Expressive writing was first studied by James Pennebaker in the 1980’s and the first scientific study, in collaboration with Joshua Smyth in 1986 found that this technique seemed to help those who used it to offload and discharge feelings.
They studied the effects of this technique and found that a significant number of people who used the technique seemed to show benefits to their immune system, inflammation markers and in the number of health issues as well as reduced anxiety, and improved mood.
I have been studying and practising this technique personally and am now combining it with a specific technique for managing emotions and would like to offer this method to those of you who would like to try it.
I’ve put an online course together for you that I think may be helpful for those who wish to try an alternative to traditional talking therapies, or who for whatever reason cannot access therapy at this time.
The course is £25 – less than half the price of a standard therapy session.
The’Morning Pages’ have been my refuge, my place to cry, my thought organiser, my decision helper, and my main method of offloading and processing how I feel for nearly 18 years now. Over the past year I have adapted them into nightly pages instead. This seems to also stop me from browsing on my phone before sleep – something that never helps me and yet I automatically reach for the phone as soon as I get into bed.
“Write three pages, longhand if possible, on A4 paper”
Morning pages – what are they?
The morning pages technique comes from Julia Cameron’s book ‘The Artist’s Way‘. The book’s main purpose is to help you get back to your creative self, free from the suffocating hands of criticism and self-doubt. She sets out a 12-week programme for recovering this part of you but there are two main techniques that are a core part of each week’s task; The Morning Pages, and The Artist Date. Morning pages are 3 sides of (preferably A4-sized) pages of free writing, written long-hand. We are instructed to start by dumping words onto the page until something comes. It’s even fine to start with “I don’t know what to write, this is useless, I don’t feel like writing…”. Just keep going until you find a thread of something else to take you off on a tangent. The pages become a way of not only offloading, but starting to see what is within and processing any self-doubting thoughts, or critical comments. Unpacking feelings and judgments, and starting to see the possibilities if you want to look for them. They are a way to confront your blocks, to sit with them and see what is behind them.
In the original book Julia spoke of how she keeps hers for 12 weeks and then burns them. She didn’t look back over them once written they were of no use to her as her mind had already moved to a different place. She has softened this view now and often will check back to see themes and ideas that had come out. I think this is a personal choice. For me, my memory issues mean that I keep mine so as to not forget and to have a resource for writing. I also know that our brain’s can only keep in mind a certain amount of information at any one time and so there is a lot of archive material in our mental vaults. Just like in the film ‘Inside Out’ where long-term memory was a vast space, some information filed so it is easy to retrieve, but some information lost forever because the ‘tags’ are missing. Memory is a library, but the strength of any library is in how we find what is there.
Try the Morning Pages
Have you got a bit of time to yourself right now? Just a few mins is fine. Get a pen and a sheet of paper, don’t worry what size it is right now. Start writing out the first thing that comes to mind, or just let your pen move across the page and see where it goes. The point is not to try too hard to think about what to write first, just let your hand write something and go with that. If you are someone who doodles, then doodle. Some of us draw shapes and visuals rather than words and that is just as valid a way of expressing yourself and offloading.
Keep going. When you feel like you come to a stop. Keep going. This might be where you find you are a bit stuck for what to say. If this feels frustrating then let that out. “I really have nothing to say now”, “I just want to stop now there’s nothing, blah blah blah blah, this is useless, grrrrr what the hell am I doing I should just stop this! Aaarrrghhh, god I feel really worked up now, okay what is the point of this what the hell!!!”
Keep going. This is where writing by hand starts to produce something different to typing. When we type we are concerned with typing correctly, making sentences, using full stops. When we are mark-making with a pen and by hand we can doodle, and scrawl, and cross out and not make any sense with words if we want, this is where the expression starts to happen.
It is in this halfway point of feeling like I’ve reached the end and have nothing to say that I find I can get down to a deeper level – but I have to let myself write rubbish first, sometimes swear, sometimes scrawl and doodle too. Try it. Keep going at this point and see what happens. If you feel annoyed, or stressed, or sad even, notice this. Notice this feeling in your body and write about how this feeling feels.
I’ve been a fan of Julia Cameron for 17 years. Her book ‘The Artist’s Way’ released my writing and helped me believe that I could be creative.
The most well known exercise in The Artist’s Way is the ‘Morning Pages’. This exercise is meant to be done in the morning and ideally should be three A4 pages, of longhand free-writing. I had the incredible honour of attending a workshop with Julia last year at the Hay House Writers Conference, and the morning pages were a hot topic. Julia gently but adamantly affirmed the importance of doing these pages in the morning. She told us that if they were done in the evening then they would be covering the events of the day just past and would take on a different quality.
