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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3 Reasons You Should Do NaNoWriMo

It’s November–the month of crunchy leaves, cold wind, the first snowflakes, and…rough drafted novels?

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Yes, my word-loving friends, National Novel Writing Month is upon us again. All across my social media, the familiar abbreviation is cropping up, usually accompanied by expressions of excitement and terror. Word counts are appearing in people’s Tweets and statuses, and frenzied writers are placing desperate calls to friends for plot help.

NaNo, for those of you unfamiliar with it, is essentially a challenge: write a 50,000-word novel in a month.

Now, I get that not everyone is interested in a writing-related career. But if you have even the slightest interest in writing, I encourage you to dive into the NaNo challenge with the rest of us, and here’s why.

  1. Support
    I’ve taken part in critique circles, editing groups, and submission calls, and these result in critiques, edits, and rejections (and, of course, sometimes, acceptance–which is always accompanied by critiques and edits). A writer needs thick skin; we pour our hearts into original creations and then bear the pain of seeing all our creations’ flaws pointed out… but not during NaNo! This month is not about perfection or critiques. This month is about kicking out word after word after word, pressing through writers’ block, overcoming lapses in creativity, doing anything it takes to reach that goal. The result of NaNo is not, in anyone’s case, a perfect novel. It’s the worst rough draft you’ve ever written, which is exciting because, in the end, you’ve written it. All of us know that our novels will be utter rubbish when we finish. We know each other’s novels will be utter rubbish. So we celebrate the rough drafts. We celebrate every word we force from our imaginations, through our nerves, out our fingers onto the screen. We celebrate the plot holes and the bad twists and the cliches and the filler words and the improbable endings. We celebrate the process.
  2. Community
    Writing is by nature a solitary pursuit, and many writers are by nature solitary people. NaNo gives us a chance to join together in our solitude. I sit on my couch alone with my cup of coffee and my word count of, most likely, a thousand words fewer than I need for the day, but I’m not really alone. I’m in the company of hundreds of thousands of writers around the world. Each of us has a different reason for doing this. Stubbornness, maybe, or love of a challenge. Desire to prove wrong everyone who said we couldn’t, or desperation to finish something big. Certainty that our words matter. No matter our reasons, our goal is the same, and in that shared goal, we find a community that surprises me every year with its strength, warmth, and openness. My first year, I met a fantastic writer from South Africa. My second, I discovered another girl on my floor was also a writer. I could keep going and going; every year, I find some new aspect of this huge, nebulous community of creative souls. We’re always changing, always growing, always welcoming.
  3. Success
    Here’s the thing that put me off NaNo for a couple consecutive years: we talk about winning. People who hit their 50k words call themselves NaNo winners, which is way cool if you hit your 50k. But what if you freeze up? What if you scramble those last few hours and at 11:59pm on the last day of November, you’re staring at 45k, or 35k, or 25k? What if you aren’t a winner? The idea of “winning” NaNo is a fundamental misunderstanding of the point. The point is to throw yourself into something and work at it even when it’s hard. The point is to write every day, even when you don’t want to, even when writer’s block is taunting you. The point is to end November having created something out of nothing. There is nothing magic about the number 50,000, but there is something magic about the grit and determination it takes to shut off distractions and ignore the mocking voices in your head long enough to write. The NaNo website says, “Valuing enthusiasm, determination, and a deadline, NaNoWriMo is for anyone who has ever thought about writing a novel.” It’s not for “anyone who can write 50,000 words in a month” or “anyone who won’t fall short of the challenge”–it’s for anyone with the guts to sit down and write when it seems impossible. And if you end short of the deadline, you didn’t lose. If you end with any words more than you would’ve written otherwise, you succeed.

Maybe you’re glancing at this post out of the corner of your eye while you type and you’ve already hit a few thousand words. Maybe you’re curled up and your fingers are trembling at the idea of starting a monumental project. But no matter what position you’re in, if you have a plot in your head, if you have a character rattling the bars of your imagination, if you have anything inside you that perks up at the idea of writing… write! This month is for you.

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Reading as a Guilty Pleasure

Talking with a fantastic writer friend the other day, I brought up what I thought was a unique problem: I know I should read more, but at the same time, I feel guilty spending time on books. Turns out it’s not unique; Kate has the same struggle. And, since probably a lot of other people do, too, we decided a joint blog post might be a great way to share some insights on the issue.

