From the Tool Kit
I’m not big on telling anyone “You ought to try this.” But…..
Along the highways and the byways of my life, from ultra cool apartments I’ve rented, gifted mattresses on floors where I’ve laid my can-I-crash-here head, the house belonging to Susan I’ve called home these last eight years. Within and from these places, out in cars sporting license plates representing the four corners of this country, maybe primarily in coffee shops, I have come up with, been led to, stumbled upon two practices that have changed my life. And not just a little.
These are the two practices: Personal Brainstorms and Morning Pages.
I see myself, quite clearly, sitting at the window counter in the Chocolate Sparrow Coffee Shop in Orleans on Cape Cod, Spring of ’08, a stone’s throw from the Rail Trail. I’ll head over to the trail after, turn left and amble west out toward the state forest. But here, in the Sparrow, I’m drinking a well-deserved large coffee after a day running the show at the HIV/AIDS house down in Provincetown, some 26 miles ago. It’s like 4:20-ish, my usual time here, maybe three times during the week, and on the counter before me is an open inexpensive notebook of lined paper and a medium blue Bic pen. And my coffee.
At the top of the page open before me I have written something. Maybe that day it’s “How can I support myself in Portland, OR?” The previous Monday it might have been “How else can I save money?” Jump backwards in time to Lowell, Mass, say 1997, at the Dunkin Donuts on Route 38 out near 495, just two doors down from my mechanic at the Arco station, and it might have been “Money for the new Granite House dryer?” Or, skipping ahead to just a week ago, upstairs in the blue recliner my mother left me which I have hauled back and forth across the country three times, now in a nook on the second floor, and I’m there with this notebook open on my lap, across the top of the page the words “How to gather 1000 subscribers”, a question and puzzle for myself regarding potential readership of this very Blog. You can see it in this picture here.
I was introduced to the concept of a formal brainstorm (who doesn’t know that word?) somewhere far back in my long career in human services. It was ‘formal’ because there were rules, two in particular, and they were these – 1) Shout out whatever comes into your mind, whatever it is; and 2) no one can comment on anything that has been said. In other words, no making fun of, laughing, joking, chuckling, disagreeing – nothing. The channel, in that case the collective channel – must remain clear. Free from fear or judgement. Back then I sat through any number of sessions operating under these rules, and sometimes a good idea or two would “fall out”.
In time I co-opted the practice and particulars for use alone, all by myself, adding a third condition – a set time in which to brainstorm. So, last week I set the timer on my phone for 15 minutes, sitting in the blue recliner, the house quiet, the question I wanted answered – How in God’s name will I ever be able to convince 1000 different people to subscribe to my Blog – at the top of the paper, turned on the timer and began to write on line after line whatever popped into my head. When the timer went off I stopped.
If you cannot see what I scribbled on the sheet I’ll tell you much of it is common sense, like I would have got there eventually. The line “be impossible to ignore”, which is probably the best suggestion on the page, is a quote I’ve heard before, so it’s not original though it did show up within this particular context. “Offer to make presentations” is interesting; “individually ask everyone of my (1228) Twitter followers” would be a lot of work; “who do I know that can help”; “find voracious readers”; “one of my unpublished stories – give”. Nothing earth-shattering riding in on the main vein here. Not this time.
If you are thinking, what’s the big deal?, well, I would encourage you to, as we say, dismiss contempt prior to investigation for the next week and give this particular tool a try. Two or three times. Honestly, I have sat in personal brainstorm more than 100 times over the years, maybe a lot more, 10 to 30 sacred minute sessions, and there have been times when suggestions – unfiltered, not judged, stream of conscious’d let loose – have appeared on the page that have, when followed up and taken, changed my life dramatically for the better. That is the truth.
And then there are those Morning Pages. In the initial post on “Couch Surfing at 70”, the one with the pic of my wife and I (‘Dating My Wife’), I talked about quitting work back in May 2011, at age 62, signing up for Social Security, and wondering “Now what?” A week or so into that post-system space I was directed to a book called “The Artist Way” by Julia Cameron, found a copy super cheap on-line and bought it. You can see it there to the left. The Artist Way is basically a twelve-week exercise to rediscover/uncover/stimulate any type of artistic imperative within, the actual work to consider and answer questions during in-depth looks at both past and present. It is fascinating. But before the weekly work begins, Ms. Cameron offers two “tools” she says overlay all else. One of these is the Morning Pages.
You take a notebook (like my ‘Brainstorming’ cheapie) and every morning sit at a table or desk and write three pages – without prior thought or planning, these are three pages of wherever your pen takes you. Stream of conscious, non-censored, grammatically irrelevant, spelling optional – writing whatever you write that morning. The idea being – and this is absolutely the way it has worked for me – that 17 days out of 18 it will be relative drivel – “I did, I’m gonna do, yesterday was a bummer, I wonder what I’ll have for lunch” – but on that 18th day…..wonder, insight, the best question ever, a magnificent “Aha”, something unexpected and filled with possibility appears. Out of somewhere. That is how it’s supposed to work (hoping Julia approves of this summation) and that is how it does.
When she finishes describing the Pages, Ms. Cameron strongly suggests that though this is what you need to do for the next twelve weeks of the “Way’s” commitment, a wise soul will carry on, no ending date in sight – it’s a new day so you write three pages. And I am most happy to say that I did take that suggestion and since early June of 2011 have not missed a single day, even if 10 or so of my three daily pages didn’t occur until late at night – the result of some A.M. circumstantial delay. I am usually at the desk by 7:15 with the dawn. And while many, many of those pages in all those notebooks have leaned toward “What’s for lunch?”, others have left me amazed with their content, literally breathless. They’ve become poems, have transformed into plans that aided personal growth and emotional exploration, some finding their way into chapters in the books I have published. In fact, the first post in the ‘Couch Surfing at 70’ Blog, the “Dating My Wife” mentioned previously, is the result of one morning’s three pages – as written verbatim.
These two activities, these solitary outings, not a smidge of self-censorship allowed, have been powerful aids supplementing the wonder and grace and daily moments of much of my life. I encourage you now to give them a genuine test drive. Like maps once said – there be dragons there. Good ones.
Yes, fairly wordy and not ground-breaking. But we share ideas we think can help. And, now, here I am hoping and asking that you share one of your own. What is a practice you’ve made yours, something just outside the norm, something you do that offers up into your life assistance, stimulation, kinetic creation, sustenance even? Please share with the class and leave a note in the comments. We will all be better for it, and I’ll collect them and post them in a document for all to see.