For the past three years, every morning, as soon as I’ve brushed my teeth, I fill three pages of notebook with handwriting. It’s not exactly a diary, it’s not exactly a journal. It’s Morning Pages.
On her website, Julia Cameron, the new-age creativity guru who invented the term, helpfully explains: “They are done in the morning, and they are pages.”
In her mega-bestselling book The Artist’s Way, she sets out the rules: They must be done in longhand; you have to do them first thing, every day, and you have to write without stopping until you come to the bottom of page three; no one is allowed to read what you’ve written (even re-reading entries yourself is discouraged). Shopping list, vitriolic rant, an ode to your wife’s hairbrush, litany of woes, shout of joy, burble of nonsense — it doesn’t matter. No one’s going to read it and, anyway, this isn’t “writing”, it’s more like “flossing”. Morning Pages, says Cameron, “clear your mind, as though you have taken a little dust-buster and you go poking it into the corners of your consciousness and you come up with what you put on the page.”
In person — by which I mean, on camera — Cameron has an unnerving fixity of gaze, as though she’s either trying to hypnotise you or has already been hypnotised herself, but I suspect has more to do with botox than altered states of consciousness.
Do I sound mean? I am. Look, I’m not knocking cynical, psychic one-up-womanship: It’s done wonders for me in the past. Be that as it may, there comes a time in every mean cynic’s life where you look down the ladder at the little digits bearing your sandal-treads and lying squashed on the rungs beneath you, and wonder if there isn’t perhaps another way.
So I decided to give Morning Pages a go — and I love it. It’s a “safe space” where you can write entirely free of the fear of judgement: Your Inner Critic is gagged, bound and trussed up in a corner. It’s easy and liberating and can throw up some fascinating ideas or insights — usually about halfway down page three. It turns out it’s actually quite hard to write total unadulterated crap for three whole pages.
Morning Pages are not an end in themselves, of course, but a tool, a process. The problem is, as any writer will tell you, you have to write an awful lot of rubbish in order to get anything good. You churn out reams of dross in the hope that something valuable is buried in there somewhere. And when there is, it’s like finding a pearl oyster as you’re dredging for sandworms: A gem of a sentence or a glimmer of a great idea lies in the mud like serendipitous by-catch.
Twirling his gem-encrusted sceptre at the other end of the spectrum to Morning-Page-mumblers like myself is the reigning potentate of literary diarists, David Sedaris. Reviewing his latest collection, Calypso (his ninth!) this summer, The Guardian describes Sedaris’s genre as “wry, sidelong diary-essays,” adding, “there isn’t a label for what he does; he’s the lone inhabitant of a category of his own invention.”
Sedaris makes Mark Twain look tongue-tied and Oscar Wilde plodding. His ear for dialogue is practically a superpower, and I know of no other who can skirt so close to heartbreak while breezily delivering a line so funny you snort coffee out your nose. But it was his essay ‘Day In, Day Out’ (in Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls, 2013) about writing a diary that made me truly appreciate his staggering sandworm-to-oyster or dross-to-gem ratio.
He has obsessively kept a diary every day since September 5, 1977. Sedaris distinguishes between a journal — “a repository of ideas — your brain on the page” — and a diary, which, “by contrast, is your heart.” (I wonder what Morning Pages would be? Belly-button fluff, earwax, toe-jam?) “As for ‘journalling’”, he goes on, “that just means you’re spooky and have way too much time on your hands.”
Over a three-month period, he says, “there may be fifty bits worth noting, and six that, with a little work, I might consider reading out loud.” These are the “0.1 that might possibly qualify as entertaining”. What’s wonderful about Sedaris’s diaries (or at least the gleaming iceberg tips that we, lucky people, get to read) is that despite being obsessive, and very much about him, they are not self-obsessed in the slightest. Which brings me to my final quote, a quintessential piece of Sedaris, brilliantly reverse-engineered to prove my point: “It’s not that I think my life is important, or that future generations might care to know that on June 6, 2009, a woman with a deaf, drug-addicted mother-in-law taught me to say ‘I need you to stop being an asshole’ in sign language.”
Journal or diary, memoir or lightly fictionalised autobiography, perhaps we should just call all this stuff “life writing” because sometimes — if you’re really lucky and you keep at it — it sounds exactly like what Life itself would write, if it could.
First published in The Hindu Business Line, BLInk supplement 9.9.18