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Me: We were talking the other day about how we feel guilty reading, like we’re wasting time we should be spending on something else. Is that something that happens even when we don’t have, say, homework we should be doing?

Kate: Oh definitely, at least for me. I always feel like there’s something I could be doing. Part of that comes from our writing classes, I think. We’re taught to always be writing, always getting more bylines. Reading doesn’t feel as productive, because it doesn’t have a tangible result. Reading is not work. And I’m at the stage of life (wow that makes me sound old) when I’m really focused on my future, building my career. Reading doesn’t seem to fit in, so I don’t make time for it. Even though I should.

I feel you on the career thing. With a limited number of hours in a day and a lot to get done, I often skip things that I want to do because I can’t see how they’ll benefit me later on. That’s probably the saddest thing the career drive has done to my reading/writing; I sacrifice what I get excited about for what I think I should get excited about. And when I do have time to read (or, y’know, when I decide to put off other things in favour of reading whether I have time or not) there are SO MANY BOOKS. Do you ever have the problem of not knowing where to start, so you just don’t?

Absolutely, yes! I have such a huge list of books I’m interested in, books people have recommended, books in my genre….it never seems to end.

Do you have a system for deciding what comes next? Lately I’ve been trying to mix it up—read a few “easy” books (read: YA spec fic) and then read one or two “hard” books (read: memoirs, literary fiction, etc.).

I tend to go by word of mouth. What are the people with similar tastes to mine reading and liking? Have I heard about a certain title more than others? Plus, you know, whatever’s closest and easiest to get hold of.

So you just go with whatever’s caught your fancy most recently?

Pretty much. It may not be the most efficient system, but it works. I mentioned earlier that I think  part of my weird fear of reading stems from some of my classes, but what else do you think contributes to it?

One of the big problems is how I was raised. Don’t get me wrong—my parents were fabulous, and they taught me to love books above (almost) all other things; my mum had me reading before I was in preschool, and I read a lot, really early. But because they turned me into a bookworm, there was this problem of me constantly being hidden with a book when I was supposed to be doing something else. Homework, chores—you name it, I chose books over it. So whenever I was reading, my parents would be suspicious, and “Should you be reading or doing chores?” became a really common phrase. They taught me to always think, whenever I picked up a book, Is there something I haven’t finished yet?

Same sort of thing for me. I can remember actually getting in trouble at school for reading instead of paying attention. I can also remember hiding a flashlight in my room and sneaking a book under the covers at bedtime because I was almost done with the story and just had to finish it (although ‘almost done’ was a relative term; if I was hooked on the story, I’d stay up until all hours to finish it, even if I was only halfway through). If I had a chance of getting away with it, I’d pick a book over homework, chores, sleeping… pretty much anything. It’s a weird thing to say I got in trouble for, but reading has a guilty connotation for me now. I can’t help but figuratively look over my shoulder whenever I open a book.

I totally agree. I can remember teachers catching me with a book under my desk; seems like teachers should be excited for students who read, but I remember getting in trouble a lot, despite the fact that reading during class wasn’t affecting my ability to get better grades than anyone and everyone else.

Under the desk or stuck in another book? I used that trick a lot.

Heh unfortunately most of my classes weren’t “have your textbook open” types. I did used to hold books inside my desk in elementary school, back when we had desks, and then slouch and read through the tiny crack that my wrists held open.

Gosh, between reading through cracks and with tiny flashlights, it’s no wonder we need glasses.

Seriously. And the reading-by-the-passing-light-of-streetlamps-on-roadtrips thing? It’s a miracle we can still see at all!

No joke! So how do you deal with your reader’s guilt?

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Denial is a powerful force… Haha just kidding. It helps to consciously recognise it. It helps to recognise that it’s not always a valid guilt. And sometimes it’s true: I do have other things I should be doing. At those times it helps to have a plan. For example, this weekend I spent hours just reading, but I knew what else I needed to do, and I set limits. I was allowed to read a book in one sitting, but then I had to get a certain number of assignments done before I let myself start the next book. And knowing why I’m reading also helps. Being able to specifically say, “I’m reading a recently published book in my genre because it’s important to keep current with what’s happening if I want a career in this field”—that really helps. How about you?

I’ve got a similar system. Almost every writer I’ve gotten advice from starts with the same thing—writers are readers. It’s how we grow. We practice our skill, but we have to study it first. So that helps a little. But I also have to set time aside to read just for the joy of it. I need a break from constantly working; everyone does. But unlike some, who run, or go for coffee with friends, or watch Netflix, I read. I find it relaxing to consume a book for the sake of the story with no ulterior motives. I have to find that balance you talked about, though. I’ll often reward myself with a new book if I can get things done by a certain time. It’s one of my favorite and most effective reward systems.

