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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Easy Ways to Survive Writing a Novel

My memory extends back as far as, oh, about two minutes ago. And it’s J-Term, so I have no routine. And I never know what day of the week it is.

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Okay, let’s be honest–I’m not even sure what time it is, much less what day it is….

Actually, I can’t remember how many weeks it’s been since I wrote a blog post.

(I have a really great one worked up — it’s all about pottery and clay and how I’m a perfectionist and totally terrified that I’ll make things explode in the kiln — but I’m saving it for next week, when all the pieces come out of their last firing and I know for certain whether anything of mine blew up or not.)

No blog posts does not mean no writing. I’ve been writing a lot, and it’s been terrifying, and I’m going to tell you about it…

See, I tried doing NaNoWriMo this year, and last year, and the year before…and you know what? November is a horrible month. November is Thanksgiving and final projects; it’s last-minute Christmas plans and last-minute registration; it’s reworking my four-year plan for the fifth time in two years. I gave up on NaNo because I spend the whole month feeling guilty–guilty for not writing whenever I’m doing other things, and guilty for not doing other things whenever I’m writing. It’s a lose-lose situation.

But January is J-Term, and J-Term is only two classes and almost no homework; it’s too cold to go outside and too quiet to be distracted. J-Term is endless pots of tea and supportive friends who do things like researching chemistry for me so I don’t overdose my characters and reading my awful first drafts and still telling me to be a writer. This is the J-Term of Actually Submitting Essays and of Resubmitting Rejected Things.

And it’s the J-Term of monomaniacally writing 50,000 words of a novel. This is a scary experience, but a few things are helping:

First of all, tea. Tea is not just about “oh Elizabeth is an addict.” (I am.) Tea is about putting your mind in a place that knows it’s writing a thing. Dieticians say (I know, because a dietician said to my mother) that if you build up a habit of eating something at a specific time or during a specific activity, you always feel hungry at that specific time or during that specific activity. Conversely, specific foods can make you think it’s time for a specific activity, like how that one spicy candle scent always smells like your grandma’s kitchen at Christmastime. I have taught my brain that when I sit down with whole pot of tea, it means it’s time to write a whole lot of words. This is not a guaranteed Writer’s-Block-Away, but it’s a definite help. (As a bonus, sipping at tea while staring intently at the last sentence you wrote improves your Wise Writer Appearance and looks impressive.)

Tea
The croissant is optional. The chocolate is not.

 

Second, Scrivener. I guess this isn’t really a tip of any kind, but I’m excited about it. I got the free trial over the summer, and I ran out of my free trial last week and bought the full programme. As an organisationally-challenged visual planner, it’s a lifesaver. It allows me to see my whole novel at a glance, to know where I’m going, to see tangibly how long or short the space is between an element’s introduction and climax. Plus, having spent money on it, I now feel compelled to use it regularly to make it worth the investment.

Third, attraction. Now, this can backfire, as I discovered. I’m spiralling into a depression because my favourite character is fictional and therefore not in my life, and I had to stop writing and go to bed the other night because I felt so guilty over breaking his wrist that I couldn’t focus. On the plus side, though, the more attracted I am to my characters, the more I want to write about them. When cranking out 50,000 words in a month, it helps if you want to be writing. And if you’re attracted enough to your character to want to write about him, you might also want to spend a while stalking celebrities scouring the internet for a playby–someone who looks similar. Snag a photo, keep it with your story, stare into your character’s beautiful eyes glance at it for inspiration when you’re not sure what your character would say or do at any point.

Fourth, prioritising–otherwise referred to as “stopping trying to change all the things before the whole draft is done.” Every time I start working, I remember some detail that will be important later and hasn’t been brought in yet. I remember some character who’s going to die and isn’t yet likeable enough to make the readers grieve. I notice that I called it a “wrought iron fence” in the first chapter and a “cement wall” in the sixth. I realise that Alex’s tell–the one Helen mentions a lot but never expounds on–only actually happens once. I realise I’ve mentioned Helen’s hair in every chapter and never said that Alex is blonde. But…I don’t fix these. Instead, I use the wonderful comments feature and leave a note to myself. “At some point, this needs to become important.” “Maybe we could make this consistent. Later.” “The second draft should probably include this way earlier.” And then I move on. It’s really hard to get words written when you’re busy trying to tweak other words. And a novel is kinda like one of those connect-the-dots pictures–until you’re finished connecting all the dots, it’s hard to know which lines you should have curved which direction. So I’m leaving the lines alone till the whole picture is done.

