Nothing quiets my mind in a more profound way than morning pages.
If you’re familiar with them, you probably think they originated within Julia Cameron's pivotal "The Artist's Way.” She certainly did popularize them, (and I cannot recommend “The Artist’s Way” enough) but they first appeared at least in 1934, in Dorothea Brande's booklet "Becoming a Writer,” and maybe even earlier than that. Though these two works deal with morning pages as a means of nurturing creativity, I think the breadth of their influence reaches much further than that. Not only do morning pages help unblock struggling creatives, they also nurture and settle turbulent minds.
To “do” morning pages, you simply fill three pages with long-hand, stream of consciousness writing immediately upon waking up in the morning. You don't eat breakfast or work out first; you don't do anything but roll out of bed and write for three pages. The writing doesn’t have to be pretty, and it rarely is. Mine’s usually recording dreams I had the night before, bitching about my to-do list, or belaboring how worried I am about absolutely everything.
Though they sound mundane and boring, if you stick with them, morning pages quickly become magical and transformative.
You see, recovery begins with locomotion. You have to move away from a place of stagnation and pain, even if you don’t know where you’re going. The act of movement will jump-start the healing process. Writing morning pages gets you going. It gives you space to explore new turf and dissect fears.
When I write morning pages, I get a majority of the manic-panic gunk out of my head and onto the page before I face the world, full of triggers and situations out of my control. Morning pages cut through the worry-looping whirlwind. They help me silence inner voices and just. fucking. write. The practice is meditative and assertive: taking back brain matter I need for construction, not destruction. It's a great way to acknowledge any obsessive thoughts, and by writing them down I take the power and fury away from them. I reclaim my neurons, god damnit! Then all the anxieties are out of my head and I can fill the space they occupied with self-care and creation.
It makes sense, then, that when I look back at periods of heightened creativity in my life, morning pages are the connecting thread. I wrote my first chapbook "Map to the Multiverse" in the summer of 2012 during a heightened period of productivity, punctuated with morning pages. When I wrote 55,000 words of a failed novel in 2013 for NaNoWriMo, while also finishing my last semester of college and working three jobs, I started each day with coffee and morning pages. Newton's First Law, and shit!
Not only can morning pages help you settle your mind, they can also help you pivot away from negative self-reflection and towards self-care instead. After just a few weeks of writing morning pages, you may find yourself prioritizing OTHER important things that fulfill and sustain you, like making art or exercising, over self-destructive habits like drinking or negative self-talk.
A warning, though: morning pages are truth tellers, and maybe you can’t handle the truth. In fact, if you start writing morning pages and then find yourself resisting them, like really fucking resisting them, it's probably because you're on the verge of uncovering something that may be uncomfortable. Is your job just not a good fit? That will come out in morning pages. Bad relationship? It can’t hide from morning pages. If you prefer to keep some rocks unturned, don't do morning pages. But when you are dealing with a pretty dense and unrelenting fog of depression or anxiety, any little scrap of clarity can feel like a lifeline, even if addressing it is painful.
To start morning pages, especially when dealing with mental illness and recovery, it is best to lower yourself into the practice slowly. For instance, I knew I would need to wake up earlier to give myself time to write them, so I started peeling back my wake up time by five minutes a week until I was getting up early enough. Don't try to just yank back your wake-up time an hour earlier than you're used to and then start morning pages. I’ve done that before, and it always results in me failing at the habit (surprise surprise) and then beating myself up for it. Spare yourself that negativity. Peel back your waking time in manageable, 5-minute increments until you have enough time to write. Filling three pages usually takes me about 30 minutes.
Then, start. I set my coffee to brew and it's ready by the time I wake up, so I get up, pour myself a cup, grab my cat and put her on my lap, and sit at the kitchen table, writing in the quiet. It's such a relief to start my day with some self-imposed solitude and routine. It feels so affirming to curl up and get all of my random word salad bullshit out of my brain and onto the page before I have to face the world or even put on pants. (!!!)
Bonus if you’re a writer: it also feels super validating to keep your writing muscle in use. That way, I can't get in my head and think "Oh it's been so long since I wrote, I'VE LOST THE EDGE I’VE LOST IT ALL WRITING POETRY IS MEANINGLESS AND SO IS EXISTENCE." Instead, I can just say "Yeah, doing some writing is stressing me out a little, but I can do it; I've already written 3 pages today." Even if all you do at first is morning pages: that's 21 pages a week. 84 pages a month.
Your journal will start to fill up and you will feel like you've accomplished something. And it is an accomplishment. Traversing the uncharted territory of the brain takes meaty courage. Sometimes when you're totally depressed, that's the only thing you've got to cling to, and that accomplishment can work miracles on your self-esteem.
A note when you get started: don't show your pages to anyone, and don't even let yourself re-read them, not for a while at least. Just let them be. New blank page each day. Lean mean fighting machine. Come back to them after a few months (months not days!) and you'll see the progress you've made. You'll see the things that were blocking you a few months ago are now solved. You’ll witness neuroses disappear in real time. You'll see those worries that used to plague you all day long become defenseless on the page.
Do writing morning pages fix everything? No. Do I still have panic attacks, even when I wrote my 3 pages that day? Of course. They won't take you straight to mental wellness, but they can make the journey less brutal.
Morning pages are the first step, in my opinion, of using creativity as a means of mental illness recovery. Just by showing up each day and making it a habit, you will gain faith in yourself. You will begin to hold yourself in higher regard: "Look at what I've accomplished today." You will know that not only can you do this one thing, but that you can accomplish a great many things. You are not defined by your sorrow; you are propelled by something much brighter.