Do you set a specific time to read or just let it happen when it happens?

I try to fit it in the natural lulls in my schedule. I have busy times and calmer times, so I take advantage of the slower parts to read more. But if I’ve been super busy (like I have been the last few weeks) I might say, “Okay, I’m going to read for the next two hours, just to give my brain a break from thinking so much.” How do you fit reading into your schedule?

I used to just try to let it happen where it happened, but I’ve recently realised the importance of all those little cracks. So I have a three-hour shift at the library once a week, and instead of trying to do homework (I can’t use my laptop at the counter, so that makes it hard anyway) I’ve decided I’m allowed to read for those hours. And those are interrupted hours, of course, because I have to do my job, too, but it gives me a time to pull my book out. I also like to have a book out when I’m walking between classes—that’s five to ten minutes I can be reading—and I keep one in my bag in case of unexpected delays. A meeting postponed? No problem. I have a book. Finished my quiz early? I can read another paragraph or two. Stuff like that.

Agreed. Unexpected openings are the best. That’s one of the reasons I like having an e-reader. I can open up to whatever I was reading in a matter of seconds. And I feel like you can always identify the book nerds like us by whether they’ve mastered the reading-while-walking-and-not-killing-themselves skill.

It’s an important skill. (Back in high school, I had a daily 45-minute bike ride home from choir, so I also mastered the reading-while-biking-on-the-highway skill; my dad was not pleased.) Do you think there’s a hierarchy of types of books that we should be reading? I mean, are there certain books that really should wait till we’re done with all the other Adulthood Responsibilities, or is everything fair game?

I suppose I give higher priority to books in my genre, but I’m not sure if that’s me being responsible or just the fact that I write in the genre I love most. I try not to say that some books are “better” than others (though there are certainly books I consider “worse”). Any story that an author has taken time to craft has inherent value. I tend to gravitate more towards books on writing and books in my genre (fairy tale retellings, fantasy). But again, it’s not generally intentional. Do you prioritize?

Aside from prioritising homework assignments or things I’ve promised to read, I don’t think I do in practice. But I do know I have a tendency to feel I need to justify “easy” reads. Like, if I’m reading nonfiction or literary fiction or a classic, I’m totally cool. Those are accepted as important things to read, and I look smart and educated and stuff. But if I’m reading children’s or YA or fantasy, unless it’s something really well known (anything by Neil Gaiman or Tolkien, for example) I find I have to justify it to myself, remind myself that this is also valuable literature, that just because it’s not hard for me to get into or doesn’t have these huge sweeping “LET ME TELL YOU ABOUT THE HUMAN CONDITION” sentences doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have something meaningful to say. I noticed on the subway in New York over the summer that when I was reading a memoir or literary fiction, I’d hold the book up higher than when I was reading YA spec fic. That’s what got me thinking about it.

Oh yeah, that’s really tough. I read a lot of YA and fantasy (again, because that’s what I write) and it’s hard to feel confident about that. I find myself thinking, “I’m a 21-year old college student; I should be reading something more advanced than this.” But I can’t help but love some of those books. When I find myself questioning the value of kids’ books, I remind myself of the Narnia series. It’s a kids’ series and it’s become a classic. It’s good to remind myself that children’s literature can carry a lot of weight and be very significant in the literary world. But most importantly, I’ve learned that I never have to justify my choice of books. People should never be judged on what they’re reading. In my opinion, it doesn’t matter what you read as long as you’re reading something.

That’s a good point. I think children’s/YA books have a lot more content than people give them credit for, and because they’re written for children, they can’t be obscure about it. They need to have a purpose and get it out there in a way that will be straightforward enough for children to understand, subtle enough not to sound condescending, and entertaining enough to keep kids reading. And I think that’s a huge value. I think looking for the less obvious messages or worldviews in kids’ books helps me see their value beyond just entertainment. So moral of the day: Don’t be ashamed of what you’re reading. Recognise its value. Don’t feel guilty about reading. Life is way too short to pretend not to like good books.

Kate Jameson reads and writes faerie tales and loves hedgehogs. (Hedgehogs aren’t part of her official bio, but it’s true.) You can read her blog at kategjameson.wordpress.com or connect on Twitter with @KateGJameson.

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