Morning pages and research diaries

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Expression translation: Thass heavy, y’all!

Though I’ve been keeping journals (or carnets de voyage, as my younger self called them) (because she went to French school) for pretty much all my life, November 2013 is when I began the practice of morning pages, one of Julia Cameron’s tools in the Artist’s Way (reviewed here). Prior to that, my journalling had been sporadic and spotty, very much dependent on my mood and what I was doing on any given day. These past two years, with a few notable exceptions, I’ve managed to journal consistently, nearly every day.

And yes, in case you are wondering – taking a selfie while holding all these notebooks with one hand took a few tries.

True fact – for a very long time I thought fiction writing and university writing had no intersections. In fact, it took 3 years before it occurred to me that an essay should involve some reflection, and not just paraphrasing of the reading. Until I was in my second year, I didn’t even know that “critical thinking” is something people actually want to see in your writing (thank you, Dr. Schwartz).

As a result of that, for years I kept two separate practices – fiction on one end, academic reflection on the other – having them run parallel to each other. I’m only starting to realize I should, perhaps, just maybe, let them converge, sometimes.

How does that work?

During my Masters, we were introduced to the concept of a “research diary” which is proving itself to be a very useful tool in the social sciences. As described by Christine Bold, the journal has have one page for observations and one for reflections on said observations in any given entry (although she notes that there wasn’t always a 50-50 split, lengthwise, when her students took on the project.) The idea is to differentiate between descriptive and reflective writing (and also to keep a record of the research which can then be used in the research.

This isn’t like the morning pages, which is three stream-of-consciousness pages, usually written as soon as the subject has woken up. But if there is something that the morning pages cultivate which I find helpful, it is habit.

When I was journalling according to my mood, I fell into a trap which creative writing coaches describe as: I have to do this perfectly, I need to lay down thoughts of substance. I was (and still am) a classic case, buying pretty stationary in a bid to motivate myself, and then just stare at the notebook, too afraid to mar the pristine pages with anything short of brilliant. Needless to say, I didn’t journal often.

The thing about the morning pages is – they don’t have to be perfect. They don’t even have to be coherent. The only thing they need to be is done, and the way to do that is to put pen on paper (or fingers to keyboard) and produce them. Cameron offers all sorts of ideas as to how you can fill them, from answering the question “How do I feel right now?” to writing “I will do my best today” over and over again, until you get bored.

No, you don’t show them to anyone.

No, it won’t win you any awards.

But you do it.

When keeping a research diary, especially during fieldwork, timing is of the essence because the longer you wait to record something, the harder it will be to recall once you do. Furthermore, a research diary that only has a few standout occurrences recorded in it isn’t of much use. As the chapter in Bold’s book shows, the real value of the diary is that it allows the researcher to look back and chart their own progress as they go along. This is a feature of the morning pages too – if you re-read them (and I recommend you do, even if some of it is truly cringe-worthy) you notice patterns and progressions that you didn’t at the time. Things that are extremely valuable in research are also valuable for fiction writing as well – after all, how can you go around analyzing and assessing other people and not extend the reflection to yourself?

Whatever your personal stance is on the involvement of the researcher and how much reflexivity they should incorporate in their writing, maintaining an accurate, consistent record of one’s research and fieldwork is important. Morning pages may or may not be the thing for you, but they are a useful starting tool in my opinion as a long-time user.

Not to mention, they usually put me in the right working mood.

They’re almost as helpful as coffee in that regard.

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