By a show of hands, how many of you try to balance paid writing with writing you love? Am I the only one burning out before I even get to my personal work?
A few months ago I brought this up with a group of creative friends. Almost simultaneously they asked, “Have you read The Artist’s Way?”
Of course I have. Sort of. I mean, I bought and skimmed it. Does that count?
They told me, under no uncertain terms, that I must immediately read the section on “morning pages,” buy a notebook and start the practice.
So I did. And this is what happened.
What are morning pages?
The Artist’s Way is a well-loved book by Julia Cameron, originally published in 1992. It presents weekly exercises to unfetter your creative self. I’ve only tried a few, but Cameron calls morning pages “nonnegotiable.”
Morning pages are the daily practice of writing three free-form, longhand pages every morning. You don’t need anything except a notebook, pen and 15 to 30 uninterrupted minutes as soon as you wake up.
That’s it. Write about the whatever springs to mind: your headache, your spouse, your snoring chihuahua.
Morning pages are your writing warm-up
While “morning pages” are specific to Cameron, the idea of writing practice isn’t new. Natalie Goldberg says in Writing Down the Bones, “It is good to go off and write a novel, but don’t stop doing writing practice. It is what keeps you in tune, like a dancer who does warm-ups before dancing or a runner who does stretches before running.”
My morning pages are my writing warm-up. If I woke up and went straight into my work for the day, that writing wouldn’t be any good. Hammering out a few pages of dribble beforehand is like blowing the dust off my brain.
That doesn’t make them easy though. Half the time I don’t want to do morning pages. You’ll probably feel this way too.
Bring it back to the fitness comparison: health coaches often advise that instead of expecting yourself to work out for an hour every day, you should put on sneakers and tell yourself you’ll run for “just five minutes.” The idea is that by the time you’ve done five minutes you’ll be in the groove and excited to keep going.
It’s the same with morning pages. Many of my entries start with, “I don’t know what to write. I haven’t had my coffee and I hate everything.”
But once I get going I’m caught in the flow and find myself not only finished, but halfway through a personal project before I even glance at the clock.
Morning pages create balance
Morning pages are an incredibly useful tool. “All that angry, whiny, petty stuff that you write down in the morning stands between you and your creativity,” writes Cameron in her book.
And she’s spot-on. Once I’ve dislodged a layer of emotional noise, I suddenly have the headspace to tackle more complex issues in my writing. The simple act of putting pen to paper often solves so many tiny problems. I’ve never found this to be the case with typing.
By day, I write for a wide range of publications and company blogs. It’s a fantastic job that allows me freedom and growth.
But it’s not my life’s ambition. I have a half dozen personal projects going at once, from an anthology submission to a blog rebrand. It’s tough to switch gears and give my passions the time they deserve. Once I’ve expended my energy and creativity for the day on client work, I have nothing left to give my passion projects.
Which is why we need to rethink our priorities.
One afternoon I was watching this amazing video with business coach Marie Forleo. She references Stephen Pressfield in the War of Art: “I’m keenly aware of the Principle of Priority, which states (a) you must know the difference between what is urgent and what is important, and (b) you must do what’s important first. What’s important is the work.”
According to Forleo, “The urgent stuff is always gonna get done because it has to.”
By remembering this concept and practicing morning pages, I’ve changed how I tackle my work. The new rule: personal projects come first first.
I want to give my best work to the writing I love. Because I discovered that me at 80 percent is good enough for my clients, but I want to bleed 100 percent into my own work.
Morning pages have allowed me to do this. To give my best work to the work that matters.
Morning pages with a twist: write about your work
Sometimes I forget to to do my pages. When that happens, I turn to afternoon transitional pages. After I’ve sat with an essay for two hours, I find it hard to move from flowery writing about feelings to website copy for a client.
Transitional pages are my weird adaptation of morning pages where I essentially just write a page or two about my client work. What do I need to accomplish today? What am I finding finding tricky?
Like Goldberg says in Bones, a popular book for writers about creativity as spirituality. “Handwriting is more connected to the movement of the heart.” Because of this, I find it easier to process client work — which is often in “brand voice” — if I can write about it in my personal voice. Here’s an example:
Okay. So today I need to hammer out this headline. I need 20 ideas by the end of today. I’m having trouble balancing professionalism with our “quirky” brand. Are headlines with questions still a thing? We’re trying to say that this app is the easiest app in existence. But legally we can’t say that. Maybe it’s so easy your grandma could use it? Your dog? You could do it in your sleep?
And on and on it goes.
Note the poor writing and weird sentence structure. I try to do this without censorship or judgement, just like “real” morning pages. Sometimes I’m able to solve a problem, sometimes I can’t. Either way, I’m able to transition from my personal work to my paid work without hating everyone or burning out.
How do you balance client work with your personal writing? Are you a morning pages fanatic?
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