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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Lessons from the Children’s Section

Shelving is the neverending story of library work. You can unload cartful after cartful of books in the stacks, and when you turn around, there will be another shelf of returned books waiting.

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The easiest books to shelve are reference materials; they’re enormous, so you can spot the five-inch-wide empty space waiting for any given book practically from across the library. Of course, reference books all weigh a couple of tons, give or take, so perhaps the best books to shelve are adult fiction—small enough to carry in one hand, read often enough not to kick dust in your eyes, and interesting enough to distract you with cover blurbs while you’re searching for the right spot on the shelf.

But my favourite books to shelve are the juvenile fiction.

They can’t stand up on their own, so you have to keep a hand on the cart to stop the whole row from toppling. The shelves are a mess, because children are happy to chuck Dr Seuss, Patricia Polacco, and Eric Carle all together on the same shelf, never mind alphabetising. You spend more time rearranging chaos than actually shelving, but there’s something magical about the children’s section—something that doesn’t extend to the rest of the library.

In the children’s section, you never know what you’ll find. Jumanji might rest against Goodnight Moon one day and Cinderella the next. Books meant to teach children about serious topics—handling death or loving people with special needs—press against books meant to trigger unbridled imagination. Animals and children and monsters mingle together in a colourful blend in which the population is too diverse for stereotypes and the lines between truth and fiction blur. Illustrated historical fictions make friends with the wildest fantasies, and yet the whole colourful mass whispers one unified message, telling children to love, to learn, to dream.

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In my twenties, I still love children’s books. Over the years, I’ve grown from sounding out The Cat in the Hat to analysing Anna Karenina, but I can still hear the picture books telling me to explore thoroughly, live kindly, and dream vividly.

Green Eggs and Ham still reminds me to give new experiences a shot.

The Grouchy Ladybug still tells me to show compassion.

Harold and the Purple Crayon still promises that creativity can change the world.

No matter where I go, no matter what I learn, these incongruous worlds of colour and rhyme are with me. They underlie the jokes I tell, the choices I make, the dreams I pursue. They live in my memories and shape my ideas. And returning to them now, even if it’s just to put them in order after tiny hands have set them in disarray, feels like coming home, like visiting old friends who welcome me with love and send me back out with that one simple reminder that’s so easy to forget in the chaos of growing up:

The world is big, but not too big for you.

The Mess of Transitions

Hello, my darlings! I have a treat for you this week: my dear and talented friend Emily is here to talk about transitions and the books that get her through them. I’m constantly inspired, challenged, and encouraged by her writing, and I hope you will be, too.


I’m always caught off guard by how ungloriously messy transitions are. I want them to be Instagram worthy at every turn, but they never ever are. It makes me think I’m doing something wrong: I didn’t plan well enough, or I’m not really ready to make this move, or I don’t deserve it. If I had and was and did, it would be more glamorous, right? The lighting would be better. I would have woken up with enough time to do my makeup. The corners of my books wouldn’t have gotten bent during the move.

I know it’s not true, but I buy the story every time. It’s the one crowding the shelves of every supermarket, eternally on discount.

I’m starving for richer stories, for brave words about messy times. I need a supplement for the weak, over-processed stuff I’ve been consuming.

 During the long interim of preparing to graduate from college and learning how to be a post-college adult, I happened across two books whose words felt so true and nourishing. Their words still echo in my gut, filling me, moving me, growing me, and fortifying me.

Tables in the Wilderness

I read Tables in the Wilderness during my final semester of college. It tells the story of Preston’s college years and his spiritual questioning and formation during that time. College was a time of spiritual upheaval for me as well. Though Preston and I asked different questions and worked them through in different ways, I could see reflections of myself in the words on the pages of this book. I understood the confusion and the shame and the out-to-sea-ness that come with reformulating one’s spirituality.

As graduation neared, I wasn’t finding any of the neat closure or conclusions I expected to have by the time I left college. Doubt does not care about my collegiate time frame, it turns out. But Preston’s book gave me an example of wading along through murky waters, not gracefully, but faithfully. He demonstrated how messy moving through a wild place is, transitioning from certainty to hazardous possibility.

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Bittersweet

I made my way through Bittersweet the summer after graduation. From the first essay I read in her first book, Cold Tangerines, I have been captivated by Shauna’s candid truth telling. Bittersweet moves through the breadth of experiences a person will encounter in her life: job loss, the deaths of loved ones, moving to a new city, fighting to create meaningful contributions to the world.

