Wednesday, 5 September 2012

How To Write Gooder - 3 Pages of Longhand At An Ungodly Hour

A number of years ago, my wife introduced me to The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron - the mother of all creative self-help books. To this day it remains the only self-help book I routinely recommend to others and continue to employ myself.

Those of you who read my blog know how much of a fierce skeptic I am, be it about religion, new age trends, politics, marketing or anything else that has yet to prove its mettle in the face of cold, hard investigation. I also tend to be a knee-jerk skeptic when it comes to self-help manuals. I try to keep an open mind about them but I invariably end up getting irritated and putting them back on the shelf, opting instead for one of my usual nerdy history books, an angry screed by Christopher Hitchens or some ridiculous mashup of Jane Austen and zombie apocalyptica.

But not The Artist's Way. This is a book I routinely go back to for inspiration when my creative ideas dry up or I'm otherwise feeling stuck. When I first picked up the book I had just left graduate school with a vague notion of pursuing a career in writing/communications but no real clue what I was doing. Julia Cameron's elegant stepladder-type creative exercises coupled with down-to-earth creative advice not only expanded my notions of what was possible but sharpening my writing skills like nothing else. It got me writing in a far more focused and serious manner, which in turn led to a career as a freelance writer, a sharpshooter editor and a professional communicator. I give Cameron a lot of credit for this.

While this and her follow-up books (which I confess I have yet to work my way through) are replete with excellent advice, her one main tool has done more to hone my writing skills than any other - the 'Morning Pages'. It's very simple really. You get up, you make a pot of tea or coffee or whatever, you sit down and you crank out three pages of longhand. And then you carry on with your day. Not enough time in the morning? Set your alarm 30 minutes earlier than you otherwise would. Distracted by the computer? Turn it off. No distractions. Just you, a caffeinated beverages, a pen and a notebook.

Granted, I would be lying if I said I'd been completely consistent with the Morning Pages over the years. In fact I really fell out of the habit upon moving back to Canada. Since then it's been hit and miss, but in recent months I've put forth a major effort to make sure those pages get done in the morning. And if I don't manage them in the morning, I do three pages in the evening - although 'Evening Pages' really don't pack the same processing punch.

So what, exactly, do the Morning Pages do for you? I can only tell you what they do for me, and why I currently feel compelled to get up at 5:30 in morning to do them.

1) My writing chops improve markedly when I do them.

Not that my mornings scribblings are ever poetic. Far from it - it's pure brain-dump, and brain-dump while my brain is still waking up and often mad at being up at all. I rarely read my old Morning Page notebooks after the fact, and when I do the content is often embarrassing. But being a writer is like being a musician. If you want to get good at it, you have to practice every day.

2) I feel much more organized when I do them.

For me, Morning Pages are more than a writing tool. They're an organizational tool. I have a pretty good memory when it comes to things I have to get done on any given day, but rehashing them in prose form while I'm still waking up tends to make for much more efficient, smoothly flowing workdays. And when you're trying to juggle a full-time job, a part-time study program and other extra-curriculars, this really helps.

3) Writing longhand is a refreshing departure from my usual activities.

Like most 21st-century workers, I spend most of my working life glued to a PC, and the vast majority of the writing I do is on a computer. Putting pen to paper is not only a refreshing departure from having my retinas abused by a flickering monitor but also gives me a fresh perspective on words, how they look, which ones might fit interestingly together and so on.

4) It's a great place to brainstorm.

Remember when your junior high English teacher asked you to write quietly on your own in a notebook for maybe five minutes at the beginning of class as a brainstorming exercise? I always enjoyed that. As a blogger, my best ideas for topics have generally come from three sources: sitting on the toilet, running and doing Morning Pages. And as I'm generally not on the toilet for long enough to fully flesh out an idea, it's mostly the latter two - and more Morning Pages than anywhere else.

5) It helps me wake up.

I've never been a morning person. My Morning Pages sort of act as an extra spike of caffeine in my, er, caffeine. Like a shot of whisky dropped in a pint of beer - except with the reverse effect.

6) It's a very appealing ritual.

If there's one thing I envy about people with religious faith, it's the comfort to be found in ritual - be it the flicking of rosary beads, the unrolling of the prayer mat, the donning of the turban and kirpan at the gurdwara or the waft of incense that greets you at a Buddhist temple. These days the closest I get to religious practice is writing, but I find the same kind of comfort in the laying out of my favourite rollerball pens, my notebook and a piping hot pot of Japanese tea. Granted, there's usually nothing saintly about the contents of my Morning Pages, which are often rife with expletives, but it's a daily ritual that invariably sets me off on the right foot - even when I'm dealing with all kinds of crap in my life.

For more on Julia Cameron and the power of Morning Pages, visit this site.

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