The Cringe

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Have you ever looked at your past work, and just…winced? That happened to me earlier this week. 

I rarely pose for life drawing sessions anymore, but my favorite instructor was looking for a model for his new studio’s inaugural class. I always learn something about the artistic process from listening to his lectures while I pose. How could I not take the opportunity to sit for him?

That said, I was terrified that I was out of practice. It had been the better part of a year since I posed for a life drawing session. So I unearthed my old notebooks that I kept from my previous sittings to do some studying.

See, when I was working regularly as an artist’s model, I kept pretty rigorous notes on poses—how long I could hold each one, which life drawing groups I had used it for. I figured I could use my records to inspire and construct some interesting but easy to hold poses.

Sure enough, all those records were there, laid out in neat lists with pose descriptions and durations. But I had forgotten that I’d used these journals for other notes as well.

The first thing I found was a list of positively terrible fiction ideas. Sexy cyberpunk motorcyclist with a dragonscale suit? Really? Next, I ran across an ill-advised and poorly researched plan to get more Instagram followers. By the time I came to the very agitated diary entries about polyamory and the jealousy I was experiencing, I was cringing. And, of course, the whole thing was peppered with to-do lists that were ridiculously excessive even by my current standards. I was so embarrassed that I had to actually close the notebook.

I wish that I had the excuse that this notebook was an ancient relic from a past life, but it was only from three to four years ago. There were even outlines in it for some of my posts on this blog. That realization made me cringe even more. Past me with all her terrible flaws and immature sensibilities had been putting her thoughts and opinions out on the Internet, for everyone to read forever. Good Lord.

But here’s the thing: if me from the time of that notebook read a journal from, say, when I was in college, she’d wince too. She’d have learned so much from modeling full-time and running an artistic business that the college kid version of her would have seemed ridiculously naïve.

I think that’s actually a good thing. It means we’re not static. It means we can change for the better. And for me, it’s a gentle reminder to look at things like my written work in context—as a growth opportunity rather than as a condemnation. I am not a terrible person because I was wrong in the past.

In three to four years I’m going to cringe at what I’m writing right now.

Because let’s face it, in three to four years I’m going to cringe at what I’m writing right now.

I’d actually even take that belief a step further and say this: if, when you look at your past work, ideas and thoughts, you don’t want to close that notebook or hide under the covers, you’re not growing as fast as you could. It’s actually a good thing.

And here’s the second lesson. Scattered among all those awful ideas were some good ones. Right next to that derivative, cliché cyberpunk train wreck was the seed idea for my current novel. Some of those early blog posts were actually pretty good. And here and there, I found some modeling work that I genuinely love.

Sometimes my ideas were pretty terrible. But sometimes they weren’t. And I couldn’t tell which was which in the moment. They felt the same. All I could do was my best, and be kind to myself. And that’s true now as well.

So remember, you might be wrong—but you might also be right. One of the notes that made me smile was that, four years ago, I had written in big, bold letters to get to know a certain person better. He and I are now celebrating our two year anniversary next month.

Maybe that notebook wasn’t so bad after all.  

On Writing Morning Pages

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I’ve been resisting writing morning pages for years. I’m a productivity junkie, and I’ll try just about anything for the sake of my art. Anything, that is, except morning pages.

My disgust with the practice started a long time ago. When I first started writing, I heard fellow writers talking about morning pages with an almost religious fervor. I dismissed it with an eye roll. Then, the keynote speaker at a conference I attended contributed his success as a writer to them. I scoffed. These people were crazy. They were deluding themselves.

But just this June, I found out that Monica Byrne also used morning pages. Byrne was one of my favorite new writers. As far as I could tell, she was not crazy. Nor was she deluding herself—she’d just published a fantastic first novel. I grudgingly decided that I’d give morning pages a try, just to prove all these people wrong.

Morning pages are supposed to be simple: three pages of stream of consciousness, handwritten, on actual paper. As the name implies, they’re meant to be written first thing in the morning. The idea originated from a book called "The Artist’s Way" by Julia Cameron, although I’ll confess I didn’t read the book before I started. (Honestly, I’m not sure many people do. The practice seems to be so common that it’s apparently picked up via osmosis).

These three little pages are supposed to increase creativity and productivity.

Morning pages are also supposed to magically change your life. Writers swear by them. So do entrepreneurs and creatives of all types. Although they’re often vague as to the how, these three little pages are supposed to increase creativity and productivity. I was not convinced. 

I wrote my first set of morning pages on why I didn’t want to do them and why I thought they were a terrible idea. I was worried they’d take too much time—most people schedule 45 minutes to an hour to write them every day. I was worried that thinking in stream of consciousness would trigger my OCD’s obsessive, repetitive thoughts. Heck, I was annoyed at how much more ink and paper I’d be using on a daily basis, and the extra strain on my hand.

But the more I wrote, the more I realized that was complete bullshit—and I had to admit it to myself on paper. Eventually I found myself writing: “I can’t imagine doing all that work for something that isn’t productive. Nobody else is going to see it. Nobody else is going to read it or get value from it. I’m not freaking Anais Nin here. But really, can you imagine? Three whole pages every day? Just thrown away?”

I remember writing those words down and then stopping. I think I even said “Oh” aloud. I was being such a workaholic that I wasn’t willing to invest in myself or my art—all I wanted were results. And I was so afraid that I had been rationalizing.

Needless to say, I gave morning pages another try. And another. By the end of the week, I was hooked.

Maybe it’s just how my brain is wired. Maybe I’m not very consciously in touch with my feelings or my thought processes, but it is now a rare morning that doesn’t include some level of self-discovery.

I would have kept doing them daily for that result alone. But all those things that people said about them were right. I may have been “using up” an hour of my morning every day, but I found myself writing far more than on days were I didn’t write morning pages first. I found they were good for more than writing too; I had more clarity before shoots, and found myself modeling better because of it.

I have some theories as to why. I think morning pages get me into a flow state. I think they give me a sense of accomplishment first thing, and therefore some forward momentum. And I think they’re just fucking magic.

I’ve been writing morning pages nearly every day now since June. And besides creating a collection of new ideas (many of which have appeared in blog posts), I’ve learned a few things about the process.

That whole bit about needing to do them first thing in the morning? Total crock. I write them before I do my other creative work for the day, but that’s about it. Sometimes I even want to think through something, so I write a set late at night just for the express purpose of figuring stuff out.

And I also learned that maybe I shouldn’t listen to past Kat on what I could find useful. I just might be wrong.

I know I don’t frequently share essays about specific techniques, and I rarely speak solely about my writing. But morning pages turned out to be useful enough that I had to share. So if you’re looking for something that could boost your productivity and change your life and all that cliché stuff, give them a try. I’ve officially joined the cult—maybe you will too.