Updated: Nov 11, 2020
This is the story of how a journaling practice called "Morning Pages" got me out of a rut and helped me start dancing again. Journaling helped me uncover unconscious beliefs that were holding me back, sparked my creativity, and allowed me to come back home to my body.
It all started when I was invited to participate in a reading group for the book The Artist's Way. The plan was to work through a chapter a week and meet up to discuss along the way. The point was to have some support and accountability while hopefully find new ways to bring creativity into our lives.
I would argue that humans are uniquely driven to create, and it's a necessity for our happiness. Unfortunately, many of us talk ourselves out of creating, placing limits on ourselves like "I'm not artistic" or "I can't draw." But creativity can look like anything! From putting together a gorgeous bowl of pasta to finding a new route to work, or even naming a pet. The Artist's Way is full of exercises to help us uncover how we are creative and dive into new ways we have yet to explore.
The process: Morning Pages
A central practice of the book, and for many people, is the most life-changing habit, "Morning Pages." The process is simple. As soon as you wake up, you write three pages. You can write anything, and you can write fast or slow, the only rule is that you have to keep writing until you fill up three pages. It's meant to be a stream of consciousness. The idea here is not to edit yourself, in fact, you are urged not even to go back and look at the pages after they're done. The purpose is to open the floodgates to self-expression.
When I started this practice, I had to get up earlier to grab some peaceful time before my daughter woke up. It was winter, and I'd curl up on the couch under some blankets with a coffee and write while the sun came up. I realized pretty quickly that I loved it. I'm not much of a morning person, and while I've always loved the idea of a morning routine, nothing ever really fit until I started doing morning pages.
Writing first thing was an excellent way to start my day. It allowed me to work through all sorts of thoughts and feelings that may have gotten ignored or pushed away if I'd just jumped right into my to-do list. It allowed space for me to dream, to plan, to muse. It was a process of starting each day by connecting with myself. I connected with my wants and needs before my head and day filled up with the wants and needs of others.
Write by hand and write anything at all.
There are some essential keys to this process. One, you must write by hand. This may feel really tedious to some folks, and my hand even cramped up the first couple days because I was out of practice.
Settling in with a notebook is very different than settling in with a phone or computer. It's just you and the page. There is a dreaminess, a thoughtfulness that writing by hand creates. There is a possibility of spontaneity that comes with having a pen and paper with you at the ready. The mind speaks to the heart through the movement of your arm. And in fact, slowing down opens you up to creativity. Technology is excellent, but you know, faster is not always better. We need to take time to slow down.
When I write in a notebook, it's for no one else but me. I can hear the scratch of the pen, feel the paper underneath my hand. As the pages fill up, you have this tangible thing you've brought into the world, and that's powerful.
The second key is not to care what you are writing. Write garbage. Write nonsense. Write that you don't know what the hell to write. But keep writing. Keep going. Fill the three pages each day, and eventually, you will start to breakthrough. Things will begin to shake loose. This is when the process really begins.
Allowing the freedom for your thoughts to flow without judgment is vital to the creative process.
The Realization: what shook loose for me
After doing this writing practice for weeks, my mind felt like it was thawing out. The words were tumbling out, and I found myself excited about writing again. I would wake up in the morning with inspiration or phrase that I couldn't wait to write down and expand on.
Once you've established the journaling habit, the Artist's Way starts to incorporate some prompts. A lot of these prompts are to get you to see how you create in your day to day life and think of ways you'd like to be creative but haven't tried yet.
What I realized during this process was that I kept repeating the same desire over and over — it became apparent. Like panning for gold, my mind's waters became less murky, and I was left with this nugget of gold. And once I began to see it day after day, it became tough to ignore.
I had a desire to start dancing again, not only that but also a deep, unfulfilled desire to choreograph. Since I was five years old and had tried to climb onstage during a dance performance, I had been a dancer, attending classes most evenings for years. I left my small-town high school in South Carolina and moved to Pittsburgh to become a professional dancer when I was 17. I spent two years in the professional world, but got discouraged and decided to go to college to study psychology instead.
When I left to go to school, I quit dancing altogether. I went from a life where I was dancing up to 8 hours a day, to no movement at all. I had gone from a life of enormous creativity, of being surrounded by artists to the world of academia, which, although creative in its own way, is a very different world.
