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Heather VanMouwerik is a candidate in Russian History at the University of California, Riverside. Connect with her on Twitter or check out her website.


I am a reluctant morning person. It is not really my natural disposition, but a habit that my alarm clock has beat into me over the last thirty years. As such, I tend to start my day before the sun rises—a cup of coffee in my hand, eclectic music on the radio, and a notebook. Though I am busy with graduate school, a full-time job, volunteering, and other hobbies, this notebook and the first half-an-hour of my day are selfish and have nothing to do with any pressing commitments. Instead, this cheap, flimsy, college-ruled notebook serves only one purpose: to hold my Morning Pages.


An idea presented in Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, Morning Pages is a habit meant to free your mind of negative self-talk, impostor syndrome, and any other obstacles to your self-confidence. You are supposed to sit down every morning, first thing, and write three pages in your notebook—no more and no less. These pages should be filled with whatever comes to mind, though with an emphasis on what is troubling you. This includes school-related angst (bad feedback from your advisor, frustration in your research), work-related stress (annoying students, bad classes), and personal setbacks (failing to exercise, health problems, self-image issues). The goal is to gather all of the negativity in your life, concentrate it in one place, and dump it out onto the page. By clearing your mind of this garbage, you are freeing up mental space for your work, schooling, and personal fulfillment. And you are doing it before you even eat breakfast.


This isn’t my first foray into The Artist’s Way. Last year I recommended taking yourself out on a scholar date to reconnect with your inner intellectual. However, even I hesitated to employ Morning Pages, because it seemed too time consuming, counterintuitive, and potentially painful. I mean, who wants to start their day listening to their inner critic?


But, almost a year ago, my life got crazy—personally, physically, and professionally. For reasons I don’t recall now, I turned to Morning Pages as a way to cope with all of that stress, to help me create a new routine, and build healthier habits. Although I struggled with it at first, it has proven to be a valuable tool. It feels like wiping away the cobwebs from your windows. Not only is it the adult thing to do, tidying up your house, but you can actually see through the window more clearly (seriously, where do all those cobwebs come from?!?). Writing every morning does the same thing: it helps you clean up your mental cobwebs, which sheds light on the rest of your personal and professional life. Plus, it creates momentum--when you start your day writing, it is a lot easier to keep writing. And I am not alone! Morning Pages have helped people from a wide-array of professions, from scholars and TV personalities to artists and fellow GradHackers.


If you struggle with negative self-talk, lack of productivity, or just have serious writers block, maybe incorporating Morning Pages into your morning routine will provide a solution. At the very least, it will provide you with a clearer picture of your mental landscape.


Here are a few ways that I have found useful for incorporating Morning Pages into my grad school routine:


Start Gradually: For the first few weeks, it is going to take you a long time to fill three pages. This may be because you are still practicing self-censorship or because your hand can’t physically write fast enough. Either way it is a good idea to ease yourself into the practice. Write a page the first week and two pages the second and third. By the beginning of the fourth week, three pages will not seem as daunting. In fact, I’ll bet by the end of the first month you will easily generate the requisite pages in thirty minutes or less.


Or, Start Small: There is nothing in The Artist’s Way that says your notebook needs to be a standard size. So, for your first notebook, why not choose an inexpensive steno-style pad? This way you can write the three pages, but it would go a lot faster. As long as you work towards a larger notebook, challenging yourself to keep upgrading, then you are making progress towards your goal.


Never Re-Read Your Journal: This is a key component of the Morning Pages, but I think it deserves emphasis for graduate students. It is part of our training to be constantly editing our writing, paying attention to our words, and evaluating the results. This is antithetical to the intent of these pages. In fact, the goal is to eliminate completely any form of self-censorship. So you must resist the urge to reread anything that you write in your notebook. Focus on the flow, on the rhythm of writing, and not on the words themselves. Remember, just fill up the pages, the words themselves are unimportant.


Throw it in the Dumpster: Once you have filled the final page of your notebook, unceremoniously throw it in the garbage. Heck, go outside and throw it away in the dumpster so it is even farther away from you and your mind. The material you write about during your Morning Pages, the negativity and the self-doubt, do not deserve any space in your life or in your home. Even now, when it is time to throw my notebook out, I am overcome with a sense of pride. Not only did I stick to a healthy habit, but I confronted a lot of my self-doubt and silenced many of my inner critics along the way.


Really, writing Morning Pages feels a lot like confronting a monster under a child’s bed. By addressing the issues head on first thing in the morning, you can go about the rest of your day unencumbered, confident, and self-assured.


Have you experimented with Morning Pages? Or have you used another daily writing habit to similar effect? Please tell us about it in the comments!


[Image by Flickr user PaulThompsonXYZ and used under Creative Commons licensing.]

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