Life Is A Pile Of Papers

Doing Morning Pages at the living room desk I was troubled by piles of paper on the shelves to either side. Mail, drafts essays, reminders, notes, a magazine, two folders, and whatever was at the bottoms of the piles. I kept writing my pages, knowing I’m best served by doing one thing at a time, but those piles nagged at me.

Soon as I finished writing, I consolidated the piles into one and cleared one shelf. I breathed a little easier. Hoarding works up my anxiety. Clarity lowers it. That clear shelf had me feeling better. Not fully healed but a smidge calmer.

The tough thing about a pile of papers is that some of it can’t be cleared easily. The essay drafts, one that’s twelve pages long, need revision that will take hours. More troubling, I don’t know what to do when they’re done. I’d like to think they could be published, but I would need to figure out where and how to do that. Piled papers are daunting, but just the thought of finding somewhere to publish exhausts me so that I don’t want to even begin.

As I worked into the pile, I thought of this Fitzgerald quote: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne ceaselessly into the past.” I’ll argue it’s not the past into which I have to let myself be pulled. I beat on against the current to be in the moment. Sure, I’m often dragged back and waste too much energy trying to peer into the future, but I’m trying to be in this moment. That pile of papers is an affront to this moment. It is to me. It represents what I should do or should have already done. How can I be in this moment when I’m embarrassed by the things I haven’t done and wishing for a future in which I am a better man?

Morning Pages served as the first draft of this. I’m done with them now and typing this last thought. Soon I’ll walk those pages downstairs and file them. That much will be done and cleared away. I’ll check if there’s time to dig in more, clear away even one more piece of paper. I’m rowing hard against the current, stubbornly working at being in this moment with a clear mind if not a clear desk, ready for what is happening and whatever comes next.

Them's The Breaks

I haven't posted in a couple days. Things got busy and I've wondered about other kinds of writing I want to do. Posting daily takes work — though I don't want to oversell it since I can gin up a post in half an hour — and there are times it leaves me without the energy to write something longer. And then there are the streaks and the break.

Streaks sometimes work. They keep me going when I want to quit. A long streak gets me over my inertia.

But streaks can get in my way and become more important than the thing I'm really trying to do. That was how daily blogging had begun to feel. I was churning out mediocre posts that weren't making me happy and got in the way of other writing. I took a break so I might come back with a better idea of how to proceed.

I've kept my Morning Pages streak. People confuse the blog with those. There are posts that come from the morning's pages, but not often. Morning Pages are less about writing than about daily practice like meditation or prayer. I find balance through them. Without them the last five years of my job would have been unbearable. Morning Pages teach me who I am. That streak is easy to maintain. Every time I consider breaking it, I reconsider and keep going. The daily-ness feels necessary and good. It doesn't get in the way.

I'll try to keep publishing a newsletter each week. It's a great way to keep up with people, understand audience, and have fun.

Here are my guiding questions for streaks:

  • Is it making me happy?
  • Is it making me a better person?
  • Is it making me a better writer?
  • Would a break improve things?

It has been a good break. I'm back today, happy, better, and ready to see what happens next.

Those questions are a good guide to most anything. Go figure.

Morning Pages As Metaphor

First of May. Wet and rainy. This morning was cold. I woke early listening to the rain, trying to resist the call of my bladder. I lost that battle. Downstairs I pet the cat, told her she had to wait for food, disappointing her once again. I took pen and phone to the basement though lately I wonder why I bring the phone. I'm not listening to music as I write, preferring forty-five minutes of quiet. My life feels too noisy. I need some solitude.

I wrote the date and page number on each of the three pages and wrote that it was cold. Writing flowed from there, but distracting thoughts kept intruding. I thought of one thing I had to do today, then another, then another until it was as though I were trying to write one line of thought while screaming and having a seizure.

Rather than give up, I switched to writing the panic and anxiety. Then I wrote this one word: breathe. I stopped the pen, closed my eyes, breathed in deeply, held it, and exhaled. I went back to writing.

At some point I thought of how many lines I fill every morning. Three pages of thirty-one lines each. Ninety-three blank lines. I can write only one line at a time and when there are ninety-two to go, it can feel daunting. But if I write about it soon there are only eighty-three lines to go, then sixty-one, thirty, and half a dozen.

Morning Pages take me forty-five minutes most days. Once in a while I get distracted and they take an hour. Then there are times I wake late and have to rush through in half an hour. Whatever the case, it's one line at a time, one word after another, one page, two pages, and then three pages. There's no other way other than to give up. I've come so far that I don't want to break the streak. I keep going.

There are lessons about writing to be gleaned from doing Morning Pages, but the more important things have to do with living. I don't know all those lessons. I'm still learning. But these few come to mind: Do one thing, breathe, and do another. Fill one line at a time and understand that ninety-three lines only seems like a lot. Turn each page over and move to the next one. Don't stop until they are all finished. Remember to keep the hand, arm, neck, and body loose. Stop to pet the cat when she visits. Listen to the sound of the pen on the page.

One more thing thing I'm learning: it's going to be okay.

I finished my pages. I breathed that in. Then I moved on to the next thing. Tomorrow I'll fill three more pages. This is all there is to it. This is a life.

Morning Pages Are Analog

"Morning Pages are three pages of longhand, stream of consciousness writing, done first thing in the morning." — Julia Cameron

Seven words into her description of Morning Pages, Julia Cameron says that they are done longhand. Pen and paper. There are many reasons, but the most important is the most primal: writing with pen on paper is as close to natural as writing can be. Writing by hand is simple, close to the bone (literally), and the way we first learned to write. (That last may have changed in recent years I'm sorry to say.) Morning Pages are on the desk, receiving ink from a pen held in the hand which is moved by the mind. The action is immediate, permanent, personal, tactile, private, individual, and traditional. Remember that tradition doesn't mean that something is just old but is so tried and true that it is passed down through the ages. I've been through at least ten different word processing programs and at least double that many file formats (some of which are no longer readable by any machine I can access), but the paper and pen I use could have come from my childhood or my father's childhood or his father's and so on down the line.

Morning Pages are analog and that facilitates connecting with the stream of words that flow within us but which is too often blocked by embarrassment, worry, or inconvenience. The fewer things mediating between thinking and writing, the better. If I have to boot my computer, if I need access to electricity and the internet, if I'm unsure the machine is saving my files, then I have that too much between myself and writing. If instead, I have a stack of blank pages waiting near my desk and a pen on hand, I'm ready to write Morning Pages.

There is plenty to say about what pen to use. Mine is a Lamy 2000 fountain pen with a medium nib that I fill with Noodler's blue ink. That wasn't the pen I used my first day of Morning Pages, but I got there eventually. Choose a good, fast pen that feels great in your hand. Don't spend money on one. You have a pen already. Use that and go from there.

As for paper, again, start with what you have. I write on used paper. I print lines onto the back of used sheets and it works well for me. I suggest that you choose paper that allows for 750-1,000 words of writing over three pages. That feels like just enough.

Simple tools. That's all you need. Keep electricity and the network out of it. Do this personally, privately, maybe even secretly and keep the process completely analog. Get back to basics and you stand a better chance of getting back to yourself and into your own words.

Be open to all the ways in which you might do your best work. THat may begin on the computer. I started there too. Eventually, the necessity of going analog impressed itself upon me and I moved into that because it showed me things I couldn't learn on a computer. Find your way and accept that it will change over time. My way is analog and that's what I suggest to you. Now go make your own choices.