Self-Improvement, Writing

Morning Writing Rituals

This blog is quickly becoming a catalogue of my habits. This week, I’m turning my attention to the practice of morning pages.

Firstly, I have to note the irony of writing a post about the benefits of adherence to daily writing routines that is almost three weeks late in the posting. Not that there is ever really a good excuse, but December has been a ferociously busy time, and my daily journaling, tarot and exercise, and clearly, my weekly blogging, have lost consistency. But! I think it is partially the dissolution of these routines that helps me to so clearly see their benefit, and now we’re into that funny week, tucked away between Christmas and the new year, and I’m dusting myself off and getting back on track.

So, morning pages.

For my eleventh birthday, I was given my first blank journal. It was a lined, hardcover book, decorated with images from Graeme Base’s story book in verse, The Sign of the Seahorse. I immediately began recording the details of my days – what happened at school, what terrible injustice my younger brother inflicted upon me, etc. The content of my writing has changed (although periodically my annoying younger brother still features), my journal is not a detailed record of my day-to-day anymore, but eighteen years later, the habit remains. Writing a journal has been one of the great constants of my life so far.

Of course, there have been times when my commitment has waned. Some of my notebooks were filled over a period of years, with long stretches of silence dispersed throughout. Certainly, picking up a journal that has lain fallow for some time is a great reminder of how quickly time passes when you don’t stop to mindful of it. Sometimes journaling has felt like an obligation. Many entries start with, “So long since I’ve written, I should be more consistent.” Guilty “shoulds” are usually followed by more guilty silence.

2013 has been a great year for my journaling habit. I’ve been lucky enough that despite work, I’ve been able to carve out plenty (although of course it never feels like enough) of time for my own projects. After spending the last three-ish years finishing my MA, this year was spent indulging my own quiet pursuits – lots of reading, and many hours spent scribbling away in my notebook. It came into focus more clearly in July, when my man-friend went overseas and I had the house to myself for almost a month. I had the luxury of writing morning and evening most days, long and winding paragraphs on anything that came to mind, taking detours and following tangents wherever they desired to go.

In the last few months of the year, I made this practice more concrete by committing to do Julia Cameron-style morning pages every day. I first have to confess that I haven’t read Julia’s bestselling creativity guide, The Artist’s Way, but her morning pages technique has been described and recommended to me by friends, and has been documented by about a zillion different bloggers, so it’s easy enough to get the gist. The plan was to write three pages, without editing or planning or self-censoring, first thing in the morning, every morning (you can find the official word on morning pages at Julia Cameron’s website).

Unsurprisingly, I found that the more I wrote, and the more consistently I wrote, the more benefit I seemed to derive from writing. More words in journal, fewer words and thoughts and circular entrapments percolating around my brain. Journaling has an almost sedative effect on my thoughts, if a sedative could make you simultaneously calmer and sharper, more focused and orderly. This effect occurs both on and off the page. Although I rarely re-read my journal, a glance through several months’ worth of writing shows a development of ideas, a gradual discovery, an awareness of my shifting inclinations and motivations. I am presently at a turning point in the arrangement of my life off the page, and it is only through my continual working out on the page that I have arrived at this point.

Content is not all-important, though. The act of writing itself, and the ritual of writing daily, is as critical as what one writes. December has thrown my writing ritual into some disarray, so I currently steal my pages wherever I can (mostly in the evenings, this week), but generally, my writing happens between 7:15 and 8 am, after a motivating but brutal battering by Jillian Michaels. After a quick shower, I make a pot of tea and sit down with pen and notebook to begin. The ritual starts, not so much with putting pen to paper to write the date, but with boiling the kettle and making the space ready to begin. This commencement ritual has become codified in my brain, signalling that the time to empty out its thoughts onto the page is at hand.

These signals open up the space for expression, reflection, thoughtfulness, creativity, and release, which are ultimately all things accomplished by the act of writing. The page is the zen garden and the pen the rake, slowly allowing the mind to be stilled as the mandala appears. Twyla Tharp, choreographer and writer, says of her own morning ritual (hailing the taxi to the gym at 5 am): “It’s vital to establish some rituals – automatic but decisive patterns of behaviour – at the beginning of the creative process, when you are most at peril of turning back, chickening out, giving up, or going the wrong way.”

