Well, while I have utterly failed at updating here, I am happy to report that every day for the past 50 days, I’ve dutifully completed what Julia Cameron calls “morning pages” — that is, three pages, or about 800 words, written stream of consciously, right upon waking. I got the idea last year after reading her luminous book, The Artist’s Way, during a dank period of deep depression. The book is magnificent for any struggling artist who feels guilty about calling himself/herself that because of their lack of productivity in their chosen art. It might read a touch saccharine or preachy to anyone who doesn’t have issues, whose self-esteem is high, but for someone who was drowning in self-laceration, doubt, and despair about their art, well, it was like a helping hand tugging me out of the treacherous sea.
I renewed my commitment to these pages after attending the A Room Of Her Own Foundation women writers’ retreat in August. Learning is so like remembering sometimes. I knew on some level everything that we talked about at the retreat, and yet the earnestness, the poetry, the camaraderie [sidebar: how ODD is that word? It’s the kind of word that makes me pity ESL learners and want to say, Jeez, I know, I’m sorry] and kindness with which each woman offered what they too knew about writing made the memory of what I knew leap out at me like an epiphany.
Each morning, I rose before dawn to creep out quietly under the setting stars, past the not-so-distant yips of the coyotes, through the welcome, brisk snap of the pre-sun air, over gravel and red spiced dust, past the barking, grass biting burros, to the library, so I could type my pages, my 750 words or so, before breakfast. Sometimes I managed to slip outside and do some yoga before breakfast, too, but New Mexico had had one of its rainiest of rainy seasons, and the mosquitos also greedily sucked in the morning air (among other things) and often kept me away. I’ve dutifully kept up the morning typing since–either before or after a morning run or trip to the Y for yoga.
It was about a week or so ago–a full month or so after the retreat– when I picked up my Kindle and re-read the first few chapters of The Artist’s Way. I’ve been struggling a bit since settling in here to establish a writing routine outside of my pages and unmotivated by the stress of a deadline. I’d already, in a sense, forgotten all the things I knew before the retreat, all the things I know I know, and all the things I renewed to myself at the retreat.
Learning is a process. Learning is re-membering, in the strictest sense of the word, a yoking back together things that ripped apart or fell softly away like leaves.
What I re-membered about Julia Cameron’s way is the need to forgive myself more. To treat myself–especially my inner artist, which she likens to a child for those of us still starting out–with grace and understanding.
My morning pages, all typed out, had turned into a place where I feverishly tried to plan out my days and weeks with goals and tasks, some that needed doing for class, others that were grander and involved long-term projects, and still others that spoke to an avidly (surprisingly!) social scene here in Wilmington. Quickly, they devolved into a place where I vented my frustrations–with my neighbors, for hacking at the walls in various construction projects, sending invisible spores and dust dancing through the air and triggering severe sneezing attacks; with the construction site outside beeping back so my trucks and jackhammers at pre-dawn hours; with my students and my classes; with the never-ending to-do list I kept gathering for myself; –and mostly, with myself. I was furious at myself in those pages for not doing more, not accomplishing more with my days. For getting sucked into time wasting TV or Facebook newsfeed articles, or re-reading old favorites instead of new things, for not writing anything I was super proud of, for not updating the blog, for obsessing over my overly-packed social calendar, for hurting my knee playing volleyball, for not running faster, for not eating healthier, or for feeling sick and sluggish and not wanting to do any of it. The anger barely masked the fear I felt about actually stepping up to the plate and doing it, living the writer’s life. The fear that it was all a mistake, that I didn’t really belong here in this community of writers, that I could never measure up to my own expectations and hopes.
It wasn’t a conversation with my inner artist. It was a one-sided screaming fest. No wonder my inner artist child was cowering in a corner.
I decided right then in re-reading, in re-membering, to take Cameron’s advice and commit to writing the pages long-hand, something I’d tried to get into the habit of last year, though eventually I gave up because I was able to get them done so much more quickly by typing. They became something to check off on my to-do list instead of something I genuinely looked forward to. Something to make me feel like I was writing daily, though Cameron specifically cautions her readers against considering the pages “writing” in the artistic sense, because they should just be a time where the pressure is off, and artists can brain dump all the negative, quotidian worries and thoughts that pull them out of their real writing. Once the brain learns to turn off, or dump, its inner critic, the artist side will come out and be more willing to experiment and play. It takes time, Cameron says, but eventually the pages will turn into a place where real writing enters.
Today was that day for me.
Last weekend, after re-reading The Artist’s Way, I re-membered some things. Like how the pages should ideally be done long-hand. Like how I needed to treat myself with more compassion and care. She recommends taking yourself on an artist’s date once a week, where you have time alone to do something nice for yourself related to your creativity. It’s something I never did last year because my ego burned with embarrassment. Take yourself on a date, I thought. How f#cking cheesy is that. But, somehow, with time, the re-membering didn’t feel quite as cheesy. Last Saturday, after hitting up the farmer’s market and yoga, I took myself to the stationary store across the street that I’d been meaning to pop into for two months now [side note: writing that felt weird. I’ve been here two months already!] and immediately found a beautiful, slim dream journal that would work perfectly as a morning pages journal. The cover is green paisley with a turquoise (naturally. UNCW’s color is teal) binding and a gorgeous peacock feathered quill scribbling on the front. In the upper right hand corner, the words It’s like a wish. Or a dream. But I write it down anyway. It lives in my heart. inscribed. Something about it just makes me feel happy. A gift to myself.
I don’t know what it is about long-hand writing, but it prompted me this past week to be more self-aware about my tone. I found myself catching self-defeating or angry words and engaging in a conversation with myself around them. Like, why are you beating yourself up like this? It’s okay, Cathe, I started letting my heart whisper to my brain. You’re getting there. Don’t worry so much. You’re here; you showed up; and writing is a process; you’re not perfect; and IT’S OKAY, I promise. Just write. Once I started doing that, the pages opened up like a petal. But, of course, I know this. I tell my students to write things out long-hand first! I printed off studies scientists have done about the correlation of memory, creativity, and long-hand writing versus typing. I tell them all the time real writing is re-writing, and that it’s all about the draft, the process, and taking the time.
But as always, my toughest student remains myself. Why is it so hard initially to take your own advice?
Yesterday, after writing my pages out long-hand, I immediately wrote the first poem I’ve truly liked in a long time, on a paint swatch given to me by a classmate. And today, I woke up, a bundle of dream snippets, and immediately wrote out a draft of another essay I want to write to my students about how to enjoy poetry (their continued hatred and fear of it continues to gall me and prompt tons of reflection for me about how we as a culture teach it…more on that later). When I got to the third page and realized I was technically “done,” I was disappointed for the first time. Normally, I pause and flip to see how much more white space I have to go, kind of like how I used to do when forced to read a painfully long, old timey novel (“how many more pages?”).
Call me a believer.
And so I know what to say to my students on Tuesday. That they’ll never know what fruit will blossom in the years to come. But keep planting the seeds. Keep showing up. And maybe drop me a line sometime, to let me know, in that harvest, what your mind re-members.
P.S. Praise those who created the auto-save feature of wordpress. At one point I accidentally closed the window while 3/4 of the way done writing this. I cursed and smacked the keys, my stomach a freezing, twisted knot as I pulled up the website again, only to find wordpress had auto saved ALL of it.