Blank Page Phobia

Photo cred: Flickr user Matt Roberts

If there’s a trope in the writer world more cliche than “It was a dark and stormy night…” it’s the terror of the blank page.

We all face it—the emptiness like a white-out blizzard that might swallow us and numb us until the terror turns to frozen death—the fear we try not to acknowledge, hiding behind funny writer jokes and declarations of how much we adore creating worlds out of graphemes.

I face it when I sit down to the first daunting word of an assignment and when I open a document for a new story. I face it two paragraphs in, when the rest of the page stretches like the wilderness at the crumbled end of an abandoned sidewalk. I face it when I open a new blog post like this one and wonder yet again if I have anything to write that’s worth posting.

The world is full of shouting voices. The internet is a veritable sea of people waving their arms and shouting, “Over here! Hey! I’m right here!” and “Can you hear me? Can you hear me now?” And somewhere, in the midst of that, in a world where 6.7 million people blog on blogging sites alone and and somewhere between 600 thousand and a million books are published each year in just the US—somewhere, buried in the noise and the chaos, each of us hopes to be heard.

Photo cred: Flickr user steve

That blank-page-phobia isn’t really about coming up with the right words. It isn’t “What if I have nothing to say?”

It’s “What if nobody cares?”

Our greatest fear isn’t of being silent, but of being silenced.

We fear obscurity. We fear redundancy. We fear the “so what?” factor—that the words we feel to be so intimately a part of us will be met with apathy if we open them to the world.

We are portrayed time and again as a selfish culture—all of us, whether as a country or as a generation—but the truth is that we don’t shout for attention because we’re narcissists. We shout because we’re desperately lonely. In a world where all of us plead for attention, most of our voices mingle into unintelligible noise.

As writers, we’re told to churn out material constantly. The most oft-repeated advice I’ve heard is, “Write every day.” Write because practice makes perfect. Write because the more pieces you put out, the more likely one or two of them will float to the top of the pile and gain notice.

Write. Write. Write.

And I stare at the blank page and tell myself to write, and a small voice inside me whispers, “But what if nobody reads it?”

So today, I give you and me permission not to write.

To set the blank page aside and listen to one or two of the other voices screaming into the void. Today, let’s take the time to let some other lonely soul know that their voice is heard—that their words are not white noise—that the confessions of their heart are not redundant, not worthless.

And then, when we’ve done that, I give you and me permission to write.

To craft sentences and select words and make typos and finish—or not finish. To publish—or to not publish. I give us permission to write because we are writers and because the craft itself is a worthwhile endeavour. And I give us permission to love our writing even if nobody else reads it, to set our words aside if they do not contribute to the clamour of voices—or to lay our souls before the world, knowing that the act itself is meaningful, no matter the result.

Because none of us is silent. None of us is obscure. None of us is redundant. No matter how many voices drown us out, each of us matters.

Photo cred: Flickr user Amy Palko

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Remembering Why I Write

“Sometimes I think I should quit writing and do something simple, like neurosurgery.”

I give this answer from time to time when people ask about my writing or when I’m faced with a insurmountable writers block. Sometimes I say “rocket science” or “quantum physics” instead of “neurosurgery,” but the gist remains the same.

It gets a laugh out of people. More importantly, it deflects attention and saves me from admitting I feel inadequate.

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This never happened before I became a writing major. Back in high school, I remember constant excitement as I switched between drafts, writing whatever caught my fancy at any given moment. I could ramble for hours about my ideas, and I proudly finished draft after draft and filed them away for revisions. Publishing hovered in the future somewhere, waiting for the day I had edited something to my satisfaction and found an agent, or whatever it was you had to do to get published. I didn’t know. I was happy and confident.

Now I’m a writing major. Professors expound on the near impossibility of getting published and preach the importance of racking up bylines—any bylines, in any genre—because nobody will take an unpublished author seriously. My files are stuffed with scrapped drafts, “need five more revisions” novels, and short stories with long rejection notes.

My files are also filled with publications—but not as many as I’ve learnt to need. More people read my writing now than ever before in my life, but I’m less content than ever before. I’ve been taught I need more, always more. And someone else always has more impressive numbers or more exciting bylines than I do.

This week, a couple people wrote to tell me they appreciated my writing, and suddenly I saw my life in perspective. I don’t write for faceless numbers. I write for people—people I care about.

I write because words are a gift I want to pass on. Because other writers gave voice to my own fears and dreams. Because if I can touch one person’s life in even the minutest way—if I can bring about a single smile or let a single person know they’re significant—I’ve accomplished my purpose.

