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The First Tool: Morning Pages
The first tool of the Writing Diet is a tool I have taught many times before. It is the basic tool of creative unblocking and the basic tool of successful long-term weight loss as well. You will write three pages every morning, a practice that I call Morning Pages. They are to be strictly stream of consciousness, no "high art" here. You simply move your hand across the page and write whatever thought comes into your head. Even "non-thoughts" are fine. Don't expect or demand that you have a writing style. Any style at all will do. So fret, gripe, worry, scold—or celebrate. There is no wrong way to do Morning Pages.
Your pages may sound grumpy and whiny—"I'm awake and I want to sleep two more hours. I hate my job. I hate my boss. I hate the life I have invented for myself these days." Your pages might sound anxious and scattered. You might find yourself angry or sad. It's all right. It's all right. Your job is simply to get down on the page whatever it is you are.
What you are doing with your pages is something that in 12-step parlance is called "getting current." You are out to catch up on yourself, to pinpoint precisely what you are feeling and thinking. It's an interesting phrase, "getting current." Because that is exactly what we are doing. We are tapping into the energy flow in our lives, the current of who and what we are. When I get current, I feel more alive. I know who I am and what I want more of and what I want less of. Writing Morning Pages, I tap into a creative energy that flows like a subterranean river through my life.
One of the first fruits of Morning Pages is an upsurge of creativity in many forms. Apartments get painted. Curtains get hung. Long-overdue letters get written. Art forms that we have lost or forgotten come wafting back to us with increased urgency. "Don't put me off any longer," these zephyrs beg. When we listen to them, we start to flourish.
Morning Pages galvanize our days. They prioritize them as well. Writing Morning Pages, we begin to see that each day is made up of myriad "choice points" and that we have a great deal of freedom to choose exactly how we will live. Morning Pages make us aware of which activities are dead ends for us and which activities give us a sense of health and well-being. Like a tough-love friend, Morning Pages nudge us in the direction of needed change.
"I really need more exercise," we write one day. And a second day. And a third. On the fourth day we abruptly realize that we can take a twenty-minute walk on our lunch hour. We take that walk and the next day's pages record this small triumph.
Morning Pages put us in touch with our emotions. Often those emotions have been clogged, stuffed down beneath the weight of our busy days, days filled with work, relationships and, yes, food. Too often we have touched our feelings and recoiled as from a hot stove. We have been angry and felt our anger was taboo. We have been sad and turned to some mindless television to ignore it. We have even turned to food when we felt joy. Any intense emotion can trigger a Snack Attack.
Writing Morning Pages, our mindless lives are behind us. A day at a time, a page at a time, we become mindful, acutely attuned to our personal feelings. We might write "I am angry at my sister. Talking with her bores me silly. She just gets me on the phone and does a monologue. We haven't had a real conversation in years!" Realizing how we feel, we often make spontaneous changes. To our needy sister we say, "Wait a minute—there's something I want to tell you"—and then we tell her that we are not a wailing wall and that she, too, needs to learn to listen. To our surprise, she hears us. For the first time in years, conversation is a two-way street.
The pages examine all of our relationships, not the least of which is our relationship to food. "The junk food I am eating leaves me hung over," we might write. The very next day, faced with an opportunity to binge, we decline. "What's come over you?" our friends ask as we order a salad Niçoise instead of our usual chicken potpie.
"My tastes have changed," we might joke, but more than just our tastes are changing. Jeannie began her day on Coca-Cola and moved on from there to Cheerios. "It was like a five-year-old was feeding me," she laughs. Her Morning Pages pointed out to her that she was living on sugar and starch and that a few fruits and vegetables might be in order. One day she found herself buying a container of fresh strawberries. "I've always loved fresh strawberries, but I never let myself have them. I just didn't feel deserving. A month of pages changed the habits of years. I simply couldn't bear to see how I was treating myself. Once I did see it, I knew it had to stop—and it did."
The last time I heard from Jeannie, strawberries were a staple in her diet. She had exchanged her morning Coca-Colas for tea and had even started making herself salads for lunch. She had dropped three dress sizes and lost the telltale bloat on her fine-featured face. In the photo that she sent of herself and her new boyfriend, she looked fifteen years younger than her pre-pages self.
