Journaling to Release Fuller Artistry

I'm a huge fan of The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron. I've been using her tools since grad school, and I can't say enough about how much they've helped me. One of those tools is Morning Pages, which is about 30 minutes of putting stream-of-consciousness thought on paper first thing in the morning. No editing. No judgement. Just writing down whatever's on your mind. Morning Pages are for you and you alone.

The morning pages are the primary tool of creative recovery. As blocked artists, we tend to criticize ourselves mercilessly. Even if we look like functioning artists to the world, we feel we never do enough and what we do isn’t right. We are victims of our own internalized perfectionist, a nasty internal and eternal critic, the Censor, who resides in our (left) brain and keeps up a constant stream of subversive remarks that are often disguised as the truth. The Censor says wonderful things like: “You call that writing? What a joke. You can’t even punctuate. If you haven’t done it by now you never will. You can’t even spell. What makes you think you can be creative?” And on and on. Make this a rule: always remember that your Censor’s negative opinions are not the truth. This takes practice. By spilling out of bed and straight onto the page every morning, you learn to evade the Censor. Because there is no wrong way to write the morning pages, the Censor’s opinion doesn’t count.
— Julia Cameron, The Artist's Way

I was surprised by how helpful Morning Pages were when I first started using them. There was less mental chatter and clutter. I was better able to focus on the important things in my day. I could better separate the Censor from helpful thoughts. I was less stressed. I got more done. I got past hurdles that had been present for a long time, many of which hadn't been obvious to me until I started doing the Pages.

This past year, as I read researcher Brené Brown's book Daring Greatly, I constantly ran into data that strongly supported what I had been doing with Cameron's tools.

Though Brown has a different name for The Censor ("Shame Gremlins"), she confirms that those voices are paralyzing to our artistic work, and their weapon of choice is shame. Shame doesn't want us to connect with our truth, and it doesn't want us to connect with people. This is toxic to great art, which is all about connecting with people. Shame tells us that we're alone, that we deserve to be alone, and that no one wants to hear what we have to say. When The Censor creeps in, it tells us we need to either hide, run away, or put up our defenses...anything besides just being present and vulnerable.

I think a quick summary of shame vs. guilt is necessary here for those of you who haven't read Brown's research and may feel that shaming is good for us. Research says otherwise. Guilt is good for us. Shame is not. Our bodies and minds process shame differently than guilt. When we've done something that wasn't so great, the Censor/Shame Gremlins tell us we're inherently bad and unworthy of human connection. In contrast, the more rational Voice of Guilt tells us we did something bad, but that we're still worthy of connection. The difference is immense. Shame makes us want to hide or deny what we did so we don't lose the human connection we all need. Guilt allows us to take responsibility, apologize, and change behavior because we believe human connection will still be there when we do, and will likely be even stronger as a result. 

So here's why all of that's important to me as a performer and a teacher: an artist can't move forward with the parts of their work that have shame wrapped around them. Here are some examples of shame experiences I've witnessed:

  • I'm ashamed of being loud. Being loud is obnoxious and not ladylike. Being loud means I'm a failure as a woman. (This student resists singing loudly.)
  • I'm ashamed of being soft. Being soft is weak. Being soft means I'm a failure as a man. (This student resists singing softly and uses excess tension to make a "strong" sound.)
  • I'm ashamed of my body, or a particular part of my body. Being on stage draws attention to it. Moving it draws attention to it. Thinking about it draws attention to it. (This student can't feel that part of their body. They either move it too much or too little.)
  • I'm ashamed of having an opinion. My opinion isn't important enough to share with other people. It's selfish to say what I think and feel. (This student holds back their sound by any means necessary: shallow breaths, frozen body, constricted throat, etc.)
  • I'm ashamed of a particular idea being heard. That idea will make my friends and family turn their backs on me, and I don't want to be alone. (This student holds back their sound and avoids singing material with themes they fear will jeopardize their important relationships.) 
  • I'm ashamed of being wrong. I feel like no one will like me unless I have the right answer. (This student puts undue pressure on themselves to avoid mistakes. They rarely try new things unless they're sure they'll be good at it. When they're given feedback, the student will either deny the problem, run away to a situation where they think they won't have to deal with feedback, or try to hurt anyone who gives them feedback.)
  • I'm ashamed of being successful as a musician. My loved ones deserted me around the time I started experiencing more success in music. (This student self-sabotages so they won't risk being so good that their so-called loved ones desert them again.)

While I use many physical tools to help people with technical elements like volume, tone, movement, tension, balance, and alignment, I have found that shame is a wall that I can rarely break through with vocal exercises. In fact, as soon as an exercise I've created begins to deal with an area that has shame surrounding it, the student's body will often go into the fight-or-flight-or-hide mode. It's a tightrope act to guide a student through those moments. I take cues from the body and voice to determine whether the student is ready to experience a release from whatever is holding them back. Sometimes they are. Sometimes they're not. When they're not, the technical issue will often get worse or the student will shut down, in which case I know it's time to change focus. Once a student has started addressing the shame around that area/issue, gentle exercises will lead to a much-needed release in the body and sound rather than shutting down or armoring. 

Breaking through shame requires breaking our silence, and that's ultimately up to the student. As Brown says, "Shame thrives in secrecy." Twelve step programs have often said, "You're only as sick as your secrets." Research is proving this to be true. In fact, it's showing that keeping it hidden can actually be more damaging than the trauma that initially triggered it. Thankfully, the data also shows that people who break their silence about trauma and shame experience improved physical health, decreased doctor's visits, and significant decreases in stress hormones (Brown, Daring Greatly, p. 82). 

So what do Morning Pages have to do with all of this? Well, writing can be a great way for students to work through their thoughts and feelings outside of lessons.

Psychologist James Pennebaker and his colleagues have done research on the phenomenon of writing in relation to healing from trauma and shame:

Since the mid-1980’s an increasing number of studies have focused on the value of expressive writing as a way to bring about healing. The evidence is mounting that the act of writing about traumatic experience for as little as fifteen or twenty minutes a day for three or four days can produce measurable changes in physical and mental health. Emotional writing can also affect people’s sleep habits, work efficiency, and how they connect with others.
— James Pennebaker, Writing to Heal

Connecting with others is exactly what we do as artists, and when our shame gets in the way of connection, our artistry is muffled. Morning Pages (or whatever you prefer to call them) are a way to begin to break the silence of our shame and release a fuller experience in our artistry, and they are a great way to do that privately. I also highly recommend reading Cameron and Brown's books for working through shame issues. The books contain many other very helpful tools, as well.

Finally, I believe it's important to say that while I think Morning Pages and books like these are a great place to start, I believe that finding a good, trusted therapist is extremely important if you're going to make good art. If you're thinking, "I don't need a therapist. I not crazy," please know that just like trauma and shame, therapy isn't just for people who've been through extreme experiences. We all need an unbiased guide who has a bird's eye view on our journey, who can support us when we're terrified of feeling our emotions, and with whom we can celebrate when we emerge on the other side. 

Have you experienced beneficial effects in your life and art from Morning Pages / Journaling / Writing? I'd love to hear about them in the comments.