Every morning — just about — I write three pages, stream-of-consciousness, longhand in a notebook. I sit down, I write for three pages, I stop. And I wholeheartedly believe it's one of the best things I do for myself and my mental wellbeing.
Photo: Visual Hunt
Whether you call it journaling, freewriting, a brain-dump, or morning pages, it's a powerful tool for cleaning your head, starting your day, and — dare I say it — living a creatively freer life.
I first came to know morning pages through The Artist's Way, the very cheesy and surprisingly helpful self-help book. My best friend gave me a copy when I graduated college but it sat unopened on my shelf for years, until I read an article by Meaghan O'Connell, "This Terrible Self-Help Book Is Actually Making Me a Better Artist." I'll let O'Connell make her case for The Artist's Way (it's compelling, despite her equivocation), but here's what she says about morning pages:
I do it every morning first thing, which helps me get to my desk. Mostly, it's just whining or budgeting or planning what to do that day. It's a diary! But a diary with a goal, however delusional, to unblock yourself artistically.
I don't think — and I don't think O'Connell thinks, either — that it's delusional to think freewriting can unblock you creatively. In fact, I think that's exactly what freewriting can do. And I think that morning pages can do even more than that. As I see it, they have two main benefits:
1. You get to see what's going on in your brain. This is a cousin of mindfulness meditation, but where at least traditional mindfulness meditation is about practicing focus — on your breath, an object, or a mantra, for example — while you notice your thoughts bubbling up and let them pass, morning pages emphasises the noticing-your-thoughts part. Three pages is long enough that you'll get through the things you knew were on your mind and still have more to go. Seeing what comes up can be surprisingly informative. And as you capture your flitting thoughts, all that flitting starts to settle down.
2. You practice putting words down without stopping to evaluate them. There is nothing more crippling to a creative impulse than worrying about whether its result will be good. Whether that creative act is an essay, a painting, or a PowerPoint presentation for your boss, it's all the same — evaluation is the enemy of creation. And freewriting forces you to keep moving forward, keep creating, without a thought given to quality. Quality has nothing to do with morning pages — no one's going to read this, probably not even your future self. You just keep writing. It will be surprisingly hard to turn off your inner critic. But it's vital and valuable practice.
Each of those benefits is huge by itself, but together they add up to something more, a loosening of the idea-spouting machinery in your mind. When you're used to just letting your ideas flow… they flow more, even when you're not freewriting. And when you're used to not interrupting your idea-flow with concerns about your ideas' quality, you give more of your ideas a chance. You'll have more ideas.
You'll build up your handwriting stamina, too. All those tiny wrist muscles! It will hurt at first, actually. But, hey, that will give you something to write about.