The tea might be the ritual, but the truly repeatable habit is writing the pages, and I would argue that the precipice at which we are at peril of shrinking from is not the start of the creative process, but life itself. Boiling that kettle and writing those pages means that every day, I make a start. Every day offers a new opportunity, and no project is too large when it can be started and finished afresh each morning. It makes room for me to exist in my day, minute to minute. It encourages mindfulness, thoughtfulness, self-awareness and creativity. Who of us isn’t constantly seeking these things? The morning pages habit is quietly miraculous. I invite you to give it a try – a new year is great time to explore a new habit.

If you need further convincing, this is a great blog series about the nature and benefits of morning pages. And for great related reading, and the source of the quote above, look up Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit.

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Books, Writing

Muck Raking

I am reading pornography. It is filled with cinematic zooms, a voyeuristic eye that scopes out the most intimate of movements, sensations, declarations. No reaching hand or roving eye escapes its notice. It’s not quite as T&A as you might think though. It’s literary productivity porn. I give you Mason Currey’s excellent collection,¬†Daily Rituals.

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Who wakes early (Hemingway), who wakes really early (Murakami), and who never gets up at all (Proust). Who walks (Darwin), who dopes (Sartre), and who suffers for their art (pretty much everybody). It’s probably safe to say we’re all fascinated by how great artists work, the hope that in the details of the routine, in understanding the process, we might understand the work, or even hope to emulate it. The true pleasure of this book, though, is not in celebration of the output, but indulging the notion that your literary, artistic or musical greats might too be encumbered by the practice of everyday life. Combating noisy neighbours, allocating time to correspondence, making midnight phone calls, taking multiple daily walks, and smoking even more cigars are the stuff that great art is made of. Well that, and a few original and well-executed genius ideas.

One of my favourite parts, an idea that could account entirely for my interest in this collection, is the psychologist and philosopher William James’ insight about the importance of routine and habituation to a satisfying life:

“The more the of the details of our daily life we can hand over to the effortless custody of automatism, the more our higher powers of mind will be set free for their own proper work. There is no more miserable human being than one in whom nothing is habitual but indecision, and for whom the lighting of every cigar, the drinking of every cup, the time of rising and going to bed every day, and the beginning of every bit of work, are subjects of express volitional deliberation.” (p.81)

Are we overly obsessed with habit? Myriad recent publications focus on ideas about “life-hacking”: breaking habits, making habits, understanding habits, the psychology of scripted behaviours, beating procrastination, how to improve our willpower, how we rely too much on willpower… Is it, like the notion of “organisation”, list-making, time management, a trip to Officeworks before a deadline, just a placebo that gives us the sensation of accomplishment without requiring us to do anything of substance other than planning to do something of substance? Probably, we should be more concerned with the work. But then, aren’t these minute instants, the “how” of the work, the time we take our tea and how we take it, the matter our lives are made of?¬†Speaking of tea, what of the Japanese tea ceremony, routine actions deployed in a mindful manner for a higher purpose, the arrival of the mind in the moment?

Which brings me to the purpose of this blog. How to establish a routine, write more, be regular with my work and my ideas. Here be the weekly deadline, the impetus to think, and formulate full and grammatically correct sentences. I arrived at the idea after reading an old interview with Ann Patchett (having just finished reading one of her books, State of Wonder, the perfect novel for a week off work with a chest infection). Patchett described one of the most valuable lessons of her creative writing class:

“‘[Allan Gurganus’] lesson was how to work,’ she says. ‘We had to write a story a week, and a revision didn’t count. He said think of yourself as a pipe with a lot of muck in it and you have to get it out. The only way you can find out what you’re good at is to have written a ton of work. In the same way that if I was learning the cello I would understand that I had to practice hour after hour.'”

My pipes are full of gunk. My brain seems unable to form a thought into a coherent sentence, a paragraph, an essay because of all the muck (I think its technical name is the detritus of hours spent watching youtube videos of small mammals). So, this blog, a weekly ritual (comprised of smaller rituals of daily writing [i.e., daily hand-wringing and procrastination]), exists to sweep the chimney, so to speak.

Now, if only, like Proust, I could sleep until 4 pm and then have Celeste bring me a croissant.

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