Morning Pages sweep the house of our consciousness. They poke into every odd corner of our thoughts. They are a catcher's mitt for many small ideas that lead to larger breakthroughs. "I'd like this room better red," we think one day of the foyer to our apartment. A week later the room is red and we do, in fact, like it better. But now we think our living room could use some sprucing up. It looks so dull by comparison…
A day at a time, a room at a time, we remake our environment. Now our apartment looks like someone with self-worth lives there. And someone with self-worth is struggling to be born.
"This relationship is suffocating me," we might write. Cornered by our pages, we face the difficult fact that our marriage is arid and that we feel parched and exhausted from trying single-handedly to make it work. "I deserve reciprocity," we scrawl early one morning. Later in the day we tell the same thing to our spouse. Standing up for ourselves, we begin to walk taller. We feel the self in self-worth.
It takes courage to undertake Morning Pages, but pages themselves give us courage. In the privacy of our journal, we admit the secrets we have been harboring. Once aired, those secrets lose their power to tyrannize us. Our pen is the scalpel with which we lance the psychic infections we have been carrying. "I hate this job," we write. "It's prestigious, but there's too much stress for too little reward."
Once we target a problem area, the pages are quick to suggest solutions. We are not trapped, pages remind us. We always have choices. Sometimes those choices are difficult. We may hate our job but love our salary. Pages encourage us to take accurate stock of our situation. Perhaps, for right now, the job is worth all its aggravation. We can choose to leave or we can choose to stay. Pages help us to sort our options.
Many of us find, writing pages, that we seem to be put into contact with a source of wisdom greater than ourselves. Answers swim into consciousness that seem far wiser than our personal thinking. It is for this reason that I have come to think of Morning Pages as an effective form of meditation—especially for hyperactive Westerners. Most of us have a hard time with conventional meditation. It is very difficult for us to sit calmly and do nothing for twenty minutes. With pages, you sit calmly and do something. That something, the motion of the hand across the page, is actually a way of tracking what meditators speak of as "cloud thoughts." As our thoughts cross our consciousness, we record them on the page. Oddly, the very act of writing down our concerns helps us to put those concerns in their proper perspective. We miniaturize our irrational worries. We underscore our legitimate concerns. Morning Pages are a sorting process. At first on the page and then in our lives, we begin to get things straight.
With our pages as our ally, we begin to face down difficult issues. Some of us face squarely a long-suspected drinking problem. Others admit to using television as a potent narcotic. Many of us find that food is our favored blocking device.
"I was a late-night eater," says Anthony. "I didn't realize this until I began to record in my Morning Pages what felt like hangovers. I wasn't drinking. In fact, I prided myself on several years of sobriety, but there was no question that my mornings were hung over and that food was the substance I was abusing."
Self-knowledge is often the first step toward change, and when Anthony admitted his abusive eating, he took a step toward discontinuing it. "It didn't happen overnight," he says. "But I began to record, hung over again,' and then, one night, I aborted a late-night snack halfway through, saying to myself, 'You don't want to be hung over in the morning, do you?' "
When Anthony abandoned his late-night binges, he found that he had immediate access to greater creative energy. "I found I was full of late-night ideas and that a fear of this energy had been at the root of my overeating." No longer overeating to thwart his creativity, Anthony saw that he had many healthy choices in front of him. For one thing, he had the time and energy to write his long-delayed memoirs.
"My extra pounds were a barricade I placed between me and my freedom," he realized. "When I gave up late-night grazing, the pounds slowly began to slip away and I found myself making many healthy changes."
Believing himself trapped in a dead-end job, Marcus saw that he was in fact unwilling to do the footwork to find new employment. He was in jail, all right, but he held the key—he just needed the will to use it.
"One morning, I wrote I hate my job' for the last time," he recalls. "That day I picked up the phone and called a head hunter. I soon learned that I was eminently employable."
Morning Pages point us in the direction of our growth. They make us intimate with ourselves and that, in turn, allows us to be more authentically intimate with others. Leslie found herself writing that she was unhappy in her relationship. As she explored this in subsequent pages, she learned that she was hungry for deeper communication than what she enjoyed with her lover. "Try telling him that," her pages suggested one morning. The advice brought Leslie face-to-face with the fact that she had almost sabotaged her relationship rather than risk honesty within it.
