It was during a week as a temp at Harvard University that I first encountered Julia’s Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. I was subbing for an assistant to two professors. One was on sabbatical, and one was on vacation. (It was a plum placement.) I proceeded to gobble up The Artist’s Way. That was in 1991, and that’s when I started doing the Morning Pages. Except for a few weeks somewhere around 2013 or so, I’ve done them every morning since.
At first I ignored the three pages rule and just wrote until I was spent and had nothing more to say. I remember one epic run of ten or so pages brimming with self-hatred. Julia had warned that the pages would bring stuff up, and had encouraged us to hang on and do them anyway. I figured I had several decades of backlog, so it was okay. Soon, though, I settled into the three page routine. A couple of times I wondered, as I’m sure many before me have, just what she meant by “three pages.” Was it three pages, or three pieces of paper, filled? I decided that, being a writer, Cameron had said what she meant, three single-sided pages.
A week ago, I chose as my travel reading another Cameron book, The Right To Write. In it, she again uses the Morning Pages as a writing tool. The instructions begin, “Take out three sheets of 8 ½ by 11 paper…” and end, “When you have finished writing three pages, stop.” At once, I had the answer to my nagging question of long ago. Initially, it struck me as funny that I have dutifully written three pages for twenty-plus years, and I’ve been doing it wrong. The fact that it tickled me, I thought, was progress in itself.
But it bugged me. I wanted to reap the real benefits of this exercise (not the half-benefits I had already attained.) I wanted to be a real writer, a heavy hitter like Cameron. I wanted to follow instructions. As soon as I found out I’d been doing the Morning Pages “wrong,” my meager three pages lost their magical quality and failed to conjure their usual sense of endless possibility. Suddenly they were small and constrained. I wasn’t allowing myself to fly, to reach, to stretch. I was limiting myself. I was playing small. I’d been letting myself off too easy. As usual.
I decided I had to fill three pieces of paper. I figured it would be tough. The first day, in a hotel room in Atlantic City I was sharing with a friend, I ran out of things to say. I jumped up, relieved to be off the page. The next day, staying at a beach house in Massachusetts, I was interrupted and left it at five pages. At breakfast that morning I told the story, and everyone agreed: Three pages is three pages: 1, 2, 3. Three pieces of paper filled give you pages 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6.
Still, I felt I was doing it wrong. The next few mornings, my pages went to four pages. I was just not filling three whole pages.
A few days later, back in Maine with a full house at our lakeside camp, something happened. Bathroom time had become a ballet of sorts, with four people plus visitors sharing the facilities. Now, my usual morning routine is a careful set-up for my morning pages. I wake up. I go to the bathroom. I make my morning coffee as if I am performing a sacrament. I arrange a small writing pillow to rest my notebook on. I begin with a short spiritual reading. I fill my fountain pen and blot it. I open the notebook and begin.
But on this morning, I couldn’t get into the bathroom right away, so I started making coffee. When the coffee was ready, I didn’t want to start my pages, because I still hadn’t taken care of necessities in the bathroom. As time ticked on, I thought my elderly mom might soon be getting up, which would mean no morning pages at all. It looked like I would have to do some multi-tasking.
When my turn came, I waltzed in with notebook, pen and coffee. I started writing, and in that moment of reckless scrawling on the top line of a blank page, the magic of the Morning Pages came back. I wasn’t waiting or holding back. I wasn’t playing small. I was going for it. I was grabbing my writing time any way and anywhere I could. Free again, I felt the endless road open up before me.
All wrong, completely out of step and treacherously close to not being able to write at all that day, I dove in, recklessly, messily, hungrily. I hadn’t written since the day before. I was thirsty for this. I didn’t know what I was going to write about but that didn’t stop me from living my life right there on the page for the next thirty minutes or so. I wrote three lovely, sloppy, sprawling pages of stream of consciousness.
Am I doing it wrong? Or am I doing it the way that is right for me?
It is safe to heal and release limiting ideas of success.
P.S. Don’t worry, I didn’t hog the bathroom for the full thirty minutes. I also couldn’t let go of the question about how many pages is three pages. I finally got my answer on Julia’s own blog, in which she states, Morning Pages are “three, single-sided, 8.5×11 pages (so in other words, not 6 pages).” Which means that in The Right To Write, when she states, “Take out three sheets of 8 ½ by 11 paper…” the accurate thing would have been to say “two sheets.” I hope I remember her mistake the next time I am tempted to think that my mistakes are the end of the world. All in all, Julia’s mistake lead me to a stronger place on my path. Love you, Julia! And thanks for The Artists’ Way and the Morning Pages. They rock!