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Writing isn’t about getting published or developing a fan base. It’s not about being the best or having the most bylines. Writing is about loving words and sharing ideas, working out impossible dreams and inspiring conversation. My writing is an extension of me, not the other way around, and that’s a vital difference. I define my work. My work does not define me.

I write for the joy of the language.

So this post is for the artists who crave recognition: someone sees you. Even if it’s one person, you serve a purpose. Your efforts are valuable if you inspire a single new thought, even if the new thought is your own.

It’s for the writers who face rejection slips: your words matter. Remember why you write.

Don’t write for a byline. Write for the joy of the language.

 

Editors, Writers, and Split Loyalties

I stare at the words on my computer screen. My next words will define my loyalties yet again in this delicate game.

“Yes, there are a lot of potential problems with the statement,” I type finally, “but that’s the author’s opinion. I think we need to leave it.”

I read over my comment twice, then smack enter. Loyalty to excellence and to my publication pitted against loyalty to my author—this time, I back my author.

This challenge arises every week, a regular part of my new adventure: editing the opinions page for The Echo.

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The job seems simple enough. Opinions, the least restricting page in the paper, should have more submissions than I can handle. I should be sending rejection letters.

Instead, I’ve been scrambling. Since school started, any time I hear a strong opinion in conversation, I say, “Write me an article!” I pester people for pieces up ’til the last minute, accept articles hundreds of words over the limit, spend hours revising solid ideas badly written.

Why?

People are afraid.

Putting your position in writing—especially in a newspaper—makes it real, public, irrevocable. You may change your mind later, but that one article, archived somewhere, forever links you to that one opinion. People are afraid they’ll lack support, afraid they’ll offend, afraid they’ll fail. The more personal an opinion, the more frightened they are; the more you care, the greater the potential for pain.

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What if nobody agrees? Worse—what if nobody cares?

As an editor, I can’t force anyone to write. People have a right to hold their opinions in silence. And yet, I think, important convictions should be shared—not necessarily in the interests of convincing a reader, but in the interests of posing a question, making space for a challenge to your thinking, opening the door to bigger ideas and deeper considerations.

Unsolicited submissions arrive with false bravado phrases:
“I hope you see the importance of this topic.”
“I believe this is extremely relevant right now.”

Newspaper-thin shields hiding their fears:
This might not look important, but it is to me; please print it.
This might not seem relevant, but it is to me; please print it.

Solicited submissions arrive with apologies.
“I hope this is what you’re looking for; it probably needs editing.”
“It’s pretty bad; you can change it if you need to.”

Newspaper-thin shields hiding their hopes:
This scared me, but I searched for the words and voiced my convictions; please print it.
This stretched me, but I struggled through the writer’s block and research; please print it. 

And I accept them, reassure them, print them.

And on production night, with copyeditors’ comments popping up, filled with late-night snark and made-up words, I balance my loyalties. Yes, this grammatical concern is valid. You’re right; this sentence is redundant.

No. You cannot change this idea. 

Because my loyalty is to excellent writing, to the paper I work for. But ultimately, my loyalty is also to human beings.

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To writers with minds and souls, worries and hopes. My job is not just to critique and copyedit, but to help people share their opinions genuinely and fearlessly.

On Handling Criticism

I like to think I handle criticism fairly well. I don’t, but I like to think I do.

I got spoiled this summer, working for fantastic people who constantly praised my work. I was pretty pleased with myself.

Until this week.

A publishing house for which I did a part-time internship in the spring offered to keep sending me manuscripts this summer, so I’ve spent evenings and weekends making comments and changes, doing my best to be professional. (And by “my best,” I mean I tried to sound nice, but I have a hard time sounding professional, because professional always sounds so harsh. But I tried.)

I sent it in and asked for feedback—because it’s a learning experience, right?

He replied, very politely, that I made too many comments and should remember that this author is an award winning, published writer… and though he didn’t say it, the overall impression was, “You’re an intern with little experience; who are you to criticise your betters?”

I closed my laptop and made several cups of Earl Grey. Then I spent three days in a horrible funk, binge-watching TV, reading YA novels, and avoiding my email.

See—told you I don’t handle criticism well.

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The whole time, this shadow loomed—the knowledge that at some point, I had to respond.

Finally, I wrote a long letter detailing the whole thing to a friend, and as I wrote, I realised a few things.

This man, a professional with years of experience, took the time to send feedback that I requested. He did so politely (I know it doesn’t sound like it, but remember, I told you my impression; his actual wording was courteous and ended on a “I’m sure with practise you’ll get very good at this” note). He gave me something to work with and learn from.

But most importantly, it’s his publishing house, not mine. He has the right to ask for whatever kind of edits he wants, and I have no right to criticise that. I’m doing a job for him, and I can’t force him to want the job done my way.