Fifth–no deadline. This is a personal project. I gave myself a goal to see if I could meet it. I told myself to finish during January because I have time during January, and in February I will not have time. But if I don’t finish by the end of January, nothing horrible will happen. I will not have an irate publisher or professor sending me angry emails or marking me down. My goal is 50,000 words by the end of January. If I get 40,000 done–or only 20,000 done–that’s still 40,000 or 20,000 more than I had at the end of December, and it’s still an accomplishment. Turns out I like soft deadlines. Not feeling panicked about the impending cutoff date clears my mind to think, to create, to critique. Turns out it’s easier to write when you don’t feel guilty.

Maybe I’m not a genius, and maybe you were hoping for a much deeper blog post–and maybe you’re a writer who’s feeling guilty about not working on a project, and today you needed me to give you permission to drink tea and search for playby photos instead of cranking out another few hundred agonising words.

I give you permission.

In fact, come by. I’ll make a pot of tea, and we’ll drink it together.

Books and tea

Musing on Meaning

I stare at my hands. Uncomfortable silence is not improved by the comfort of solidarity–none of us has an answer.

 “This is an important question,” my professor urges.

The first answer is too loud against the heavy quiet: “I feel called to include ethnic diversity in my writing.”

Like the first drop of spring rain, one brave answer starts a flood. Hands shoot up. Everyone feels called to write something: encouragement to the weary or a voice for the marginalised, clean humour or food for thought.

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I don’t feel called. Neither do they, the cynic inside me snickers. We’re writers–fiction is what we do. But not in this. About writing we must be absolutely honest: writing is the solid thing in our grey worlds of shifting realities.

“Because I like it.” My fallback answer for people who made that face (you know the one: eyebrows cocked and mouth pursed as they think, “You want to do self-assigned homework for a living?”) and asked me why I wanted to write. It seems inadequate now. Other people write because they feel called. I write because if I don’t turn fiction from smoke and shadows to solid print, it clouds my thinking and colours reality. I write because if I don’t narrate someone else’s life on paper, I catch myself narrating my own life aloud. I write because my mind, like a neglected attic, is unnavigable, cluttered with boxes of stories and trunks of ideas and unravelling characters shoved like so many unwanted sweaters into paper bags.

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Because loving to read at an early age shouldn’t mean learning to skim around adult content, learning to see the signs of it and flip the page because you’ve already finished your library’s collection of clean books. Because opening magical worlds is just as important as planting deep thoughts and asking hard questions–because people need escape as much as they need engagement.

So I inch my hand up, and I lay my humble ambitions among the lofty callings of my classmates:

“I want to write good novels–not about God or anything, just engaging stories that follow my values and entertain people.”

That has to be enough. I tried for two years to feel called to a more glorious message, and still, deep inside me, with every spark of my imagination, I just want to write good fiction.

In the held breath behind my words, my professor nods. But the tension in my gut stays. No matter the approval in her eyes–somehow this answer is still not enough for me.

I put the important, unanswerable question out of my mind and turn my energy to passing my classes. I pay my dues: I write devotionals, radio scripts, news pieces. With my leftover energy, I pour my imagination into fiction.

And then another question rises, a dark tollbooth on the road of life, and I must pay an answer to continue my journey: “What unites your writing?

My writing is diverse. Lush fantasies bump up against factual articles. Blog posts settle among drifted short stories. How can I unite them? Again, I sit in humble silence, listening to others’ answers, mortified that, again, I have no calling. I review my writings: misplaced faerie-tale heroes questing for “happily ever after;” secret agents fighting to reconcile past and present as they hunt killers; memoirs of my childhood struggle for identity; Bible verses explained with children’s activities and fun-facts. And a light in my mind illuminates a single thread, glimmering like spiderweb at sunrise.

spiderwebw

And again, slowly, I raise my hand.

“I want to emphasise the worth of individuals.”

That’s it. One single, tiny idea. A seed of a reason to write. It isn’t grand. It doesn’t seem high or holy. But it’s genuine.

So what about you? What is your reason–the real, true seed of a reason deep inside you, the one that seems insignificant and small, the genuine desire that feels too humble to share? Because I promise you, whatever it is, it is not insignificant. You are not insignificant.