Writing morning pages

Francesca Chessa

Morning pages hold a fascination for writers. Devotees like Francesca Chessa swear by them as a channel for creativity. Whereas time-pressed would-be writers like me look on in bafflement and wonder how to find the time to undertake such a practice. I go back to original advocates Dorothea Brande and Julia Cameron to find out what’s the deal with morning pages.

All my work is born there

Children’s writer and illustrator Francesca Chessa started doing morning pages in 2006. Since then the pages have held “my life and all the books that I’ve worked on and that I’m working on. Almost all my work is born there.”

I find it pretty amazing that such a simple practice can have this kind of impact. I asked Francesca to describe what she does each day:

“When I am going to write or illustrate a book the morning pages are the occasion to think about my projects at the beginning of the day. Writing morning pages help me a lot because I can write or draw what I like and I feel free to put out everything. After that I usually feel better and I can start my day.”

That sounds like an improvement to mainlining coffee and staring at a computer screen first thing in the morning. I wanted to find out how to get started so checked out its history.

Get up and write

In her 1934 book Becoming a Writer Dorothea Brande introduced the idea by instructing writers to “rise half an hour, or a full hour, earlier than you customarily rise. Just as soon as you can – and without talking, without reading the morning’s paper, without picking up the book you laid aside the night before – begin to write.” So the first rule is to get up early and write without any distraction.

Julia Cameron popularised the concept in The Artist’s Way branding them morning pages, or pages for short. She added another rule – length, she said: “Put simply, the morning pages are three pages of longhand writing, strictly stream-of-consciousness.”

Write absolutely anything

Many writing exercises focus on producing a specific output; in a creative writing class this might be done against the clock and then shared for judgement. Pages are the complete opposite.

“Just write three pages… and write three more pages the next day.” Julia Cameron

Cameron reassures those about to start this practice that there’s “no wrong way to do morning pages. These daily morning meanderings are not meant to be art. Or even writing. …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.”

Brande takes exactly the same view: “Write anything that comes into your head: last night’s dream, if you are able to remember it; the activities of the day before; a conversation, real or imaginary; an examination of conscience. Write any sort of early morning reverie, rapidly and uncritically.”

The pages are to be done every day, so over time it becomes a habit, a practice that forms part of your writing life.

I’m too busy and other excuses

“If people are too busy to write morning pages … they are probably too busy to hear the voice of authentic creative urges.” Julia Cameron

I don’t know about you, but I’m quite busy and find it easy to make excuses to not set the alarm half an hour early. I asked Francesca if that happens to her.

“I’m used to waking up 30 minutes before my daily programme to write pages. But sometimes I can’t do that, so if I can, I write afternoon pages. It’s a bit different because I’m in the middle of the day and usually in a hurry but I try to be calm and quiet and cut 30 minutes. Afternoon pages are different because the day is almost gone and I’m full of regret about being late. Sometimes I use them to write a programme for the day after or sometimes to make the point about my work.”

I was interested in Francesca’s comment that it’s different doing pages in the afternoon – her writing becomes more practical and essentially less creative. It got me thinking whether there’s something special about writing in the morning.

Why morning is best

Getting up in the first light of day is never easy – sleep-starved, dream-filled, and not thinking straight the last thing on our minds is writing. But this is the ideal frame of mind for pages, as Cameron says to allow “our logic brain to stand aside and let artist brain play”.

Both writers use the prevailing theories of their time to explain why morning is the best time to write; Cameron takes a ‘New Age’ approach, whereas Brande was heavily influenced by Freudian theory and focussed on the unconscious. She felt that to realise the “full benefit of the richness of the unconscious you must learn to write easily and smoothly when the unconscious is in the ascendant.”

Surprise, surprise, that means morning, which is often the best time of day for creativity.

“Throughout your writing life, whenever you are in danger of the spiritual drought that comes to the most facile writer from time to time, put the pencil and paper back on your bedside table, and wake to write in the morning.” Dorothea Brande

Becoming more of a writer

Francesca uses the pages to help find solutions. She said “nothing happens immediately but if you ask yourself something every day you will have an answer.”

That was very much Cameron’s intention – she sees the pages as a guide to inner wisdom, a way to deal with problems and difficult situations. Her advice is to “go to the pages and ask for guidance”. Having a morning pages practice is not just about finding temporary solutions, and overcoming creative blocks; they fundamentally impact on you as a writer. I’ll let Brande explain:

“…you will find you are more truly a writer than you ever were before. You will discover that now you have a tendency to cast the day’s experiences into words, to foresee the use that you will make of an anecdote or episode that has come your way, to transform the rough material of life into fictional shape, more consistently than you did when writing was a sporadic, capacious occupation which broke out from time to time unaccountably.”

Sold! Count me in. Cameron suggests doing pages as part of a 12-week course. That feels like too much of a commitment for me right now, but I’m interested to see if this kind of early morning meditative writing practice can help my creativity. I’ll let you know how I get on.

Go on, give it a go

There’s not much you need to get started, just an alarm clock, a pen and some paper. Oh, and a bit of determination.

If writing longhand is a bit old school for you, there’s a website called 750words.com which is the “online, future-ified, fun-ified translation” of morning pages measuring word count rather than number of pages.

If you’d like to find out more about pages or gain other insights into writing I encourage you to read Dorothea Brande Becoming a Writer and Julia Cameron The Artist’s Way.

Finally, check out Francesca’s website to see the result of her pages, the realisation of her morning sketches and words translated into beautiful published books and artworks.

Francesca's website

Bec Evans About the author: Co-creator of Prolifiko, Bec has spent a lifetime reading, writing and working with writers. From her first job in a bookshop, to a career in publishing, and several years managing a writers’ centre, she’s obsessed with working out what helps writers write.