Poetry, process, progress.

About Morning Pages

One of the good things about a process log is that it can highlight how idiosyncratic writers are. Truly, there is not only one right way to do this. That is why I went on for my doctorate in Rhetoric and Writing. The complexity and the scope of what happens when someone writes is awe-inspiring. Each year brings new questions, new things to write about in terms of writing theory.

This is a fairly long preface to show that I take both my writing and the writing others do seriously. My main area for theory has been centered on writerly identity and social media writing, with some side trips to feminist rhetorics and lately, assistive devices and the creative process. Recently, a friend of mine tried out the idea of Morning Pages, an idea proposed by Julia Cameron, AKA Julia Cameron Live at the Artist’s Way. She has a series of videos on the subject, twelve plus three introductory videos to be exact and I must admit I didn’t look at them. The idea is simple and potentially effective: write three pages every morning in longhand. That’s pretty much it. It’s a cousin to the composition studies concept of freewriting so beloved by followers of Peter Elbow, and I have to say, it’s very difficult not to like Peter Elbow. As time goes on, so much of what he has proposed has turned out to be true and/or very effective.

Cameron also has the over forty books in multiple genres including poetry, so she has the productivity to back the idea up. Granted, from her books page it looks like most books there are about writing, inspirational, or inspirational books about writing. I searched hard for her poetry books, but only found two devotional books that could, in a pinch, be considered poetry. I get the impression she is the writer’s Anthony Robbins–lots of inspiration and classes for a better life. I do not doubt that Morning Pages can help many people, especially in terms of “writing to learn” and leading an over-all more productive life. There are testimonies to that effect. I probably will ask students to try this too, but only in my composition classes or fiction classes. I strongly believe that for most writers who primarily identify as poets, not crossover artists like Cameron but the ones who start a story and then find themselves saying gee, this would make a great poem, for those writers this idea is death, death incarnate. The value placed on word count (three pages! Single-spaced! In ink! From a pen!) assumes prose.

Here’s the deal. The worth of a poem is not rooted in its word count. The very opposite may be true: the shortest poem may hold the most value and be published in the most selective venue. For example, I have a fair number of poetry packets out at different journals right now. Tin House is possibly the most selective literary journal out there at this time. Duotrope has it at the top of its “The Challenging” statistics list at a .13% acceptance rate. That is not a typo. It really accepts far, far less than a single percentage point of submissions. Literary journals are competitive though, and Tin House has plenty of selective company in the under 1% acceptance rate range. My poems have been with them 245 days, much of it “in-progress” on Submittable, which means the packet has been assigned to a reader. If any of my poems get taken I will be one happy poet. Here is the point about poems and word count: I sincerely doubt that when the editors meet to make their final selections for the issue they will say anything like “Since we can’t decide between these last two poems, let’s take the longer one. We all know longer poems are always better.” Have I been an editor participating in the decision-making process? Yes, since 1999. Word-count is not a defining feature for excellence in poetry, or fiction for that matter. The idea that a productive poet is the one with the  highest word-count is horrifying and laughable at the same time.

One more thing–for many poets, writing a draft takes a lot of uninterrupted time just staring at the screen, or at the page if you are a paper and pen drafter. For most people, that morning time is one of the few times with that kind of solitude. When I think of my writing life as a young mother for example, those very early hours  or the hours in the middle of the night from 10:30 PM to 2:30 AM were my only shot at poetry. Morning Pages steals that time away. If you are aiming for journalism, trade publication (as opposed to literary), fiction, creative nonfiction, or just want to get in touch with yourself through daily writing, Morning Pages is a reboot of that centuries-old writing mainstay, the journal or diary. Go ahead–do it. If you are a poet and must write poems or die, this is a terrible idea. Use that golden time for poetry instead.