Some years ago I read a book by the American writer Julia Cameron called The Right To Write. She is internationally famous for The Artist’s Way, which offers a 12-step guide to creative living, but I was drawn to the less well-known work because its title spoke to me in a way the other didn’t.
It was a period in my life when I was searching fiercely, perhaps even desperately, for my voice – for the conviction that I really had something worth saying, that despite having published several novels, despite having earned my living as a copywriter for many years, I could call myself a writer without having to add some kind of qualification, an explanation of the fact that I didn’t earn a living from the fiction, or an apology for the fact that I wasn’t well known. It seemed almost impossible to say simply: I’m a writer. There. Take it or leave it.
(I later came to understand how common an affliction this is among writers, including even some of the most well-established. It was gratifying – or perhaps saddening – to hear the American novelist Richard Ford say at a book festival that he had struggled to call himself a writer until after his third novel, The Sportswriter, had been nominated for the PEN/Faulkner Award.)
Anyway, in as much as that one’s voice is one’s identity, I was experiencing the classic mid-life crisis of identity and I took a number of steps to resolve it, including signing up for singing lessons, learning Mongolian overtone chanting and other forms of meditation, and undergoing a longish stint of psychotherapy.
The one thing I didn’t do was to go on a writing course, because what I thought I would be offered, and didn’t think I wanted at the time, was craft – instruction in narrative technique, character development and so on; though having since run more such courses than I can remember, I know that the most valuable thing a writing course can offer is to put one in touch with what really matters and allow one to hear oneself express it, and if that isn’t central to one’s identity, I don’t know what is.
I didn’t go on a course but I read Julia Cameron’s book, with its sub-title An invitation and initiation into the writing life, and it was a revelation. The first exercise she proposes is to take three sheets of A4 and simply write down on them everything you are thinking and feeling and experiencing at that moment. She calls this exercise the Morning Pages, since she advocates doing it first thing each day, and as I later discovered it’s also the foundation of her bestseller, The Artist’s Way.
Of all the considerable wisdom in The Right to Write, practising the morning pages is the one piece of advice that has most stuck with me. Now, more than a decade since first reading the book, I still try and practice them as often as I can. In a word, they open you up to yourself, allow you to hear yourself think and thereby to think more clearly. In one way they’re not about writing at all. In another they’re the quintessential writing activity.
I had a long Skype call this afternoon with my friend and new Dark Angels associate partner, Richard Pelletier, in Seattle. ‘Whenever I do the morning pages, the money starts coming in,’ he said. Why should that be so? Well, I would venture that they help one to focus on what’s most important, and if income happens to be one’s current preoccupation, the morning pages will encourage one, even if subconsciously, to start addressing it.
For me they help to untangle things. These days, whatever I write about in my morning pages, it seems that by the time I put down my pencil I have been granted some fresh insight into the subject or issue (and I say ‘granted’ deliberately because that is often how it feels: as if I’m channeling the new perception).
But do they make me a better writer? Yes. They allow me to hear my own voice, my writer’s voice, every day and that gives me confidence. And they encourage me to speak about the things that are closest to my heart. That’s a writer’s job. To give voice to what it means to be human. When it comes to identity, that’s good enough for me.
On the subject of writing, we’re running a one-day Dark Angels taster/refresher session in Edinburgh on 18th March at Tweeddale Court, just off the High Street. It’ll be a day of fun and (quite ) fiendish exercises to tune up your writing brain. Places are limited so let us know as soon as possible if you’d like to join us. http://www.dark-angels.org.uk