A few months ago, I wrote about what this book taught me about making time for creativity. Another valuable lesson I learned from Bittersweet is to always always say something when a friend or acquaintance is grieving the loss of a family member or is just going through a rough season. As Shauna says, it is worse to say nothing in that situation than it is to embarrass yourself by saying the wrong thing. I have found myself calling up this reminder multiple times already in my post-college life.

It carries over to other areas as well, I think. I put so much pressure on myself to say the right thing or act in just the right way in a new situation that I sometimes stop myself from saying or doing anything at all. A big part of life is just showing up, even if you aren’t completely prepared—showing up for your friend who is mourning, showing up for job interviews you don’t feel quite qualified for, showing up in the handyman’s voicemail inbox for the fourth time that week asking that he please come look at the leaky ceiling.

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For nearly nine months now, I’ve been in the transition out of college. It’s messy beyond belief, and I’m glad for the few voices who stand in the mud, unflinching, saying, “Me too.”


Emily is a product of the prairies of Nebraska—equal parts poetry, flowers, and wilderness. She studied professional and creative writing at Taylor University in small town Indiana, and is now learning to balance a part time job, graduate classes, and apartment life in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.
She blogs at expressionsofarestlessmind.wordpress.com and tweets at @emsimily.

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.

 

#Readwomen: This Is How You Say Goodbye

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I’m writing a day late, not because I finished the book a day late, but because it’s been two days and I’m still not sure what to say. If Wild felt like going along on a journey, This Is How You Say Goodbye felt like peeking in someone else’s window.

Victoria Loustalot writes of her father, of searching for a deeper understanding of him through a trip around the world—one he talked about during her childhood but never made. I read in a haze of bewilderment, caught up by the evocative phrases and relentless emotions but constantly amazed that what seemed outrageous to me could be commonplace in someone else’s life.

Emotions are universal; I’ve felt insufficient and confused and lost. I understand those. But causes are not. I will never understand the type of family Loustalot describes. The feelings that drove her across the world—I can believe her descriptions, but I can’t feel them myself.

And, I suppose, in some ways that’s the point of the book—a daughter searching around the globe for clues to help her understand how her father felt. People are complex; relationships are more so. Somehow, we find ways to understand each other even though we can never really feel what another person feels. And even though we’ll never completely understand, there’s something beautiful about trying.

This book captivated me like a beautiful song in a different language, or an abstract painting I can’t quite wrap my mind around. And perhaps that’s how people are, too—not exactly understandable, but all the more worthwhile for being complicated and contradictory. And maybe that’s all I needed to learn from this book, after all.

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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#HateWins: the love war

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This week, the landscape of my social media changed. Videos of toddlers tipping over and puppies meeting mirrors gave way to rainbows, Bibles, and wedding rings. This week, the invisible but apparently insuperable trench between my liberal friends and my conservative friends widened and became a war zone—not because of a Supreme Court decision, but because of our reactions to it.

Angry words fly. New hashtags appear in favour of—or in fury against—recent events.

My friends who believe our country has taken a great stride towards equality this week celebrate. And they have reason to celebrate; to them, this is a victory for an oppressed minority.

But I’ve always hated the kid on the playground who won and then rubbed the loser’s face in it.

Please, my liberal friends, win gracefully. If #lovewins, demonstrate it by showing love to those who fought against you at every step. Remember that they, too, are fighting for convictions—beliefs they hold as deeply as you do yours.

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My friends who believe our country has taken a great stride towards destruction this week mourn. And they have reason to mourn; to them, this is a desecration of something holy.

But I’ve always hated the kid on the playground who lost and then pouted.

Please, my conservative friends, lose gracefully. If you claim to follow a loving God, demonstrate it by showing His love to those whose lifestyles counter yours daily. Remember that for them, too, your Saviour died—for sins no blacker than yours.

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My liberal friends, remember that if your open-mindedness extends only to those who share your convictions, it masks intolerance.

My conservative friends, remember that you follow the Jesus of prostitutes and thieves, and if your love ends at the church doors, it masks hate.

I beg for grace, from both sides and for both sides.

Because your identity is so much broader than which side of this trench you claim. Your life is far too complex, too rich, too unique to be encapsulated in this one opinion.

And so is every other life around you.

I’m exhausted by the sneers, the jabs, the hate. I see a battlezone strewn with hurting people firing indiscriminate barbs at other hurting people.