And the truth is, he’s right: I’m young. I have limited experience. I agreed to this internship claiming I want to learn—so I must be willing to take criticism, to make mistakes and learn how to fix them rather than pouting when they’re pointed out.

I want to make something clear here: I still don’t think my edits were wrong; the problems I pointed out are all valid concerns.

But the issue is not whether I’m right. No matter how right I may be, when I’m working for someone else, the highest priority is what they want. Besides—do I really care that much? Maybe I’m just being stubborn because I’m embarrassed and it’s easier to say, “You’re wrong” than, “I’m sorry; I’ll try to improve.”

Though criticism is never fun, it’s teaching me about flexibility and humility. Oh yeah—and about editing.

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Internships: What You Should (and Shouldn’t) Do

Summer hit me like a belly-flop from the high dive this year. I interviewed for my internship eight days before I flew home from school. I got the “Congratulations! You got the job!” call two days before I flew home. I found an apartment and ordered a plane ticket a week before I flew to New York, and I had one day to make sure I knew which train to get on before I started.

I was scared to death. I had no idea what to expect. I considered quitting before I started

The end of summer is hitting me a little less like a belly-flop and a little more like a cannonball—still insane impact and a lot of mess, but much less pain.

I’m glad I didn’t quit, because I had a fantastic summer. It flew by. Working an internship is the difference between practicing a stroke on dry land and trying it in water; you’re submerged in the experience, and I discovered that I love being submerged in publishing. I also like to think I learned a thing or two about what you should and should not do in an internship.

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1. Do: Take your work seriously.
This sounds really “duh,” I know, but it’s tempting to think, “I’m just an intern. I’m temporary. It won’t matter.” But it will. An internship is one of the easiest ways to get a job out of college. Probably half the people I met or worked for this summer had been hired after interning. Even if you don’t plan to go back and work for the company, the work you do is only temporary for you. Any given task and its ramifications may only last till the end of summer for me, but for the supervisor I turn it in to, for the production department who have to work with it, for the book it winds up affecting in the end—even for the consumers who read that book—my work is long-term. It carries permanent weight.

2. Don’t: Take yourself seriously.
People will respect you for the work you do, but they’ll like you for how you make them feel. Be friendly. Chat with people, smile, laugh, listen. Try to see other people’s perspectives and don’t get too hung up on yourself. Remember that you’re an intern, not a full-time employee—meet your deadlines, but take advantage of the flexibility offered, make friends with people who can teach you things, accept that you will fail and that the easiest way to deal with that is with honesty, good humour, and humility. Apologise. Fix the problem. Laugh at yourself. You’ll go far.

3. Do: Show your enthusiasm.
In a world full of stressed people running on the hamster wheel of corporate life, nothing stands out more than someone who genuinely enjoys being there. I’m not saying to pretend to love something you hate, but even the worst job has its perks. I’m fortunate enough to have found an internship I absolutely loved (nearly) every minute of; you might not be—but still keep an eye out for the things you enjoy. Look for the aspects that you gravitate toward and let your supervisors know you enjoy them. Tell people which tasks you could do all day or what about your work is meaningful to you. Your supervisor isn’t there just to hand out work, and he or she will be gratified to hear that you love the idea of helping create a better product for the consumer or that you get excited about brainstorming creative ways to market. Plus your enthusiasm differentiates you from the hundreds of other interns who will be looking for a job soon.

4. Don’t: Say no.
Don’t say no to anything. Get invited to a meeting that seems unrelated to your job? Go anyway. Learn about whatever they’re discussing. I’ve been to sales meetings and question-and-answer sessions for an office move that I won’t be here for. I’ve listened to global executives discuss budgets and artists discuss cover designs. Vital to my particular job? Absolutely not—but they gave me a more complete picture of how the company works, what the different people do, how various departments interact. I’ve done spreadsheets, made phone calls, and scanned cheque request forms. Related in any way to writing or copyediting? Absolutely not—but being willing to do anything makes your supervisors like you and lets you see what other people’s jobs entail, again giving you a more holistic view of the company. The point of an internship is not to make money or to simply survive it—it’s to learn, so don’t ever say no to any opportunity to learn anything.

5. Do: Ask questions.
“Ask questions” is a common piece of advice that people don’t follow much. Don’t just ask questions when you need information in order to complete a task; ask questions about everything. Ask what part your small piece of work plays in the bigger picture. Find out who a job came from and where it’s going. Find out what that guy in the cubical down the hall does and how it relates to what you’re doing. Email people and ask for informational interviews—they’ll be happy to do them, and you’ll learn about jobs you never knew existed or insider secrets of how or where to apply if you want to get to a certain position, and you’ll meet someone who might become a valuable contact in getting to an interview. If nothing else, you might make a friend.

