Morning Pages — to handwrite or type? That is the question
Does anyone else do Morning Pages and have you been tempted to write them on the keyboard, rather than by hand as recommended by their instigator, Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way, a 12-step process for unblocking creativity?
Julia recommends three pages of longhand, stream-of-consciousness morning writing done as quickly as possible, as soon as possible after waking. There is no right or wrong way to write. The words are meant for your eyes only. You can write whatever you like, basically emptying out whatever is in your mind on to the pages — challenges, ideas, to do actions (I mark these in the page margins), discharges of emotional distress, disturbance of world events, relationship hassles, or gratitudes.
Julia Cameron writes that the page will nag repeatedly until we take action on an issue. I have found that the same issue comes up again and again, but eventually, out of the blue, a shift in perspective or a clear way forward will often emerge on the page.
I’ve handwritten Morning Pages on and off for the past two decades. I have boxes of journals filled with my ramblings. Some people write on rubbish paper but I love the feel of my fountain pen gliding over quality paper in a notebook. I’ve also attended writing-to-prompt sessions for several years and enjoyed handwriting with a fountain pen in beautiful journals in these groups. One day, the woman sitting next to me knocked a glass of water that splashed over my open journal. My lovely words just washed off the page. I noted my shocked reaction at those vanishing words.
It was a short step from that experience to searching for an online journal for my morning pages. I found it in 750 words.com in August 2019. Created by Buston Benson and maintained by wife Kellianne, this website encourages users to type out the equivalent number of words as three A-4 pages. It tracks the days you do and don’t write and rewards you with points and badges for not breaking the chain. It also analyses your words and provides statistics on their feelings, themes and mindset. It can tell you how fast you typed and how long it took you to reach the magical 750 words each day. You can search on words in past entries if you’re looking for a particular idea or a thought you remember writing about.
I wrote consistently on 750words.com for seven months until a few days before mid-March 2020 when the media onslaught and anxiety about the pandemic sent our world into a spin. My husband and I decided to go into lockdown a week before the Australian government called it, to protect our immune-compromised adult daughter who lives with us. Just a few days later came the disturbing news that my youngest sister was in the Intensive Care Unit in Christchurch, NZ.
For the five days she was in ICU, I was immersed in Viber messages from the moment I woke until I went to bed, as my siblings and I tried desperately to obtain accurate information on her health status, in the face of her husband’s narcissistic refusal to give us details and our inability to travel to her. When we did manage to speak to nursing staff (against the rules, as her husband had made himself the sole contact person), we learned that she was seriously ill with machines basically keeping her alive while her body fought through sepsis caused by an arm infection.
She survived, but the drama involved negotiating complex family dynamics and it threw my morning pages habit into disarray. I wrote sporadically online until the middle of April, but before this I was questioning whether I ought to be handwriting again. On the 30th March I wrote on 750words.com ‘I am unsure this morning whether to write here or in my journal by hand. It’s just so much slower be hand. But am I losing something?’
I was also feeling an implied pressure to meet the 750-word target each day, and thus avoid breaking the chain and having empty days in my month. Other users confessed that sometimes they copied and pasted random words to reach their daily total. I was drawing Chakra cards at the time and must admit that sometimes I copied down the day’s reading or my horoscope reading to make my total or to give me something to write about when my brain felt dead. For some users this pressure to have an unbroken chain becomes problematic and anxiety-producing, especially when they have hundreds of days of consecutive entries but suddenly find for whatever reason, they cannot complete a particular day.
When I tried to summarise what had happened with my sister and my feelings about it, it was a pen and journal that I used.
In mid-April, I heard Russel Brand interview Julia Cameron. She spoke about her morning pages. She still does them at 71+ years. She said to write about what you like and don’t like in every day, and in this way, you will create new levels of self-awareness. Other people use the pages to do a mind-dump and to plan out their day.
