The morning pages and other lapsed intentions


What is it, exactly? What makes a daybook different from a diary, or a journal? I’m still not sure. One of the online creative writing classes I took in 2019 required it: two entries a week in a digital document, dated like a journal and submitted through the same online portal we used to submit writing assignments. It would be private, the instructor promised, and what we wrote in there didn’t matter, as long as we wrote twice a week.

I used mine to think aloud about some of the readings we did in class, and to work through some of my ideas for the writing assignments I would submit for peer review. In the midst of that first class, my aunt passed away, and I used the daybook as a journal to process my emotions. I posted some of these to my blog, because although I use this public space to record books I’ve read and climate news I’ve been thinking about, I also sometimes like to remind myself and my six (or whatever) blog readers that I am a frail human.

After the class, I kept writing in my daybook. I start a new one when the old one feels too unwieldy. When I attend writing workshops, I take notes in the daybook; when I do freewriting sessions with my writing group, I write in the daybook; very infrequently I journal in the daybook.

I do not do this every few days. Weeks pass, sometimes months. I started Daybook 3 last month because I tired of opening Daybook 2 and seeing the same few short, sketchy entries at the top. I know it’s a process, but I feel intimidated by the blank document, and the need to come up with something, to be clever or thoughtful or lyrical. The blank spaces take up so much room.

The morning pages

Last December I signed up for a virtual writing seminar titled something like How To Turn Your Passions into a Novel. I suppose I was hoping for some kind of alchemical transformation or an equation: put all the junk from my daybook into an alembic, turn it into gold. Instead, the one-night workshop was more of a lecture, offering a high-level look at the entire book process from idea to slogging through the writing to pursuing the arcane path of publication. It was interesting, but I didn’t glean much practical knowledge from it except one instruction: start writing morning pages. 

I’d been told to write morning pages before. First, by my briefly appointed therapist, who encouraged me to pick up The Artist’s Way (I didn’t) and who unintentionally discouraged me from continuing therapy by regaling me with stories about her own life, her pinecone wreath crafting and her deceased fiancé. Second, by a friend from my grad school days who loves The Artist’s Way; she also loves silent seated meditation, so I did not take her seriously. But the virtual lecturer in December changed my mind by removing the sacredness from the act. Morning pages are to clean the pipes, she said. You just write whatever horrible, clotted garbage comes out of your head and you scrape it onto the page. Then you are free to write whatever comes when the water runs clear. 

I started writing morning pages that night. For six weeks, I wrote whatever nonsense I was thinking in the morning while I had my coffee, or on weekend afternoons perched on a stool at my side job, or at night in bed if I hadn’t gotten to it sooner. In a little tooled leather notebook (because the morning pages are always supposed to be handwritten), I wrote down my dreams. I wrote down lots of petty complaints: friendship drama, loneliness. I wrote down puzzling interactions I had with customers in the art gallery where I worked last winter. I wrote some rhapsodies of beautiful objects or wonderful occurrences, but not many. As winter darkened, I felt the emotional equivalent of losing my taste and smell. Everything was bland and without texture, and therefore kind of gross. 

I stopped because I took a plane trip to visit family and just didn’t think of it. At home I am not a person who writes morning pages. I am just a prodigal daughter, an indulgent aunt, a sister. 

The journaling game

My writing group meets once or twice a month, and I go even when I know I’m just going to work on a book review or a climate link roundup. Sometimes we use writing prompts, and one member sent around a link to journaling games–usually one or two pages in .pdf form that sketches out a world and provides an aleatory element via dice or cards. For example, a beloved (and free) solo game called One Day at a Thyme, in which you imagine yourself dwelling in a remote cottage, and roll dice or draw cards to determine how you spend your cozy days. Making candles? Drying herbs? Befriending woodland creatures?

I love this idea, both the idea of having a frame story for journaling and using games of chance to prompt or inspire. Maybe this could be the key to keeping up with my daybook outside of class requirements! But no matter how many times I sat down to write, I got in my own way. I rerolled again and again to get the cottage ecology of my dreams, got mired in the details of how I would fulfill my basic needs. I could not find the charm in isolation or the pleasure in mundane daily tasks, having gotten a taste of that in the early days of the pandemic.

That said, the structure of a journaling game was extremely fruitful in a group setting. One day, two other members of my writing group and I played Alone in an Art Gallery. We set a timer and journaled about the character we were sending to an art gallery, and why; then we rolled dice to determine what kind of artwork caught their attention and how it made them feel. I remember feeling a little embarrassed about the artwork I imagined–I am not an artist!–but when we all shared what we wrote, we were moved and impressed by one another’s fictional masterpieces. Suddenly, we had an art gallery that was full of people and art and new possibilities; the imagined world felt more real and concrete when it was filled in by our combined visions. We rolled again and journaled about our original characters encountering someone else’s made-up artwork of someone else’s imagination, watching someone else’s made-up character laugh alone in a gallery of bones or blink sadly at an impressionistic landscape.

The catalog of attention

When I started reading The Book of Delights in July, I was intrigued by the devotional quality of the premise. Like a gratitude journal, like the way I practiced prayer as a religious person: cultivating the habit of reflecting on what, in a day, brought pleasure. Once I spent more time paging through the book, reading a few short chapters over breakfast, I realized that many of these mini-essays were not about delight at all. Or rather, in many cases, the delight was a kernel of joy in the midst of grief, regret, outrage, more sharply defined in its pleasures by its contrast with microaggression or embarrassment or death. What those delights shared with the simpler sensory delights or memories recalled with pleasure is a quality of attention: the delight is in the focus, the figurative light delineating a specific scene or sensation.

Around the same time I was reading this book, a Kathy Fish newsletter landed in my inbox exhorting writers to Always Be Collecting: gather material and squirrel it away. write down bits of overheard dialogue, flashes of random memories. write down your dreams. study found objects and oddities, bring them to life on the page.

I am predisposed to this kind of writing–it’s like permission to do all vibes and no plot. And, of course, the intention I set for this year was to focus; maybe focusing the light of my attention on little moments and collected impressions could fulfill my intention and fill my daybook. I imagined myself keeping a pillow book, like Sei Shōnagon: things that are delight, things that perplex, things that make good poetic subjects.

Of course, to focus your attention on fleeting moments and tiny details, you have to slow down. You have to set aside time to remember and reflect, and you have to be patient while your mind quiets. Or you have to do less, so that when material appears you can appreciate it. There’s a reason that so many of The Book of Delights‘ delights take place when the poet is napping, or getting ready to nap; there’s even an essay dedicated to that specific delight.

Daybook, again

I have absconded to the woods with my college best friend. Last night we drank whiskey and read each other’s tarot and announced what we each wanted to write about in the morning. In the morning, I woke up slightly dehydrated and bleary, but spent several hours pouring almost four thousand words into a document. It’s garbage. Absolutely unreadable. It felt so good, though, getting it out.

And now I feel like I should tie it off neatly. And now I have cleared the pipes. The end. That impulse to tuck in the loose ends has deflated more than one of the short pieces I’ve tried to polish up and publish. I think I need to leave some loose threads showing, like Eve Hesse’s process artwork. A process journal. An action daybook.

So that’s what this is: a letter from in the midst of a process. (Processing toward what, as yet unclear.) A list, as in a pillow book; a book of essays (in the original French sense, essai, to try).


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