As we risk honesty in our pages, it becomes easier to be honest elsewhere. Leslie admitted in her Morning Pages that she was feeling stifled by her lover's codependency. "I resented his possessiveness, but I also went along with it because I was, frankly, a little flattered by it," she says. In her pages she rehearsed what she wanted to say: "I just need a little more breathing room," she told him. "I don't want to do everything together." When she risked more disclosure, he risked more disclosure in turn. To her surprise, he admitted to similar feelings. They were actually both feeling smothered. This conversation gave them the courage to open the cage door. They soon found that their increased independence gave their time together greater intensity and meaning.
Greater intensity and meaning are common experiences for those who choose to work with Morning Pages. The experience is not unlike falling in love—but the object of our affections is now the Self. We become interesting to ourselves. Our thoughts, feelings, and perceptions count for something. A page at a time, a day at a time, we are becoming intimate with ourselves, and that intimacy is often both threatening and thrilling.
Janice undertook Morning Pages because of a mysterious malaise that she did not understand. She was happily married to Bill, a charismatic, high-powered salesman. He spoiled her with material blessings. Her every wish was his command. Every year Bill's earning power seemed to increase. They traded in home after home, always moving to bigger and better abodes. Pampered and pudgy, Janice dutifully decorated each new nest—but she resented it.
Janice's pages suggested to her that their pursuit of the great American Dream was actually a frenzied and empty pursuit. "I didn't need more. I actually needed less. I needed to be able to cherish what I had, not constantly trade it in for something else." With the help of pages, Janice saw that her own dreams had become submerged beneath the dreams and goals of her husband. She wanted to write—and more than the steady stream of bread and-butter notes that their lifestyle demanded. Bill traveled in his work. Janice was often lonely, but she decided to use her empty time to take a writing course. Her creativity took off like a rocket. Soon she was asked to script a radio show—then to host it.
"I became a writing fiend," Janice laughs. "They were paying me to write, but I would have paid them!" She also became thinner, no longer an overstuffed hen sitting on her nest egg.
Morning Pages teach us what we like—and what we don't like. A line at a time, they move us closer to our authentic selves. In Morning Pages we stop hiding. We come out into the open— at least on the page. "I'd really like to try… "we write—and then we try it. Dreams long deferred move, step by step, into reality. We discover that as we move our hand across the page, a Higher Hand moves across the surface of our lives. For many of us, pages are a spiritual experience as we make contact with a Power Greater Than Ourselves.
Alice lost both of her parents to early deaths. An adult, she often still felt like an orphaned child. She was surprised to find comfort in writing Morning Pages. Time and again she would write out guidance that seemed to her far wiser than any of her own devising. "At first it was as if I became my own wise parent. Then I began to wonder if perhaps my own parents weren't speaking to me through the pages. They began to feel much closer to me and I began to feel far less alone. The pages became for me a source of companionship and strength. I began to think of them as my personal spiritual practice. They kept me on track and gave me an even keel."
For many of us, an even keel is elusive. We long for stability but we do not know how to find it. Pages may be the first effective form of mentoring that we encounter. We make contact with what might be called an Inner Mentor. Under its tutelage, we are able both to remain stable and to take risks.
Alan began doing Morning Pages when he took an Artist's Way class. For twelve weeks he wrote every morning, watching with some awe as his ordinary life became transformed. For many years he had dreamed of being a playwright. At the urging of pages he now tried a few short monologues—and read them aloud to great success at an open mic. With such encouragement, you might think he would be firm in keeping to his new regimen— instead, when his class ended, Alan abandoned it.
As Alan abandoned his pages, he abandoned himself. No longer listening for guidance, he accepted a new, high-powered job in a field that he didn't really like. In fact, the only thing to like about his new job was the salary. Frustrated and a little ashamed of him-self, Alan began to overeat. He kept a steady supply of snack foods in his desk drawer at the office, and whenever his conscience bothered him, he reached for a treat. Before he realized what had happened, Alan had packed on twenty-five pounds. Always a big man, he was now too big. When Alan and I crossed paths, I suggested he go back to his Morning Pages to see if he could determine what was eating him and why he found it necessary to overeat.
"I don't know why I ever quit," Alan quickly reported. Within three weeks of being back on the page his eating patterns began to come under control. He no longer treated his desk like an extension of his refrigerator. "I really hate this job," he admitted. "I think I sold myself out to take it."
At the urging of his pages, Alan turned in his resignation, determined to find new work that was more in accord with his value system. He also began writing again, and one more time his monologues met with public success.
