New leaves

I rarely write my journal pages first thing in the morning: there are too many other things to do. On teaching days, I get up, immediately start my kitchen chores, give Bobbi her breakfast, shower and dress, then give Bobbi her insulin right before I head off to campus. On days when I work from home, I sleep later, give Bobbi her breakfast and insulin first thing, and then do my kitchen chores. In either case, “kitchen chores” and “tend diabetic cat” come before “sit down and write,” and I’ve made peace with that. This is the shape of my life these days, and a daily writing practice needs to conform itself to any shape.

Spring green

On mornings when I’m working from home and J has a morning meeting, however, we get up hours earlier than usual, and I meditate then write in my journal before setting foot in the kitchen. When I write my journal pages first thing, I either focus on whatever I did, read, or thought the previous day–a narrative debrief–or I rehearse in writing the tasks of the coming day. When I write my journal pages first thing, in other words, I often don’t have much to say because the day is young: the house is quiet, the neighbors are still asleep, and my notebook and desk feel like the center of a dormant universe.

Honeysuckle leaves

Julia Cameron, whose book The Artist’s Way had a big influence on my life at a time when I was stuck in nearly every way, insists that morning pages be written first thing in the morning, before anything else. (I picture Cameron waking alone in bed, wearing a peignoir and swaddled in satin sheets, her journal on a nearby nightstand so she can scribble pages before her feet touch the floor.) But even before I had a diabetic cat and kitchen chores to tend to, Cameron’s approach never seemed entirely practical: dogs’ bladders take precedent over journal pages, and when I lived at the Zen Center, morning practice came first. Anyone with pets, a spouse, children, or a meditation practice might understandably struggle with Cameron’s insistence that writing in one’s journal take priority over everything else.

Spring leaves

Fortunately, before I’d ever heard of Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, I’d already read Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. Goldberg’s only rule about journal pages is that you keep your hand moving. Goldberg doesn’t care whether you write your journal pages in the morning, noon, or night; she simply urges you to write them quickly and with no mind to mistakes. For years, I shared Goldberg’s fondness for writing in cafes: my first consideration in choosing a new purse was the question “Will my notebook fit inside?” Nowadays, my journal lives at home and I only occasionally write elsewhere, but I long ago internalized Natalie Goldberg’s insistence to write not just early, but often.


The beauty of journal pages is that they are, indeed, your own: various practitioners have their own rules and admonitions, but those basically boil down to “just do it.” This morning when I wrote my journal pages, the neighborhood was alive with a predawn chorus: cardinal, titmouse, crow, chickadee, robin, junco, goldfinch, nuthatch, house sparrow, and an occasional emphatic turkey. At one point, the other birds quieted while a white-throated sparrow whistled his clear, simple song: an avian aria I associate with distant alpine environments, too secretive for suburbs. These songs entered my ear then flowed out as ink onto the page: a secret stream of solitude to start the day.

The only rule is work

Last year, a friend bought me a poster-sized copy of Sister Corita Kent’s rules for artists, which I promptly posted in my office at school. Although all of Sister Kent’s rules are helpful, my favorite is #7: “The only rule is work. If you work it will lead to something. It’s the people who do all of the work all of the time who eventually catch on to things.”

Wire panther

I don’t consider myself to be a naturally creative person: I don’t write fiction, for example, because I’m not good at dreaming up imaginary worlds. But I’m a naturally curious person, and I’m not afraid to work. A creature of habit, what I lack in creativity, I make up for in sheer stubbornness. Whether or not I have anything to say, I show up at my notebook, and once I set pen to paper, I fill pages out of obligation, having trained myself through long habit to follow Natalie Goldberg’s exhortation to “keep my hand moving.”

Two headed turtle

I suppose some people see creativity as being a delicate, fluttery thing, like a butterfly or hummingbird that flits and flirts according to whim and mood. My muse, on the other hand, is more like an old ox that no longer fights his yoke. Others might follow a muse that is as occasional and enlightening as a shooting star; I follow a muse that plods down predictable paths.