6. Don’t: Just float.
It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the options, the uncertainties, and your growing recognition of how little you really know about your chosen field. Feeling so at sea, it can be easy to just bob around, taking whatever opportunities you get but setting no definite goals. Don’t just float. Pick a goal and work toward it. Remember that goals can change; that’s okay—but pick a milestone or you’ll never get anywhere. Even if you’re taking whatever job you can get without being picky, set yourself goals. Decide what you want to learn or what job you want to transition into. Don’t let yourself float aimlessly when you could be getting somewhere.

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Beyond all that, enjoy yourself. An internship is a fantastic opportunity to try a career out and see how you feel about it. If you discover you hate your chosen path, search for the humour in it. If you discover you love it, savour every moment. The important thing to remember is that it’s a temporary adventure, so appreciate it before it ends.

Vulnerability: in which I get published

This is a quick note, my darlings, to tell you that this month I have a piece published in Hippocampus Magazine.

I know I should be over the moon excited, but the truth is I feel extremely small and vulnerable now. It’s very personal, this piece, written out of the emotions that have sifted to the top of several years’ worth of murky feelings. I don’t want to write a treatise on the piece; I hope it speaks for itself. But I do want to admit that I’ve never wanted less to share a piece of my writing—yet, at the same time, this piece feels important, and I find I can’t not share it.

So if you like, go see the sliver of my soul that I handed off to the world. Perhaps it’s a sliver that we all share.

Of Picture Books and Potential

It keeps me awake at night, haunts me in the daylight, paralyses me with terror…

Can you guess what it is?

The bogeyman? No.

Giant, flesh-eating wasps? Horrifying, but not scary enough.

The bogeyman riding a giant, flesh-eating wasp? Eh…no.

I know you can’t imagine anything worse, so I’ll tell you:

Children’s books.

Let me explain why.

Content.

You ever try keeping a five-year-old entertained? You use toys, make weird noises, and possibly stand on your head, and if you’re lucky, they stay happy. Imagine trying to do that all through words on a page. You have to say something meaningful in phrases a five-year-old can understand, and you have to make it interesting enough to keep the mini Energizer Bunny entertained.

Word length.

These things have to be short. You have to fit all that meaningful, interesting content into, like, five words. Okay, maybe like five-hundred, but still, pretty darn short. Which is hard—I was raised on Tolkien and Dickens. ’Nough said.

Market.

In the two weeks since my interest in children’s books burst into being, about a million people have told me it’s a hard market. …okay, about four, but they were all knowledgeable people whose expertise I trust. “Agents hate taking on children’s books,” my professor assured me.

I wrote a children’s book anyway.

I poured my soul into it—entirely unintentionally. One day, I read an email from my mother, and I thought, “I should write a children’s book about this.” And then …I did. With no idea how to write one, with no idea how long it should be, with no idea who might publish children’s books or what process to follow to get it in front of someone who might care about it. In fact, I started it without even asking my mother if it was an invasion of family privacy to turn my grandmother’s dementia into a children’s book.

I have no tidy bow to wrap around today’s post. I’m sure you’re all expecting, “And guess what, guys? I sent it out, and they loved it, and I got a contract, and it’s coming out next year!” But actually, I haven’t sent it out yet. I’ve gotten some feedback—some really positive feedback—from some family, some friends, and one widely-published children’s author. But I haven’t sent it out—in fact, I haven’t even finished researching who I could send it to. And the truth is, it might never be published. It might live for eternity (till my computer crashes, anyway) as an unpublished file in a whole folder of unpublished files, just the phantom of unrealised potential.

But here’s the thing: that’s okay.

Yes, it really is.

To spend hours on the words, to pour my heart and soul into a story, to lovingly craft sentences and phrases…and then to see that work live forever in the shadows…that’s meaningful. Because my desire to publish is an outgrowth of my desire to write. I write to process, to understand myself better, and I desire to publish because I believe that individual issues relate to broader human experience. Because my heart and soul might mirror someone else’s, and if writing helps me reach conclusions and gain insight into myself, perhaps reading my conclusions might help someone else gain insights, too.

But if that never happens, nothing is wasted. Because, like I said, I have to stop discriminating against readers. And if I’m my only reader, but I gain something from my own writing, the process is entirely as valuable as if my book becomes a bestseller that touches thousands of lives.

Because the power of words is not quantifiable. Because there’s something beautiful and mysterious in the way that arbitrarily assigned sounds and letters can touch our souls and teach our spirits.

And that why I write. Not for bylines. Not for fame. Not for money.

For the mystery.