"I think I have a knack for this," Alan told me modestly. I suggested he find a day job that left him with enough energy to pursue his writing in the evenings. Before long Alan was offered a job that seemed perfect to him. He believed in the company and its goals and he found that working along the lines of his true values didn't stress or tire him the way his old, toxic job had. No longer conflicted, Alan found that he could both work his day job and write in the evenings. Before long he found the courage to tackle a full-length play—a dream that had for years eluded him.
"I think I learned my lesson," Alan now says. "I need the honesty and self-reflection that Morning Pages afford me. I am not a spiritual man, but I seem to be living now along more spiritual lines. I find I like it."
"I find I like it" may be for most people the bottom line in working with Morning Pages. As we vent our anxieties, our stresses, and our frustrations, a new equanimity begins to take hold. We feel different and we begin to look different.
"What did you have," the joke runs, "a face-lift or a surrender?"
I began working with Richard during the worst months of a long, cold New York winter. A blocked Broadway actor, he carried an extra thirty pounds. It was his "insulation," he joked, but to me the weight wasn't a laughing matter. It was creative suicide. When I looked at Richard, I saw the handsome leading man struggling to emerge. His diet of pizza and cheeseburgers and Entenmann's chocolate chip cookies was pure sabotage. I put him on a regimen of morning writing and fairy tales. (Yes, fairy tales.)
Against his better judgment, Richard began Morning Pages. He quickly saw his own negative patterns. He overworked. He overate. Fatigued and frustrated, he under nurtured himself. Pizza became the panacea for his misery. He had big dreams and a bigger waistline, but the closest he got to Broadway was his favorite pizza stand. He was afraid to take a genuine risk. I suggested he take one on the page. Why not use a fairy tale to bump off a creative monster, someone who had been damaging to his creative self-esteem? Could he think of anyone? He could.
"Fine," I said. "Now write a tale in which you do him in."
"This is really, really stupid," Richard told me, but he went home and wrote a fairy tale about a former music teacher. In the fairy tale the teacher suffered a fate worse than death—he always sang off-key. Richard was jubilant that his abusive former teacher had finally gotten his comeuppance. Sharing the fairy tale with the class, his glee was contagious.
"Good for you," I told Richard. "Now what?"
Richard flushed. "Actually, there is a now-what," he admitted. "I've signed up for voice lessons and I've given up cookies, pizza, and cheeseburgers with everything."
The last I heard of Richard, he had dropped twenty of his unwanted pounds, gotten new head shots taken, and was auditioning again.
From the front of the classroom, the transformation that Morning Pages causes is almost startling. Even after two and a half decades as a teacher, I am still struck with wonder as people seem to change right before my eyes. I call the process "spiritual chiropractic" as changes are made in exactly the direction that they are needed. Overeaters curb their binges. Undereaters begin to eat more regularly. From the front of the room, the increased health is readily evident. And "all" they are doing is writing.
Writing "rights" things. Dead-end jobs are abandoned. Ditto for dead-end relationships. Energy is spent along new and more productive lines. Dreams that were elusive begin to seem possible. As we become increasingly unblocked, our lives flourish. As we become more fit, our lives become more fitting. At age forty-five Deanna embarked on law school. At age fifty James went back for a master's in poetry. Georgianna did the same thing at seventy-five. In each case, their morning writing led them into more adventurous and expanded lives.
Much to their surprise, people get happy when they write. Once we get used to it, writing is as natural as breathing—and almost as necessary. Moving our pen across the page, we come into focus to ourselves. Emotions long avoided become familiar. Perceptions become clearer. Boundaries begin to fall in place. Guided by our own hand, without years of costly therapy, we begin to break our unhealthy patterns and dependencies. We become true to ourselves—and more true to others.
"Thank you for Morning Pages. My husband is a far happier man," a woman told me. I have heard this sentiment many times over the years.
"I thought I needed a divorce," admits Kevin. "What I really needed was a way for me to take responsibility for my own happiness."
Morning Pages are a route to happiness. For many people that happiness is expressed as weight loss.
Write Your Morning Pages
This tool is the bedrock of creative recovery. It will challenge you, enrich you, and enliven you. Set your clock an hour early, although you may not need that much time. Take yourself to the page and report precisely how you are feeling. Nothing is too petty or too large to be included. Keep your hand moving and follow your thoughts. They may be quite fragmented and scattered. That's all right. Do not expect "real" writing. Just let yourself write. There is no wrong way to do Morning Pages. They are for your eyes only. Let yourself write. Remember—and trust—that you will be able to write yourself right-size.