Showing Up at the Page

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This past July marked twenty years since I started The Artist’s Way for the first time. One of the tools of The Artist’s Way is what author/creator Julia Cameron calls Morning Pages: Three longhand pages of stuff written every morning, without fail, shortly after waking up. When I first read through the book before starting the programme, I was incredibly reluctant to even try doing Morning Pages, not just because of the time commitment involved but also because they felt like they’d be pointless to me. After I finished the course for the first time, and I was “free” to stop doing Morning Pages if I wanted to, I decided to keep up with them anyway, and see where they led me. More than twenty years later, I still haven’t missed a single day of Morning Pages, even through the house fire of 2001, the passing of both my parents, two cross-country moves, and all the other things I’ve been up to over the last two decades of my life.

Beyond their intended role of helping to clear my head to start the day — getting all those early-morning worries down on paper so they won’t stick around and mess me up at inopportune times — Cameron coaches that the discipline of just showing up at the page is important for developing the habits of mind necessary to do one’s art later, no matter what that art may be. For those of us who are writers, Morning Pages also serve as a very obvious form of wordcrafting practice, and I have to wonder if starting them when I did might have been a major influence on my decision to pursue English majors when I finally went back to college less than a year later.

On average, it takes me about fifty to sixty minutes each morning to do my Morning Pages. When I’ve got important things to do early in my day — like when I get scheduled to teach classes that start at eight in the morning — the adrenaline of needing to write quickly can lead to me needing only half an hour to get through three pages. When I’ve got a lot on my mind, though, and I don’t have any pressing time constraints, then I can take two to three hours to do all that writing, just because it’s so easy for me to get lost in daydreams while I’m trying to get my thoughts down on paper, working out those thoughts over and over again in the hope of making better decisions later on in my day. Those days always feel lousy to me, because even if that extra time helps me feel like I’ll do things better later on, there’s still a part of my brain that nags at me about the time I “lost” trying to figure things out in my head. This isn’t a healthy attitude to take, but I can’t seem to help it.

In recent months, I can always tell when I’m about to go into long daydreams when I look behind me at the stacks of used books I need to read for research into my next book. (Cue obligatory plug for my Patreon, where you can read exclusive updates on my research work for just a five dollar monthly pledge.) There are about two dozen books in those stacks right now, and I’ve got another dozen or so on the way here, and that’s not counting the dozens of ebooks on my tablet that I’ve bought for research but still haven’t had the time to read here. It isn’t that I haven’t been doing a lot of reading — since the pandemic started, I’ve probably been spending more time reading than I have at any other time in my life — but I’ve got so much to read here that it feels like I’ll never catch up.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve come to realize that I may be at a point with my research now where I’ll have to start drafting my book soon, just so I can get a better understanding of where my knowledge gaps currently are, and adjust my research accordingly to make sure I’m filling those gaps as quickly as possible. Thinking about that has been kind of a scary experience for me, to be honest. On top of lingering uncertainty over whether I’m really the best person to write this book — the fact that no one else has written a book-length treatment of my topic leads me to believe that there’s a very good reason for that — writing of all kinds has become more difficult for me over the past few months as I’ve been doing all this reading, to say nothing of living through the difficulties of the pandemic, and all the online teaching I’ve had to do as a result, and all the other vagaries of modern life.

That even happened when I sat down to draft this blog Sunday night. I thought that I was going to write here about Betsy DeVos’ parting message to the workers at the Department of Education (her use of the phrase “put students first” has chilled me to the bone for obvious reasons, especially as I keep waiting for the announcement of her replacement), but then I started writing about a troubling passage I recently reread from Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, then I deleted the three paragraphs I’d written for that and tinkered with the idea of writing about the difficulties of being alone this holiday season, and then I just flopped down on my bed for a while and eventually realized that writing about my writing problems, using the routine of the Morning Pages as a framing device, was probably going to be my best bet to get a rough draft finished before I went to bed that night. I guess that I’ve succeeded now.

Just like the Morning Pages, I managed to show up to the .org’s digital page and do the work of writing. I can recognize that as an accomplishment, but in the face of trying to synthesize all the research I’ve been doing here into another book of my own, it doesn’t feel like much of an accomplishment. I still don’t feel ready to show up at that page in Microsoft Word, even as it becomes increasingly clearer that I desperately need to get the thoughts of this book from my brain down on the page, so they don’t keep blocking me up and making me feel like my whole head is locking up on me. Once I get past all the semester-end grading I have to do this week, I’ll be pretty much out of excuses for not taking that first step. All I can do now is hope that I’ll find as much success with that writing as I’ve found through over twenty years of Morning Pages.

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