds have spent the night sorting through the previous day’s experiences, cataloguing, cross-referencing, understanding, assimilating. When we regain consciousness, these experiences have crystallised, subtly, into new ideas, new thoughts, new realisations. We often unwittingly spend the following day with these new ideas looking for a way to surface, insisting themselves upon our work.
Nagging at us.
In many daily activities, these unconscious nags are easily ignored, or else they find a way to insinuate themselves into our lives without direct interruption. If the day’s activity is creative, though, the nagging can be a double edged sword.
On one hand, some of the nags may be the solution to yesterday’s hardest problem. A new light may be shone on some previously intractable issue thanks to the mind’s quiet night-shift.
On the other hand, some of the nags may be amplifications of neuroses, doubts, fears, other things, all clamouring to take your attention away from the job at hand. They promise enlightenment, then deliver ruin. Or at the very least, you wind up thinking about donuts for the whole day, and have no idea why.
Our bodies have many morning rituals to which we are slaves. We have also invented many of our own, such as brushing teeth. Useful for sure, but most definitely a ritual governed by conscious decision.
The Morning Pages are an attempt to introduce such an invention for cleansing the mind.
It’s simple: you sit down at some point in the morning and start writing. You fill three pages with whatever is on your mind, striving for the unedited stream-of-consciousness, considering everything that lands on the page to be flushable.
I’ve found this takes around fifteen minutes if you’re doing it right, and longer if you’re editing and correcting yourself as you go along (also known as ”doing it wrong”). I’ve also found a number of practical benefits.
First of all, as I’ve been leading up to, it has a habit of bringing out all those loose new ideas that have percolated overnight. Simply writing them down forces those ideas into constraints, which is a wonderful way of seeing if they have any weight or not. The neuroses tend to crumble as soon as you try to write anything about them. If they pull into sharp focus, it’s often because you’ve made a breakthrough in combatting them.
Second, by putting these ideas on paper, they cease to clamour for your attention throughout the coming day. Their craving for recognition has been sated, leaving you more clear-headed and able to focus on those things that are important.
If you’re a GTD sort of person, you might think of this as akin to triaging your inbox. But there is another benefit, more a side-effect than a direct result.
The absolute key is to set yourself a minimum target for the writing, not a maximum. Three pages is a good number, as is 750 words (there’s even a web app named after that number—seriously, go and check it out, if only for the spookily accurate mood analysis it runs once you’ve hit your target for the day).
Why should you set a minimum? Well, I usually find that by the end of page two, I’ve covered all the things that are jumping for attention. The first 300 words are pretty easy, the next 300 get harder, and by the time I’m on the last couple of hundred, I’m really stretching for things to say.
Then something wonderful happens: my brain finally reaches for the stuff I’ve been actively avoiding thinking about, the stuff that I’ve accidentally-on-purpose ”forgotten about”. I’ve hit the bottom of the barrel, and that’s where the good stuff has accumulated.
Where by ”good stuff”, I’m really meaning ”good to have found because SWEET SCIENCE WHAT THE HELL IS THIS CRAP?!”. It’s the uncomfortable stuff that you don’t want to face up to, the awkward conversation you’ve been meaning to have, the leak in the ceiling you’ve been pretending not to notice. All the stuff that’s been quietly distracting you for days, weeks, months or years.
It’s all down there, but faced with a blank page and a word count that’s shy by only seventy three words, it has a curious way of allowing itself up to the surface for a glimpse.
Bear in mind that much of the psychological win here is that these pages are private: you’re not beholden to act on anything you discover, nor are you obliged to publish anything you’ve written. That’s kinda the point: the value of these pages is in the process of producing them, not in the contents per se.
That said, I’ve found that the act of surfacing some of the uncomfortable stuff has a habit of pushing it up into my awareness just enough that my brain starts processing it at night, and a few days later, I’ll find I have a solution, or maybe just a way forward.
That’s not to say any number of those pages haven’t surfaced on this site over the past few months, of course, but there’s a deeper lesson in all of this than just ”you should write more”.
Getting out of your comfort zone isn’t just something I think you should do as a “prove you can” exercise, or as some sort of “good for your career” box-ticker: I’ve come to realise that pushing past what I find comfortable isn’t the mental equivalent of marathon running I used to think it was. It’s more in the realms of walking to work, or perhaps more aptly, of brushing my teeth, of taking a shower.
It’s basic hygiene, it applies to just about everything, and it’s still terrifying.
Especially since I’m starting to run out of comfortable topics for this place.