What I realized writing these morning pages was that I missed dancing—a LOT. I realized I wasn't doing it now because I was afraid of not being as good as I used to be. Many years had passed, I was a mom and an academic, my body had changed. But through this writing practice, I discovered I was denying a huge part of myself. I was able to name how dance was important to me, not as a career but as a creative practice. It was where I felt really me — and I saw that I'd always had a dream to choreograph that I'd never been able to realize. I had notebooks of choreography that had never seen the light of day.
My life changed: I got back into dancing and choreographed my first piece.
Once my eyes were opened to this fact that dance was something I needed back in my life, things moved pretty quickly. The dance studio where my daughter had taken some classes also had adult classes and their own company that performed original pieces. I decided to take the leap and join the company.
It wasn't easy. The commitment was big. By this time, I was working full-time as a psychology professor. I had a daughter that needed care and an abundant social life. The time commitment required me to spend hours after work 3–4 evenings a week in class or rehearsal, and on weekends. But I went for it. And I asked if I could choreograph a piece.
I had stated this goal right there in my morning pages. Dance more, and find a company that will let me choreograph. It happened much faster than I had anticipated. Once I realized that desire and stated that goal, once I put my energy on it, it manifested quickly. I think that this speaks to the power of aligned action. When we clear a false belief that is holding us back, things can change so rapidly in our lives. It's like water released from a damn.
I spent a year with this commitment. It culminated in creating a piece for 10 dancers that I was extremely excited for and proud of. Seeing that piece performed on stage in front of an audience was a lifelong goal fulfilled. Although that sort of time commitment was just not realistic for my life long-term, I was so proud of myself for seeing it through.
I was beginning to heal the pain of leaving art school and my dream of becoming a professional dancer. The regret and shame that I felt were left on those pages, and on that stage. I now know that I could have had that future, but I chose differently, not because I wasn't good enough but because there was another path for me.
What my creativity looks like today
Thanks to this journaling practice, I know that dance is vital to me, no matter what form it takes. At the moment, I'm not doing much except having private dance parties in my kitchen. I've stopped taking classes, but I occasionally attend ecstatic dance gatherings. Learning to dance freely in a group, without alcohol, has also been a liberation.
I know now that for me, dance is a birthright and will be a part of me until the day I die. I've learned I don't have to dance for others, I don't have to dance well, and I don't have to get paid to dance. I can just move my body. Now I do it on my own time, and honor when my body needs rest. I accept when I want to dance with others and when I just want to dance alone. The way I engage with it creatively has changed, in many ways, it's gone back to the way that I danced as a child.
A daily practice of connecting with yourself is invaluable.
What this experience taught me, and a lesson that I've returned to over and over again is that having a daily practice of self-connection is life-giving. We need that sacred time to ask ourselves, "What do I really want?"
Not setting goals, not telling our body what to do, not living up to others' expectations, but asking our inner voice, our heart, "What do YOU want?" When I slowed down and found quiet in those mornings, when I gave it a chance to speak, my heart pretty clearly said, "I want to dance." My mind had come up with so many reasons not to, but my heart, so patient, so sweet said, "Please, let's dance."
Your heart may be longing for something. You may already know what that is. Maybe you hear it now as you read this. If you create a daily practice of checking in with yourself, creating space, and quiet to ask and listen, you'll find out.
The gift of a daily practice
I often get caught up in the idea of significant breakthroughs or lightning bolt realizations. Small daily practices create shifts, but they are not always obvious. I really didn't understand the process that was happening when I created that little journaling habit. On those cold mornings, sipping my coffee as the sun rose and my house was still asleep, I didn't know that my life would change. It wasn't a dramatic thing. From the outside, journaling just looks like a fun hobby. But to me, it was deeply healing, and I've seen the ripple effect that it's had on my life since.
I realize as I write this years later, I didn't know when I was writing those morning pages the way that things were unwinding inside of me. I wasn't aware of the profound changes that were happening. I find that to be true a lot with healing work. We are often not aware of the changes taking place.
All that's required of us is to locate little thread and start following it. And after a season taking the time to ask our hearts, "Wow — that was awesome, what ELSE do you want to do?" For me, getting back to dance wasn't the end of reclaiming my creativity, not by a long shot.
Each time I've listened to my heart, it's required me to face some beliefs that needed to be tended to and let go of. I've had to shed many layers, and I'm still finding new ones. This commitment to awareness is a lifelong process, but I'm excited to see where it takes me next.