Memories of a past life: morning pages and motherhood

I admit, I haven’t written morning pages for a long, long time.

But this blog is about my writing journey, and for a time when I was on maternity leave, and a short while afterwards, morning pages were my salvation.

I started writing them when I was reading The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. The Artist’s Way is entirely responsible for me starting to write again in the first place, as Cameron’s words, and the words of the other creatives she quotes in the book, allowed me to begin to get my story down, and to start finding my voice – the voice of a new mum who was still finding her feet, and the voice of the troubled teen and young adult who hadn’t seen daylight for years.

I loved being a mum, but it was hard. We were living in a small village in North Yorkshire, far away from my family, far away from friends, and far away from the person I’d once been. My life consisted of our son’s routine, which I stuck to rigidly, only venturing out to do things with him – NCT coffee mornings, Swimbabes, or the odd play date with other mums from my NCT group. But most of the time, I felt like I didn’t exist.

Morning pages changed all that. The idea of them is that you write three sides of A4 first thing in the morning, without stopping to think about what you’re writing – because if you can’t censor your writing, then there’s no room for your inner critic to interrupt and derail your train of thought. When you’ve finished your three pages, you stop and put the pages away.

I admit, I did cheat a little, as I’d often begin with an idea of what I wanted to try and write about. But I still wrote them, and the things they brought up became the lifeblood of the memoir I was writing about my drinking days.

In those pages, I wrote about anything and everything. I wrote about how tired I was, and how unsure I was of myself as a mum and a human being. I wrote about my future study plans and ‘debated’ whether or not to pursue a career in psychology or counselling. I rediscovered my cultural identity, and my identity as a woman. I wrote about the places I belonged, and didn’t belong. I wrote character sketches for the people I’d write about in the memoir. I set myself targets for finishing the first draft, and for how many words I could write in a day, a week, or a month. I wrote lists of books to read – on creative writing and editing, and novels and other memoirs that looked interesting. I spoke directly to my inner critic, and discovered the reasons it had taken me so long to start writing.

Writing morning pages enabled me to get to know the person I’d become since I’d got sober at the age of twenty-four, and why I was the way I was.

In sobriety, I was a sensible person. I did everything I was supposed to do, never let my hair down, and quite frankly, was a little bit square. I knew my youth was behind me, and in some ways, that was just fine. I knew I’d never get drunk and snog strangers again, or fall down stairs in nightclubs, or wake up thirsty and tearful at four in the morning only to drink the last few dregs of whiskey or vodka in the bottle.

Morning pages helped me to remember those bad times. They also helped me mourn the better times, even though I knew deep down I didn’t really want them back. But I needed to relive those memories, and preserve them so that I could remember that before I started hurtling towards my rock bottom, some of those drunken days were pretty fabulous and special.

I’d never never have silly drunken girly chats again… I’d never roll on the floor laughing drunk with friends about how we’d gatecrashed a band on stage the night before… I’d never walk down the street drunk in daylight with friends who knew me at my worst, with a feather duster in one hand and water pistol in the other, singing ‘Wannabe’ by The Spice Girls…

…I’d never sing, or dance again.

Suddenly, all I could see was my youth getting further and further away, and middle-aged, middle class mediocrity looming.

I had to find myself in the midst of that, find the old me – then I could march boldly into the future, knowing I wasn’t lost.

Morning pages helped me find myself. They helped me come to terms with my past, and the struggles I’d endured that had led to me becoming a drunken mess in the first place. They helped me to carve out the story I wanted to tell, of a lost teenage girl, hopeless, misplaced, having no idea how to address the bullying I’d suffered in my early days at high school: the name-calling, the dinner money stealing, the chasing and stripping in the changing rooms, or the sexual assault I never spoke about that changed me forever the summer I was seventeen.

Morning pages helped me to remember the girl who survived, who found a way to belong. She wasn’t very functional; she drank triple gin and tonics, chain-smoked Marlborough Lights, and slept around. But she was fun, she was popular, and she was always the one at the centre of the joke.

She was also a bit of a flake, and even though she always said she’d have done anything for anybody, she wasn’t a very good friend to others in the end.

Morning pages were also my way of remedying that. I would write that girl’s story, and I’d do it as a testimony to those people I hurt, those friends I lost, and also as a way of telling the school bullies that they hadn’t won, they hadn’t broken me. It was time to speak my truth.

Obviously, I didn’t write the whole of the first draft of my memoir in morning pages, but they gave my writing day structure. I wrote my three pages first thing in the morning, before my son got up (we were very lucky he was a great sleeper), then during his first nap of the day, I’d read my notes (I know you’re not really supposed to). During his second nap, I’d write. And as the months went by, the pages started filling up, and my story started to come alive.

I’m sorry to say that my morning pages went by the wayside a long time ago. Life took over. I went back to work after maternity leave, and I didn’t have time to do them everyday. Then my son started cutting down his naps, and I stopped completely.

