Discover: Contemplative Composing


An awful lot of self-help books start with a call to purchase a notebook. Jen Sincero opens her most recent book, Badass Habits, with this request: “Please get a new notebook and dedicate it exclusively to the work we’re about to do (no grocery lists), and start cultivating your new habits with a clean slate” (7). 

This might be great advice – the clean slate, the new opportunity. Yet we know a lot of successful folx with a collection of empty notebooks and perhaps some baggage about journaling or writing in general. Actually, allow us to be honest: despite our academic credentials, we have both been known to horde a collection of empty notebooks and we have our own baggage about writing (yes, especially Cheri who is a writing teacher!). Many people, ourselves included, freeze when they come to the page. We meet and work with a lot of people who want to use writing as a daily activity, but who also have never cultivated a generative practice that works for them and is sustainable.

What is it about journaling that can be so painful? Is it about the intimidation of the blank page? Is it about writing in general? Is it because a voice creeps up on you every time you’re alone with a writing utensil? One that tells you that you’re boring, don’t have anything interesting to say, and would probably say it poorly if you DID have something to say?

This Stop is cultivated on the premise that everyone *does* have something to say and, more importantly, that they have something they *need* to allow themselves time and space to discover, articulate, and communicate. This Stop hangs on the idea that writing is one of the most powerful, transformative skills humanity has ever invented. And you – yes even you – can use it to enrich your life.

This Stop maintains that a daily composing practice can be a transformative practice for everyone – but it’s not easy, it’s not one-size-fits-all, and it must be learned. Now you may notice a shift in that last sentence. We’ve just quietly subbed the word “writing” for “composing”. This move is intentional. What it means to write is evolving. This Stop is not about asking folx to put pen to paper. It’s about finding a means for regular expression, and some of us may discover that’s not always a text-based effort. 


  • Morning Pages

This writing exercise was made popular by Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way. For over 25 years she’s been suggesting that readers of her book commit to a morning pages practice.  The practice itself is simple:  write three pages, by hand, unfiltered, each morning.  Then, she suggests that those pages be tucked away and left (largely) unread and seldom (if ever) revisited.  Undoubtedly this writing practice works. It works for her. It works for many people who have worked with her. It has worked for both of us.

You might wonder, however, what it means for the practice to “work.” They are a tool for discovery, a tool for archiving, and sometimes a tool to…well, let the brain have a temper tantrum in a low-stakes, socially acceptable place.

Even if you’ve tried a morning pages practice before, we recommend you experiment with this strategy a couple of days during the Contemplative Passport journey. As a bonus, it might help you to keep a travel log to record what you learn!

  • Self Notification

In the age of smartphones, notifications might feel like a regular, perhaps even partially ignored, part of our day. Experimenting with the genre of “notification” can be powerful, however. In The Culture Code, Daniel Coyle describes the way successful pilot crews use notification language (particularly in distressing situations). He explains, “A notification is not an order or a command. It provides context, telling of something noticed, placing a spotlight on one discrete element of the world. Notifications are the humblest and most primitive form of communication, the equivalent of a child’s finger-point: I see this. Unlike commands, they carry unspoken questions: Do you agree? What else do you see? In a typical landing or takeoff, a proficient crew averages twenty notifications per minute.”

Find a method to collect notifications for yourself. You might identify a writing tablet to carry with you or even just use the notes app on your phone. Craft a bulleted list wherein you collect what you notice throughout your day. Do not capture your to-do list! Do not judge, evaluate, or filter. Simply capture what you see, feel, hear, or otherwise sense throughout your day. Focus keenly on your own felt experiences as you make your log.

At the end of the day, or perhaps the start of the next, review your notifications. What insight might you gain from paying attention to your own notification system?

  • Imagined Dialogue

This practice bumps edges with the other Stops on the passport. It invites stillness and it asks you to get in touch with feelings and needs. To begin, we recommend that you obtain a soothing beverage, whatever that might be for you. Perhaps it’s a cool glass of water, a steaming cup of tea, an elegantly mixed cocktail, or even a can of Red Bull.  You do you. Next, identify 2-3 emotions that are most alive in you at the current moment.  Allow yourself space to sit quietly and enjoy your beverage. As you do, imagine your 2-3 emotions personified and sitting with you. Offer them a portion of your tasty beverage and sit together for a few more moments. When you’re ready tell them: “I’m ready to listen.”

Craft a dialogue between the emotions you’ve identified. What would they say to you? What would they have to say to one another? What would be difficult for you to hear? What would you feel that you wanted to say back to those emotions?

Remember this is your gathering. If any of those emotions get too unruly, you’re welcome to ask them to step back, take a walk around the block, or come back when a trusted confidant can be with you to hear them out.


  • Julia Cameron: learn more about the Artist Way and Cameron’s other writing related books, workshops and materials.
  • Heart-Head-Hands: explore additional contemplative composing exercises from Beth Godbee’s entry on Contemplative Composing.
  • Written Kitten: need something more to encourage you to put words on the page? Try this writing tool, which will reward you with kitten pictures after a set number of words!

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