I think the first time I heard of "The Artist's Way" it was listed as a resource in the back of another self-help book. The author said that it was a book that, as silly as it seems, had helped a lot of people she knew who were simply burned out.
I promptly bought myself a copy. (By the way: Not at all necessary. Your library will be stocked with it, I promise.)
I never read the whole book, but what I did read, I loved. Sometimes it helps to have a saccharine cheerleader in the form of a self-help book telling you to do things like "take yourself out on an artist's date." As in, if you're interested in painting, plan a day at MOMA where you are romancing your own creative spirit. Writing? Schedule a day to go to the park to read a novel to get you excited about writing and reading and life again (I recommend Joyce Carol Oates' National Book Award-Winning "Them" for that, by the way).
The main takeaway I got from the book was doing the damned morning pages. I started doing it in 2004. I was divorced, 40 pounds lighter, and in a dream job a year later.
What are morning pages? It is three pages of continuous stream-of-consciousness writing, unedited, without stopping, the very first thing in the morning. Not on a computer. Longhand. Three pages. Not four. Not two. Three.
It's fascinating to look back at the stressy, uncertain writing that went into my early pages. I AGONIZED over the smallest things. I could hardly concentrate. My mind flitted from anxiety to anxiety and concern to concern. But it was like starting to get in shape to do a marathon. I felt myself forcing my brain and my heart to look at what was inside me. Was I actually happy? What the hell was I? Just between me and the pages. No one else had to know.
When I'm giving my pitch telling someone why this is a great life tool to pull out from time to time -- as I did on Friday night to Emily -- my pitch goes a little like this. The exercise serves three functions.
1. By getting rid of your censor (I mean, if you want to, you can, technically, write over and over again "I don't know what to write" for three straight pages if that's all that comes up), interesting patterns and thoughts and discoveries begin to emerge.
2. The exercise is a warm-up. I'm a pretty quick writer now. I did not used to be this way. I'm a quick writer because of morning pages. Filling those puppies up provided a liquidity to writing that made it seem like no big deal. Don't overthink it. Write it. What comes to the top is what you want to say. Yes, craft your words and thoughts and structure and thesis and take more time as appropriate, but often from-the-gut conversational writing can be much more emotional and powerful and mesmerizing than the overthought and overwrought. Lyricism comes into play. A state of flow. Strangely, you even begin to enjoy it.
3. Connections are drawn that you never expected. There's a theory on epiphanies related to functional MRI studies that shows that insights can occur when the brain is intensely activated and then given a chance to rest and just breathe. This is where the connections begin to happen. I found the same experience with morning pages. I had a-ha moment after a-ha moment.
Like: I don't want to be married. A-ha! I can write again if I want to. A-ha! I can even do comedy if I want. A-ha! The world is mine -- and my life is not over or predetermined in my twenties. A-ha, a-ha, a-ha!
The example that I gave Emily was that when I started at the New York Post in 2005, I really didn't intend to venture too much into the world of comedy. I wanted to kill it at the job because I was really nervous about meeting expectations and didn't want any dangerous jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none distractions in play.
The prior years I had gotten more into doing stand-up and improv, even the occasional acting course, which by the by, probably taught me more about writing than any writing course ever did. (You don't say, "I want a divorce." You say, "Pass the peas." But the intention is one of anger. You say, "I want a divorce," by saying, "Pass the peas.")
In the new job, I wanted to prove that I could do it. I had never worked a staff feature writing job at a newspaper before that wasn't an internship, I had never worked a professional job in New York (with one internship at the Village Voice in 1996 under my belt), and I hadn't written for a newspaper since 2000. In journalism, because the pay is so shitty, the rung so low on the totem pole of power and access and the burnout rate so high, the one thing professional journalists get to relish fully is the ability to hold grudges against anyone who dares to leave the business.
I had done just that. I left the Des Moines Register to take a PR-ish job working for Northwestern University's medical school's alumni magazine and live in the same city of Chicago with my soon-to-be-husband and college sweetheart. In the subsequent years I did long stories about doctors and research, fundraising, speechwriting, content strategy, marketing, Web consultancy, grant writing, donor relations, ghostwriting, but never ever did I work at a newspaper.
At the Des Moines Register, I had worked for Gannett. They own USA Today. They had practices like "mainstreaming," where the forecasting of a racially diverse demographic of future media consumers predicated that they needed to begin seducing more non-white readers into the circulation. The way they thought to do this? "Mainstream" articles. Or, make sure that every article quoted at least one minority.
