Since the early 90s, I’ve been doing early morning writing sessions on and off, sometimes every day for months. Julia Cameron famously enshrined the practice as “morning pages” in her 12-step approach to creativity, The Artist’s Way, but I got the idea from Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, by Janet Burroway. Here’s how she describes it:
In Becoming a Writer, a book that only half-facetiously claims to do what teachers of writing claim cannot be done—to teach genius—Dorothea Brande suggests that the way to begin is not with an idea or a form at all, but with an unlocking of your thoughts at the typewriter. She advises that you rise each day and go directly to your desk (if you have to have coffee, put it in a thermos the night before) and to begin writing whatever comes to mind, before you are quite awake, before you have read anything or talked to anyone, before reason has begun to take over from the dream-functioning of your brain. Write for 20 or 30 minutes, then put away what you have written without reading it over. After a week or two of this, pick an additional time during the day that you can salvage a half hour or so to write, and when that time arrives, write, even if you “must climb out over the heads of your friends” to do it. It doesn’t matter what you write: what does matter is that you develop the habit of beginning to write the moment you sit down to do so. When this habit is developed, Brande says, then read your pages over and pick a passages that seems to suggest a simple story. Muse on that idea for a few days, find its shape, fill that shape with people, settings, details from your own experience, observation, and imagination. Take several long walks turning the story over in your mind. Sleep on it—more than once. Finally take a definite time when you’re going to write the story, and when that time comes, go to the desk and write a complete first draft as rapidly as possible. Then put it away, at least overnight. When you take it out again you will have something to work with….
I write 20 minutes a day at the keyboard (Cameron suggests writing longhand for three pages, but I won’t do that because I have tendinitis and I want to keep track of what I write). It did not take me long to learn how to spin an entire story, with a beginning, middle and end, in that 20 minutes.
Sometimes I have an idea when I sit down to write, but often I begin with word association, going from image to image until something catches fire. Rarely, I’ll use a prompt, and that is generally a phrase picked at random from a book at hand. Recently, a book called Christmas Gifts from the Kitchen was near the computer, and the prompt-phrase I found there was
heat white chocolate wafers
Here, unedited except to fix typos, is the beginning of the piece I wrote in that 20 minutes:
What if Communion wafers were chocolate? Couldn’t the body of Christ be sweet? I mean, maybe he took the dessert and said “Eat this, all of you.” Does it matter?
Anything we eat comes from the essence of the Universe, created by energy that transfers to our own. Eating is a sacrament. Exactly what that means for Diet Coke, I’m not sure. Unnatural foods are the foods of the devil. What about white chocolate? That seems semi-unnatural…
Food is sacrament, eating is prayer. It is so important that what we eat is worthy of prayer. Food has energy, and the more elemental it is, the more energy. Corn chips are dead food, likewise other processed and over-processed junk. Microwaved food is likewise dead….
White chocolate wafers like pennies on the eyes of the dead. They won’t melt; the body is no longer warm. It keeps the crows away; they very sensibly don’t like white chocolate.
Other uses for white chocolate wafers: skipping stones. Checkers, although they may be hard to stack. Stepping stone for a doll’s patio….
I’ve trained myself to slip right into alpha brain mode, a trick worth cultivating. Zen teacher Gail Sher writes in her amazing little book One Continuous Mistake that you don’t know what you are writing until it’s written. I am continually amazed at the stories that appear.
From time to time I may post some of them.