The Morning Pages: A Creative Practice

There is a commotion of little birds outside.

Along the old stone wall and on the wide flagstone steps, where I scatter golden grains of organic millet each morning (and usually again in the afternoon) when I greet the day, the winged ones are atwitter.

desk_alcoveObserving and listening to them, I am seated at the round glass table that, depending on the time of day, serves alternately as my desk or my dining table (cleared of everything but my notebooks). Tucked into the southerly alcove of windows, it is here that I spend a good portion of my hours, gazing out through panes of old glass, observing the shifting moods and colors of the sea, noting the subtle surge of motion and tides of breath in my own bodysoul.

In the quiet of my little studio, a beeswax taper flickering with timeless elegance beside me and a blue grey serpent of resinous smoke curling from the smoldering stick of incense to drift near, the nib of my old fountain pen scratches across the smooth paper with a familiar voice. The animated conversations of the little birds beyond the windows rise and fall, peppering the morning calm. Occasionally I look up to watch the gathering of dark-eyed Oregon juncos, ever amused by their antics, the petty dramas and commotions that erupt between them—they are such charming bits of life. Then I go back to mentally clearing the leaves from the gutter with my trusty old fountain pen.

I ceased keeping a journal years ago, at least any sort of formal one, though much of my writing (including this weekly column) could be categorized loosely as a journal, I suppose. As I’ve mentioned in passing in various posts, part of my early morning routine is something called the ‘Morning Pages’: three pages of longhand, stream of conscious writing. It is a ritual popularized years ago by Julia Cameron in her über-bestselling guidebook, The Artist’s Way. It’s a practice that allows my words and creative impulses to unblock and stream through (a surprising insight or two often emerging in the process), after which I can move into the morning’s other writing or editing work with a better sense of flow and ease.

The point of the Morning Pages is not to make good writing. Cameron asserts that it’s a useful practice for all artists, not simply for writers. The underlying purpose is to clear out the jumble of thoughts that tend to preoccupy us and clutter up mental space, so that we can then get on with the real business at hand, unleashing our creativity.

When I first began Morning Pages more than fifteen years ago while living in Boulder, young and impatient as I was, I balked at the idea of writing them longhand. How tedious, old fashioned, and slow. I was certain it was much better to type them quickly on my fancy new Mac notebook (which, back in the day, was newly invented and quite a novel gadget) and get on with things. Yet Cameron stressed that something very important lay in the physical action of pen moving over the page, a connection with the unconscious, as opposed to simply typing (which is merely mental). Don’t worry about legibility, corrections, or making complete sentences, she said, just let it flow. Youthfully skeptical, I reluctantly set aside my Mac and waded into filling three pages in a notebook.

Somewhere in one of those early notebooks, I realized that there was, indeed, something key about writing the pages by hand. Thank you, Julia.

Just the other morning, my old fountain pen from Paris, carried on so many journeys over the years, reached the rear cover of another spiral bound tablet, the pages filled with semi-legible scrawlings of black ink. I am fond of the international A4 size (a bit taller and narrower), and the appealingly smooth feel of the paper of a couple of Euro brands—perfect for the glide of fountain pens, and the pages don’t bleed through. As I opened a fresh notebook, the last one from my stash brought back from Europe last year, I wondered briefly just how many of these tablets I have filled over the course of a decade and a half. I haven’t kept them, though at brief moments I sometimes wish that I had; in a random and stream of conscious way, they offer a record of the years, my current of thoughts, hopes, disappointments, dreams, and emerging new directions.

Honestly, I have little use for the past. I seldom dwell on it, preferring to keep my energy and awareness on the present moment, which is all that we really have. I’ve long since discarded the journals of my younger days, and I don’t hang on to the Morning Pages notebooks for very long (though sometimes they sit on a shelf for a couple of months, just to refer back to for glimpses of ideas and thoughts that have surfaced that may be of relevance to my other writing).

In its own way, it’s a ‘soul practice,’ this ritual of Morning Pages. A practice is a repeated action that we do more or less the same way each time (meditation, journaling, wandering in nature, physical exercise, a full moon ritual, etc.); I think of ‘soul practice’ as any thread that stitches us more tightly to our creative essence and deeper meaning in life. It is something more complex than performing simple, soulful actions—watching a sunrise, speaking one’s truth in a challenging situation, doing something artistic, making a beautiful supper, attending a workshop, etc.—which tend to be ‘one off’ scenarios.

Soulful action(s) and practices help build an engaged life of meaning and authenticity—fusing the everyday with the sacred—facilitating our expansion and personal evolution. They are something less than a ‘soul project’, which is something much larger, as detailed in the SAJ post from a couple years ago, “Soul Projects” (click the title to read). For each of us, our primary soul project is to bring our soul’s gifts and talents into the world in a distinct way. It is part of our unique giveaway to the ‘other-than-human’ world and our community.

Some of my ‘soul practices’ include greeting the dawn, feeding the birds, the ‘first creative sentence of the day’ and the Morning Pages, wandering in nature (or simply sitting quietly outdoors, engaged in ‘polysensory practice’), shopping for beautiful fresh food at the farmer’s market, quiet inspirational reading, movement arts, breath work, being barefoot on the earth, tending plants in the garden, creative time in the kitchen, heart-full sex, and quiet undistracted time with my beloved. There are also the 7 Soul Skills as I’ve outlined in The Bones and Breath, and each offers its own practice. The possibilities are endless, really.

My day is always better when it includes at least one soul practice; the more of them it embraces, the more fully I feel I have lived my span of hours towards their potential. On the rare day when there isn’t at least one soul practice in my waking hours, which generally only occurs on days of long haul travel, I feel something important has been missed and I feel slightly—no, significantly—‘off’.

My father used to teach ‘time management’ and personal productivity seminars. Among the valuable insights of those sessions was this simple truth: there’s no such thing as ‘I don’t have time’… it is simply not a priority.

What are the choices we make or habits we perpetuate that obstruct what really matters, that which nourishes on a subtle but profound level? There is almost always time for a soul practice. These simple little rituals form the foundation of a conscious, connected, soulful life; too, they are the often unsung celebrations of being human, an opportunity to deeply savor the moment.

Soul Artists know that a rudder to steer us gently back towards alignment in bodysoul is essential. The mysterious currents of fate will still move our vessel into unexpected waters and towards distant shores, but we have entirely free will over the manner in which we sail and the outlook or vision we carry. Any practice that opens our senses, hearts, and minds is a beneficial one, and those that somehow weave us consciously into the Larger Story are the most valuable of all.

To what will we give the gift of our attention, energy, and time? What will we make our priority?

Gentle reader, as I have wished for and urged so many times before in these posts, here’s hoping that you have a soul practice or two (or three or four) that grounds your day in something larger and more authentic, something beyond the litany of tasks and endless distractions of life. Even if it is something as simple as feeding the birds, or perhaps an after dinner stroll through the living, breathing, shifting mosaic of your neighborhood, may you engage it with senses and heart ajar—welcoming yourself home to a richer, more connected sense of the gifts of being alive.

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