As a person with more years behind me than ahead, I am constantly reading and hearing about fulfilling my goals, living a good life, reimagining “this one life we’ve been given” and generally making these final years count.
After many decades of overwork, I couldn’t wait to get into my post-work life but I had big doubts about how I would handle it. I defined myself by my job.
I did know one thing: I was sure about what I wanted to leave behind but not as sure about what I wanted to go after. I knew I needed some down time, but the rest of it – the endless debates in my head about optimizing my time, making the most of this dwindling and precious resource – started to drive me crazy.
I was imposing the same pressures on myself in retirement that I did in my work life. What’s the right path? Figure it out. And do it now!
Clearly, constant deadlines and endless to-do lists aren’t as easy to shake off as I hoped. Two-plus years in, I’m seeing that this is an internal renovation process that might take a while and has nothing to do with rushing to get it right.
Enter The Artist’s Way, a philosophy that has been spreading through the creative community for three decades. I heard about it on a podcast on memoir-writing, which is one of the areas I’ve been pursuing in retirement.
But this isn’t a piece about writing, painting or any other activity we think of as “art.” That would be too intimidating. After all, not all of us are writers, musicians, actors or poets.
But just about all of us do want to be creative in our lives. In fact, that’s probably why we read publications like this – to think about ourselves in connection to others facing similar life decisions, and to get ideas, or share them. We know it’s a privilege to have this time right here, right now.
To tap into that creativity, The Artist’s Way has as its No. 1 tenet the concept of “morning pages,” which consists of filling three spiral notebook pages by hand shortly after arising each day (after coffee is okay).
I’ve tried journals off and on for years, but this isn’t that. You put your pen to paper and don’t lift it for three full pages. Grammar, punctuation, syntax be damned.
At first, you’re writing gobbledygook about how stupid the process is, about how bad your coffee tastes and the weather, but soon you go deeper. Your subconscious gets bored with your practical mind and begins to take over.
And that’s a good thing because your subconscious is the one who really knows what’s going on. Don’t worry if the writing is incoherent or whiny. And it’s definitely okay if anger comes up. Anger often gives birth to creative thinking.
One example: I’ve been going through the process of working with my two siblings to help relocate my mother to an assisted living facility in a town near my brother but far from the city where we all grew up. The process has been far more difficult than I imagined, and my mother, who is recuperating from a broken hip, is not cooperating; in fact, she’s hostile to the whole thing.
I began venting about this in my morning writing, raging on the page about my mother and her ungrateful attitude, about the straining of my sibling relationships as a result, etc., etc. But since I blessedly couldn’t fill three pages with vitriol, I started thinking about my mother, her life and how it was coming to this crucial and important point – one I, myself, will be facing in the not-too-distant future.
I began writing about the limited choices of her generation, including her lack of having what was “hers” as a woman of her era. For her, this manifested in her fierce claim later in life to the house she would now be giving up. After her children were gone, for example, she defiantly installed snow white carpeting throughout, daring us to boomerang (which none of us did).
In my scribbles, that all brought me to my own life, my own generation’s limitations, my own struggles. I kept going down this path, calming myself, exploring life options and coming up with a couple of essay ideas in the process.
In another entry, I started out mad at myself about my lack of accomplishment during the lockdown years of the pandemic and came out the other side with a long list of what I had actually done and how to move forward.
Other times I’ve started out with a daily log of activities that turns into figuring out why I did something 25 years ago. The goal is to become your own sounding board and learn about what’s been rattling around in your head, sometimes for years.
I can’t count the number of entries that begin, “Jumbled thoughts today” or “My mind is racing.” There’s even a, “F*ck you, morning pages” in there. You get the idea. It’s a bit of candid quality time with yourself, a meditation of sorts, if a sometimes chaotic one.
You can help things along by starting your morning pages with specific statements to think about like, “I am willing to be all that I am,” or asking questions like, “What would today be like with no judgments?”
According to The Artist’s Way, a sustained practice of Morning Pages helps us clear away the clutter that comes between us and creativity. Even if we don’t think of ourselves as artists, we can use this technique to be creative in building lives that make us satisfied at the end of each and every day, as they come.
And one last Artist’s Way rule that may be obvious: Never show your pages to anyone, ever. Your creative process will be its own reward, I promise.
Does thinking about the next phase drive you crazy some days? How do you muster creativity in trying out an internal renovation?