Sometimes I look back on those days, and I can’t believe I dug my way out. But I did. I found a way to be a mum and be myself at the same time. I thrived. My son thrived. Our family thrived.

Now, with two kids and studying part-time, morning pages are a distant memory. I couldn’t tell you the last time I thought about writing them.

Until I started this blog post. And now I’m remembering how transformative and empowering they were, I’m wondering why I ever stopped. I think I need to find time amongst my busy life of school runs and essays and agent submissions to write them again. Who knows where they’ll take me?


Starting to write

Starting anything new is hard, but starting to write is particularly hard. Because in theory, writing is easy – too easy. People say things like, “If you were a real writer, you’d just write.” Except it’s not quite as simple as that.

I think it’s the pressure to do something that on the surface appears so seemingly simple, yet in reality, is actually rather brave and momentous.

Just remember that everybody has to start somewhere, and you can do it, no matter what anybody says. And if you don’t start, you’ll never know what you might be able to create.

I’m lucky I had the bones of a story I wanted to write, but it wasn’t easy, not to start with. I needed a cheerleading squad, and I had nobody in my real life to call on. So to start with, my cheerleading squad consisted of these five books, that I would seriously consider reading if you need that extra push to get you started:

1. The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron

I don’t think I’d ever have got through the first few weeks of writing without this book. Although I didn’t exactly follow the programme entirely, it helped to build a structure in my life, and gave me the space to be me and write without judgement. As a new mum struggling to find her identity after giving birth, this is the one book that gave me back my colour, and also meant I could be a better mum, because I had something entirely separate that was mine – my writing life – that had nothing to do with changing leaky nappies, mashing ripe bananas, or watching Peppa Pig (although I do have a soft spot for Peppa Pig…).

2 Old Friend from Far Away, by Natalie Goldberg

In a similar vein to Julie Cameron, this book gave me the spiritual tools to write, along with some great practical exercises to help get my story down. An ideal first book for anybody thinking about writing a memoir.

3. Creative Writing : A Workbook with Readings by Linda Anderson and Derek Neale

This is an Open University text book that goes along with their Creative Writing (Level 2 A215) degree course. Having studied with the OU before, and being familiar with the set-up, this book helped instil confidence in me that I was along the right track with my writing, and made me feel like I was following some kind of academic path at the same time.

4. The Creative Writing Course Book: Forty Authors Share Advice and Exercises for Fiction and Poetry by Julia Bell

Again, as I knew this book was written by people who had taught on the famous UEA Creative Writing MA, I felt that I was learning all the right tools to use in my writing. I dipped into this, rather than working through it like I did with the OU book, but I enjoyed the readings and some of the exercises, and I’d definitely recommend it for any beginner writer (or even not so beginner).

5. Writing Life Stories: How to make Memories into Memoirs, Ideas into Essays, and Life into Literature by Bill Roorbach

By now, I was certain that what I was writing was going to be memoir, and I began to think about all the different aspects of telling life stories, including some of the moral and legal issues that can arise. Although I’ve read several very good books about writing memoir, this one sticks in my mind as it was the first one that really inspired me.

There are many other writing books that I’ve read over the years, but those were the first five I read that set me on the path to finishing the first draft of my memoir. In the meantime, I was busy being mum, and writing my morning pages – a habit that sadly I no longer keep up, but at the time was vitally important, because it was my way of investing in myself and my writing, my way of telling the universe I was serious about my craft.

So, you can do it. If you’re determined enough, dedicated enough to the craft to learn all about it, and as desperate as I was to do something different with your life, then odds on, you’ll get there in the end.

We’ll all get there in the end.

Don’t wait. Just write.

I didn’t write for years after I got sober; in fact, I actively steered away from any desire I had to write about my drinking days (and the urge was strong). Whenever I had the desire to do anything creative with my experiences, I quickly talked myself down. I worried it would be a slippery slope towards drinking again, as if by vicariously reliving some of the more exciting and troublesome times in my life, I might accidentally (or not so accidentally) fall off the wagon. It took a long time in sobriety to even entertain the idea of writing down those stories from my drunken past.

Ironically, when I really started listening properly to that voice inside that was getting louder and louder, I discovered to my shame that I couldn’t write. There was something physically stopping me from putting pen to paper.

It was fear. Fear of rejection, fear of being laughed at, fear that nobody would want to hear my story. Fear in all its glory, but mostly fear of being me.

Part of the problem was that I had too much time on my hands. I was working part-time and studying part-time, but this was pre-kids so I still had time to read and watch TV, and drive into York on my days off to wander through the snickleways, stopping off occasionally for a cup of tea somewhere, and a browse in the book shops and make-up departments, on my endless search for the perfect shade of red lipstick that I never found, and classic literature I’d probably never read. All of this meant that I could put off writing until tomorrow.