I ache for a day when love truly wins.

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Pizza: Free. Advice: Priceless.

Every Thursday, I stand outside a locked door and wait for someone to let me in. I think I hate it more than anything else I’ve had to do since coming to New York (and that’s saying a lot; this morning I took all the subway stairs in one embarrassing, painful step).

Why put myself through it? The quick answer is, “Free food!” Because, let’s face it, I’ll do a lot for free food. The more honest answer is complicated. It’s all tied up with scary words like “networking” and “career opportunities,” but I guess it comes down to this: people who made it to the top are telling their stories and answering questions, and I want to know what they’re saying.

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So every Thursday, I wait outside that locked door for someone to let me in. I walk into a small conference room crowded with summer interns all hoping these few months will give them the boost they need to start climbing that ladder. I queue for free pizza, and I find a seat as near the door as possible, and then I listen to a professional talk about publishing, or editing, or whatever they do, and I try to hear something relevant.

A couple weeks ago, in one of those crowded intern luncheons, Will Schwalbe said something I love: “You can’t make money doing anything cynically.”

This came in answer my question about striking a balance between doing what you like and doing what pays. And his answer has stuck with me. I see it as presenting an ultimatum: either you do something, or you don’t. But if you decide to do it, do it the right way.

Don’t be mercenary. Don’t do things because you think they’ll pay off. There are so many reasons to do things—you should be able to come up with something more creative than money. Do it for the experience. Do it for the challenge. Do it because someone has to, and you’re willing to be that responsible person.

Or don’t do it.

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If you have to do it, find a way to value it. There’s a 300-name spreadsheet I’m filling in at work. I have the choice of how to do it, and if I’m doing it cynically, I’m missing out. Some things don’t slap you upside the face with how meaningful they are; you have to dig, imagine, get outside your box.

Experience, as I’ve mentioned, is a good motivator for me. The story I’ll tell about it later often makes up for what I’m doing at the moment. Or maybe it’s just the satisfaction of a job well done: 300 names in neatly formatted columns? Sign me up! Maybe it’s the perspective I gain along the way—I’m seeing a broad comparison of psych professors and schools across the country in a way I would never have known otherwise, and I’m getting insight into what the sales departments deal with.

So no, walking across the park to wait for someone to let me into a crowded room full of strangers is not my favourite thing. But I do it every week. Why? Because I think I’ll make valuable connections that will pay off in the future? I did the first day. But the more I think about it, the more I realise that this is not about the pay rate it might secure me later on. This is about learning about something I love, from someone who’s loved it longer, surrounded by other people who love it too.

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…but the free pizza doesn’t hurt.

Writing and Swimming

Although I remember the agony of learning, I can’t remember not knowing how—can’t remember a time I couldn’t dolphin-kick through clear water, can’t remember a time I couldn’t string words into stories.

You throw yourself in, hope the water isn’t too cold, and if it is, you kick like crazy to try to keep your blood pumping to your fingers and toes. Sometimes it closes over your head, and you open your eyes, and you see the whole world distorted and wavery, and you realise that there are a hundred million different worlds, if you could only see through someone else’s eyes.

Years of practice turn clumsy doggy-paddle thrashes into smooth strokes, turn the adverbs that splash like cannonballs into verbs that balance with the grace and poise of an Olympic diver. You do it until you slip into it like you slip into your bed—without thinking, without hesitating, until someone could throw you in without warning and you would rise to the surface because your instincts know the motions.

You’re untethered, pulling through deep water with only your lungs and your muscles and the strange glide of your body suspended between earth and sky—pulling through strange worlds with only your ideas and your vocabulary and the timeless stretch of your mind between thought and keystroke.

On some days, you cut through the water with the simple ease of a sea creature, barely aware of where your fingers end and the water begins, cut through the thoughts until you can’t feel the place where your ideas merge with words on the page. And on some days, you tread water, and it is enough that you keep your head up.

Sometimes the waves batter you, and the water claws its way up your nose and down your throat, and you can’t kick hard enough to keep your feet above the sucking depths; the words stick and crumble, and your thoughts drown beneath a clear surface your best efforts can’t reach.

Writing and swimming.

You do it, and it keeps you alive. If you stopped, your lungs would fill and your heart would stop. But you do it, not because it makes breathing possible, but because breathing is made beautiful by the burn in your lungs when you kick up from the depths and break the surface like an epiphany.


 

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