I returned to my paper journal. In my first entry, I wrote that I knew there were things in my mind that I constantly noticed and ignored; things that irritated and annoyed. Somehow writing by hand gave me time to notice them more and to capture them, even if was just commenting on the fact that every time I came up the stairs to my office, I noticed that they needed vacuuming but I shoved that thought aside because my next thoughts were I don’t have time for that right now. In fact, there’s not enough time for writing as it is. Then, I realized that I had this thought several times a day. ‘To notice these thoughts, acknowledge them and attend to them in some way would probably free up heaps of mind space for creativity and also help me to live more authentically,’ I wrote.
‘There is something more focused about pen on the page,’ I continued. Another entry reads: ‘There is definitely more focus in handwriting. I get blocked and distracted more easily on the keyboard.’ And a day later ‘there really is more introspection and self-examination when writing by hand with a pen on the page,’ followed by ‘this kind of writing is very much more reflective and leads to more insights’.
I wrote on paper through late March, April and May, reflecting on the process. ‘My brain has more time to think of metaphors and similes,’ I wrote. I also found lots of creative ideas flowing. I got an idea about an Italian mythical tale inspired partly by my grandmother’s experiences and partly by research that had revealed all sorts of amazing parallels between the stories about water witches and my grandmother’s experiences of washing clothes in running streams.
I am not sure why, but I switched back to online after a hiatus prompted by the shocking realities of the Black Lives Matter movement exploding all over our screens and media. In mid-June, I began writing on Penzu, another online journaling system. I was trying to write some order into my head and my world with these words ‘Back to morning pages. All will be right in my head then, if not in the world. What a messed-up world we have created. So much violence against black people in the US and so much violence here in Australia against human decency.’
In late July I wrote ‘I don’t write with a pen any more. Is that a bad thing? I have my beautiful pen and I have the remnants of a beautiful notebook somewhere but still, I don’t do it. It seems easier to type and I can get more words on a page.’ I used two screens and developed a technique of focusing on the computer keys rather than the words coming up on a different screen, to stop myself stopping from editing as I wrote.
I continued through September, October, November, December on Penzu. I liked the clean open page display it offered. I liked the way I could go back and add to an earlier entry, something that 750words.com did not allow. I liked that the entries were searchable. I gave my entries headline type titles that indicated something significant about the piece as a memory prompt.
Since January 2021, I’ve returned to a new journal and handwritten morning pages with my fountain pen. Again, I have been actively noticing the difference in the process. Here is a summary of my pros and cons for handwriting and online
- Handwriting allows more expressive stuff to come out and my brain has time to think of similes and metaphors. Entrepreneur super-connector and business coach Chris Winfield says that the slower pace of handwriting morning pages allows us to connect with our emotional life.
- Handwriting gives me a break from the keyboard.
- Handwriting shuts down the inner editor (critic) as I cannot go back and correct. The idea is just to keep writing. Sometimes the words that come out, while incorrect are actually perfect for the sentence, or provoke another thought, or a laugh, like a Freudian slip.
- I write fast for a set amount of time (25 minute Pomodoro) and feel relaxed about the amount I get written.
- I love writing with fountain pens in beautiful journals
- It’s difficult to scan my handwritten pages to find topics I may want to write on further (even when I put asterisks and action comments in the margin)
- I end up with boxes of journals and pages of writing that I don’t particularly want anyone else to read and can’t bear to throw out (not good for a minimalist lifestyle!)
- Ink may fade or be washed off the page! It may not be permanent.
- I can type faster than I write, so Morning Pages can be done more quickly (in theory)
- Electronic storage means no physical space taken up by journals
- Entries are easy to read and search for particular topics
- Entries are stored forever (in theory)
- Trust is invested in an on-line organisation that they will keep going and that your entries will always be available to download
- There is a subtle pressure to reach the 750-word target and when this does not happen, one can be tempted to fill the page with random stuff.
- Entries are not as deeply connected to my inner life.
- I am more inclined to edit and fix as I go, rather than continuing with the flow of the reflection. This gives the inner critic time to wade in.
So, the scales have fallen on the side of handwriting my morning pages. For now, I’ll continue in my beautiful journal, making my pen and ink marks on paper. Next time my pen runs out, though, I will refill it from a bottle of Noodlers Luxury Blue Ink, apparently forgery resistant, light and bleach resistant, water-proof and it glows under UV light. I can’t wait to try it!