Tomorrow, I decided. Tomorrow would be the day that something big would happen that would give me the push to start writing again. I was always waiting for that one big message from the universe to give me the go-ahead to write the story of my drinking. The message never arrived.

Life carried on. I finished my degree, I took on another job to earn some extra money so that we could save for a bigger deposit on our first house, so that we could afford to start a family. A short time later, I was pregnant, and we were house-hunting. We finally moved into our first owned house when our baby boy was about eight weeks old.

Then suddenly, life became real. I looked around me – this was the life I’d always dreamed of when I was younger. Yet something was missing.

It was me.

It’s hard enough for most women to rediscover themselves after having children, but for me it was more than that. It wasn’t so much that I’d lost the person I’d been just weeks and months previously – I knew I’d find her again, albeit in a slightly different guise. What I’d lost was that sense of who I’d been when I was younger – that flighty, messed-up, overly-dramatic drunk girl. I didn’t want to be her again, I knew that. But suddenly, I was protective of her, a little bit proud even, because despite everything that had happened since I’d got sober, she was always there inside me, waiting for the older me to dust her down and write her story.

And now that I had increasingly little time to write, it also became vitally important that I start. So that’s what I did. There was no big sign from the universe, no big fanfare, no other person who knew or loved the old me enough to keep egging me on. I was on my own, just me and a laptop during nap-times, frantically piecing together scenes of the story of my youth.

The moral of the story: Don’t wait for big signs from the universe. Just write.

Welcome to my blog

This is the post excerpt.

Hello, my name’s Jessie and I’m an alcoholic (Jessie’s not my real name, by the way). I’m forty years old, and I live in East Anglia, with my partner and our two small children.

I’m also a writer. I’ve always been a writer – even during those years when the only stories I ‘wrote’ were the ones I told myself in my head.

As a child, I wrote the usual kind of funny stories that all children write. As a teenager, I kept those awful, cringeworthy diaries that lots of teenage girls write – pages and pages of world-ending angst – some of it trivial, some of it funny, and some of it about things nobody should have to experience at any stage of life. But amongst the day-to-day realities of life as a teenager in the early 1990s, those diaries contained the kernels of stories that I would re-write many years later, and form the pretext of my memoir.

As a student and young adult in the mid-90s, I was too busy drinking and messing up my life under the guise of fun to write much, and I’m always amazed at how intact my memories of this period in my life are. University was my oasis after the trauma of high school, and I am forever thankful to the people who made it so, and who make up a large chunk of my book.

After I left university (without a degree), I drank a whole lot more for a year or two. Then, at the age of twenty-four, after a minor incident with the police when I was arrested for being drunk and incapable, and an even more minor incident involving a chipped tooth, I got sober. (Strangely, it was the little things that brought me to my rock bottom, rather than the life-alteringly big things.)

In sobriety, the rest of my life happened, including the following:

  • I got a job (in a library)
  • I met my partner, and we moved up north
  • I completed a degree in psychology and sociology with the Open University
  • I had a baby
  • I wrote a memoir

It was during those early days when I was on maternity leave with our eldest son that I began to think about my old student days, and in particular, a close friendship I had with three girls I shared a flat with.

I’d always known since those friends walked away from me and my drinking that I wanted to write our story. The story of our friendship was also the story of my alcoholism, the story of how I tried to regain my life after the horrors of high school. So I started typing up all my memories, and I began to shape them into a book.

My life’s moved on a bit since then. My partner and I moved back down south, and had another baby boy. Then I got long-listed for the Mslexia Memoir Competition 2014, and I started to take my writing seriously. I’ve got a long road to publication ahead of me, but there’s no turning back now.

Life’s pretty busy at the moment, what with my writing, and my family. I’m also nearing the end of studying for a Postgraduate Certificate in Person-Centred Counselling, and I’ve applied to do an MSc in Psychology next, so that should keep me busy.

And this blog will be the place where I can dump all of this stuff. I want to blog about my writing journey, and some of the things that inspired me or that I found useful in the early days of first drafts and night feeds.

I also want to blog about some of the issues I’ve written about in the memoir, like bullying in high school, teenage binge-drinking, and date rape (I hate that term). But mostly, I want to blog about the everyday things that crop up in the life of a memoir writer – competitions (lack of), finding beta readers (tricky), and my current task – subbing to agents (Welcome to Rejectionville. Population: You). Oh, and how to balance the writing life with raising a family, too.

As much as anything, this blog is a way for me to focus on my writing, to make myself write, and to connect with other people, who are just trying to make their mark on the world in whatever way they can.

I was reading a book recently for my counselling course. The book is called ‘Dibs: In Search of Self’, and it’s by Virginia Axline. It’s about a boy who was having play therapy. In the book, Axline says about children in play: “They can build themselves a mountain and climb safely to the top and cry out for all the world to hear. I can build a mountain, or I can flatten it out. In here, I am big.”

I feel like this about my writing. In the pages of my life story, I am big.