I have struggled to do my morning pages ever since becoming a mum. Mornings are busy from the get-go, and so I have often had a background sense of guilt over not being able to consistently do my morning pages. This is an issue because they provide so many benefits to me when I am able to actually do them. They are a brain dump, they clear my mind, they help me work through things I’m wrestling with, they help me become aware of things I wasn’t aware were bothering me that much, they help me plan, they help me prioritise and ultimately they keep me focused.
Morning pages were always ‘morning’ pages. Even though I struggled to do them in the morning, I never thought to challenge Julia’s assertion that they should be carried out in the morning. Mainly because, well Julia Cameron’s opinion matters to me, and she’s spent years writing about this so she should know!
But, I’ve just been listening to ‘Opening Up by Writing It Down‘ by James W. Pennebaker & Joshua M. Smythe and something caught my attention in the chapter about insomnia. Apparently the co-author of the book (Joshua Smythe) was having some trouble sleeping and decided to see if either writing or talking before bed could help him to ‘dump’ the information his brain was churning over whilst he was trying to sleep. Joshua decided to try vocalising what was on his mind into a voice recorder and said that this did help him to get to sleep.
It made me wonder something. Do the ‘morning pages’ really have to be done in the morning? Is it possible that they could work as a helpful brain dump before going to sleep? I needed to test this out and not least because I was finding sleep a bit of a struggle since Covid-19 lockdown began.
I decided I would set myself the task of not looking at my phone at all when I get into bed (very hard!), and instead take my notepad and pen and do three A4 pages (if possible) of ‘nightly pages’.
I did my nightly pages – actually did four A4 pages quite easily. But I started to get ideas, as I usually do and got the urge to pick up my phone and research on Google. After I put down the pad…I picked up the phone, thinking it wouldn’t take long. But I almost felt my brain light up with interest as I discovered articles and courses in my area of interest. I put the phone down but one of the courses I was interested in was on my mind through the whole night. It was one of those nights where I had on and off sleep and was aware my mind was busy thinking about that course.
Night One: Pages done: Yes, 4. Phone used: Yes, after doing the pages. Not good! Sleep quality score 4/10
Again the pages seemed to flow easily and I got three A4 pages done in 20 mins. My nightly phone browsing can usually take up 40mins or more.
I felt I had come to a good decision and end point just at the 3-page mark. I was determined this time to settle straight down to sleep and not look at my phone. The sleep was great, no tossing and turning, no waking up during the night. A straight sleep through. When I woke I remembered where I had ended with my ‘pages’, and I briefly thought about this.
Night two – Pages done: Yes, 3. Phone used: No. Sleep quality = 8/10
Didn’t quite go to plan. Brought my computer to bed to finish off working on email/website/domain stuff. I should know better.
I did do my nightly pages and managed two pages, but because I had exhausted myself with the computer work I didn’t finish it properly. When I settled down to sleep my mind was still working on the email issue I was having. Then hubby started snoring so I decided to go downstairs, finish the email issue on the computer and sleep on the sofa.
Night Three – Pages done, Yes, 2. Phone: No but worked on computer! and slept on sofa. Sleep quality =3/10
Didn’t do the pages as I was working till 1am on my work website and couldn’t get to sleep due to thinking about work stuff.
Night four – Pages done, No. Phone/Computer: Yes. Sleep quality 3/10
Had a bit of a horrible day. One of those where nothing feels helpful. I’d even had a thought that there was no point writing because that won’t help me. The feeling was with me for the whole day until I got into bed. I reluctantly started writing the pages and saw the rumination pattern I’d been stuck in all day start to reveal itself to me on the page. It completely surprised me because I had not seen the pattern I was stuck in until I started to write. As I saw the trigger and rumination pattern emerge on the pages I thought “I’m a therapist how come I didn’t see I was doing this!”. But I know better nowadays than to berate myself and I know that this can of course happen to therapists too. We can be blind when in the grip of an emotion just like everyone else.
The nightly pages certainly helped on this occasion, and I ended up sleeping very well that night. Nearly 10 hours!
Five nights down and I can see the beginnings of a pattern. The pages are helping me to sort through things that are on my mind, even helping me to see things I wasn’t aware of. They help me to sleep ONLY when I don’t use my phone or computer afterwards. No surprise there I suppose, but I think I’m going to keep going with the nightly pages; sorry Julia!!