Wire rat

I don’t know what sort of muse visited Sister Corita Kent, but I know this much: I’ve been following the rule of work for years, and it’s the best way I know to create. Perhaps there are writers, artists, and other creatives who can show up only when they feel inspired, but I’m not one of them. My muse requires regular practice even when I don’t feel like writing, and the rule of work points to that truth.

Hand written first impressions of Lynda Barry's Syllabus

I’m currently reading Lynda Barry’s Syllabus: Notes from an Accidental Professor, which I’d requested from the library a few months ago after reading a review that sparked my interest. Barry teaches an interdisciplinary course on creativity at the University of Wisconsin, and Syllabus contains her hand-drawn notes, assignments, and other course materials.

Love at first sight

When I picked up the book from the library last week, I immediately flipped through it, captivated by its hand-drawn, doodle-like appearance. The book looks and feels like a well-worn composition book–the kind with black-and-white cardboard covers you can buy at nearly any dime store. I know this kind of comp book very well because I used to write in them before I switched to Moleskine notebooks, which are sturdier, more expensive, and ever-so-more serious. Moleskines are what I use now as a Serious Writer, but black-and-white cardboard-covered comp books are the familiar and unassuming standby that many of us started out with: comfort food for the creative soul.

Nature journal - Sept 10 2009

I’m loving Barry’s book and have already bought my own (back-ordered) copy on Amazon, as this is one of those books I’ll want to read and re-read even after I’ve returned my library copy. In Walden, Thoreau wonders “How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book,” and I suspect Lynda Barry’s Syllabus will be one such book for me. Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way was a book like this, and before that, so was Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. Both books helped shape me as a creative person long before I actually saw myself as being creative, and they did so by giving me a practice (not just a philosophy) to exercise that creativity.

Nature journal - Sept 11 2008

Both Goldberg and Cameron use writing as a tool to unlock creativity: timed free-writing for Goldberg (with the admonition to Keep Your Hand Moving) and morning pages for Cameron (with the insistence that you hand-write your pages first thing in the morning). I’ve been doing some modified version of free-written morning pages for years, since first encountering Goldberg and Cameron, and the results have been revolutionary. You have no idea how much have to say until you actually sit down and start saying it.

Nature journal - Sept 5 2007

For Barry, drawing is the key to creativity–and by “drawing,” she means something more akin to doodling than Serious Art. The point isn’t to produce a “good” drawing but to produce an image that is alive. Many of her students’ drawings look like they were drawn by children…and both Barry and I see that as being a good thing. Children’s drawings might not be technically advanced, but they delight with their lively lack of inhibition.

This time last year

There is a certain charm in things made by hand, and Barry captures that in Syllabus. By requiring her students to use inexpensive supplies such as index cards and dime-store composition books, she eliminates the pretension and self-importance we often associate with Art. If you’re drawing a two-minute self-portrait on an index card–something Barry asks her students to do at every class session as a way of taking attendance–you aren’t trying to create a masterpiece; instead, you’re trying to (quickly) capture the mood of the moment.

Lynda Barry's Syllabus

Many of the drawings Barry includes in her book were “rejects”–that is, drawings her students left behind because they presumably weren’t good enough to keep. But to my eye, even a rough, technically imperfect doodle done by hand has an immediacy and charm that more than makes up for any technical flaws. These doodles are like people: you don’t love them despite their imperfections but because of them.

Two views

Just as the simplest home cooking is more satisfying than a pre-packaged meal, even the most primitive hand-drawn images have a warmth of personality that is lacking in a photograph or polished painting. There is, it seems, a simple magic in making something by hand, whether you’re chopping vegetables, scribbling words, or doodling images in a well-worn composition book.

The top photo shows the first draft of this post, which I wrote by hand in my journal. The second and seventh photos are images from Syllabus itself, and the other photos show you previously-blogged images from the nature journal I used to keep when I taught a first-year Thinking & Writing class called “The Art of Natural History” at Keene State College.