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.

 

Lessons From Failing NaNoWriMo

November ended last week, and my word count is 23,421.

See anything off about that number? Like, maybe, that the goal was 50k and I’m under half that?

Also, are you remembering that I’ve written twice about doing NaNo and how to write a novel in a month?

It’s time to follow up on those—because 23,421 words is the closest I’ve ever gotten to “winning” at NaNo, and I don’t regret that. I think I learn more from “losing” every year than I would from winning.

I learn that writing is not one word after another, but a hundred words after a hundred others, doubting each one but forcing it out anyway.

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I learn that writing takes time, which I scratch out of the walls of my schedule, stretching seconds like stiff muscles and borrowing minutes from tomorrow, next week, next month. It’s a sacrifice—to appease the writing gods, like some pagan ritual, I sacrifice my sleep, my energy, sometimes my sanity.

I learn that 50k is not a number, but a place. Not, as I thought, a palace for worthy writers place at the end of a torturous pathway, but instead a hut partway up the mountain, treacherous in itself because it tempts weary writers to sleep instead of finishing the journey.

I learn that each writer is different. Like runners who excel at different events, writers are unique, each most productive in a different setting—and “productive” is itself an arbitrary word whose meaning changes for each writer in each season. There are the sprinters, fuelled by enthusiasm, who write the first half of the novel before week one ends. There are the marathoners who put one word after the other, consistent, steady, who don’t look flashy but will reach the finish line as others drop out. And there are those who will never cross a finish line to cheers but will keep moving, not for the win or the applause, but for the love of the process.

I learn that something effective for someone else may be ineffective for me. Despite all the advice in the world, only your words can carry you from prologue to epilogue—one letter after anther, a cluster of curves and lines and then a space, and then another cluster of curves and lines.

And I learn that my purpose is not to follow great writers’ footprints and hope I end up in the same place, but to make my own footprints; not to reach some glorious peak, but to see the tiny glories around me with each step. My purpose is not to be one of the great authors—my purpose is to be me. A different me with every step, but still, in the end, me.

As long as I’m still me, one word after another, whether I write 10k or 50k, I win.

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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.