In Iowa, a very white state, more than once, I would call up, say, a local businessperson about a story on the farmer's market, and because these creepy ham-fisted racially mercenary practices were known amongst the community, I was told, "I know why you're calling me. It's because I'm Asian, isn't it?" I had no idea. But I did get asked by an editor, also more than once, if someone "sounded black," so I might count that person toward our mainstreaming goals.
In another highlight, I was chided for using a three-syllable word in a story. We didn't want to make our readers work too hard, I was told.
I grew to hate writing.
When you hate the thing you love -- which was beginning to happen to me near the end of my time at the New York Post, too in 2012, where I was chided for indulging in humor or authenticity, two of my core values -- it is better, I find, not to do it in a professionally compromising way.
Because it becomes sad when you hate the thing you love. I am a competent flexible highly malleable writer-for-hire when the situation calls for it, but if we are talking about writing where I am putting my heart into it, if it is getting mangled and dumbed-down and debased, at a certain point, it makes you realize you'd prefer to work for a fucking alumni magazine. No heart being broken there.
The story of what led me to do morning pages is an interesting one, and a long one, but briefly it is this. In one of my jobs working at Northwestern University -- I was essentially the voice of the president as I ghostwrote to wealthy donors, which in my biggest accomplishment, led to a $100 million naming gift for the medical school), and I was determined to take advantage of the tuition discount as I worked my lame academic unsexy not-in-media job.
The discount was 75 percent for graduate courses and 85 percent for continuing education. I like plans. I like strategies. I like boxes. I decided I would, having had my heart broken as a writer, have a nice life as an English teacher. I studied and did well on the GRE and applied to Northwestern's masters in education graduate school. I was accepted into the program.
But rather than take an education course to kick my new life off, I found myself drawn to taking one of the requirements to fill out what would be required when I finally became a teacher. A speech class? I didn't have that. So I took Rives Collins' "storytelling" course. It was right around September 11, 2001.
One of our assignments was a first-person story. I finally wrote the story of my father, which I did not have the ability to do when I was a stressed-out 21-year-old intern at the Washington Post and first pitched the story to Gene Weingarten, who agreed to the unconventional piece. I would stay at the newspaper until 3 in the morning trying to get it done, but I didn't have the capacity yet. I cried at my failure. I kept the notes.
In this storytelling class, after the world changed on 9/11, I did finish it. And I told it. And I cried as I told aloud to the class. And something happened. I rediscovered my voice as a writer. I rediscovered the love of writing. I enjoyed it again.
I felt a sense of power and ownership inside me. The pilot light was flickering. Anything seemed possible. And I asked myself: What did I ever want to do with my life?
Because it sure as hell wasn't being in an unhappy marriage and becoming an English teacher.
That's when I started doing morning pages. And holy shit. What I discovered about myself, that I hadn't wanted to look at, blew me away.
The morning pages led me to decide to start a blog. I was embarrassed and ashamed because it didn't have the prestige of print, and 12-year-olds were doing it about their cats, and oh here I was with real credits, and look at me now. Ah the stench of failure. But instead I owned the credits I did have and laughed at the absurdity of what I was doing. I did it for pleasure. I called it "Bloggy McBlogalot." I called it out, baby.
When I had a terrible fight with my husband one night about the blog, I deleted the whole thing. (It's so effective to punish yourself and show how angry you are through self-sabotage, isn't it?) Then a reader from India emailed me. Where had it gone? He loved it. Please, he said, keep writing.
I did. And a few months later, the editor who had loved my work at the Daily Northwestern and was now at the New York Post reached out to me to talk about a job. At the same time, I was deciding to end my marriage. I also got more in touch with my body. I stopped filling up all my sadness and anger with food. I started to drop weight and have more energy, too. Every day, morning pages. Every day, new discoveries.
And when I started at the Post, I did not want to fuck it up. I was so scared. So terrified of living up to expectations. So I decided: I would do none of that comedy bullshit I had been doing in Chicago. But then, one day, as I did my morning pages on the train, I had this idea. What if I pitched a story about all the different comedy rooms in the city? It would be a legitimate assignment for my primary concern of the job, and it would also be a great way to get to know the scene in New York. That's exactly what happened.
Then that same editor who had hired me kept putting me on more comedy stories. And then I got asked to enter a contest of New York's Funniest Reporter, and now I had a reason to be doing stand-up again. I won the contest. More connections followed.
If any of this resonates with you, do not be afraid to try it.
Write anything you like, just don't censor it or hold back.
That's yourself that you are reading.