Overcoming those bare-page blues, or, getting those wheels spinning productively

spinning lady

One of the things I miss most about no longer being able to blog on a consistent basis — if not every day or week, then at least as often as I’d like — is constant interaction with aspiring writers and their questions. The Author! Author! community asks such trenchant questions, you see. Unfortunately, the answers to those questions are not always seen by the excellent many with the time to read only the most recent posts.

One misses quite a lot that way, from a blogger’s perspective: even when I’m not posting fresh material, I’m often answering questions quietly behind the scenes. Reasonably enough for a blog with archives this extensive, great questions frequently appear in the comments on posts weeks, months, or even years old.

That doesn’t mean that the issues raised might not be of every bit as much interest as those upon which I have written more recently. Take, for instance, a comment reader Firma asked some months back:

First of all, I want to say superb blog! I had a quick question that I’d like to ask if you do not mind. I was interested to find out how you center yourself and clear your mind prior to writing.

I have had a tough time clearing my mind in getting my thoughts out. I truly do enjoy writing; however, it just seems like the first 10 to 15 minutes are generally lost simply just trying to figure out how to begin.

Any suggestions or hints? Thank you!

A very good question about a problem that plagues a great many writers, right? Indeed, it may well sneak up upon all of us from time to time: hands up, everyone who has ever staged at a blank screen or page, feeling it taunting you to fill it up.

I do indeed have a number of suggestions, but first, let’s talk about why this species of writer’s block annoys so many, and why it’s so hard to overcome. Heck, while we’re at it, let’s also take a swing at why, compared to more major forms of I just can’t seem to write today! syndrome, it’s comparatively little discussed in writing circles. And when it is, the sufferer is very often made to feel that a lack of dedication, patience, or even story must be at fault.

Just to clear the air: none of those explanations is necessarily apt, in practice. Plenty of highly dedicated aspiring writers with the patience of medieval saints apply themselves to stories that would knock your socks off — and still find themselves staring helplessly at that blank page for the first twenty minutes of every writing session.

Darned frustrating, even if you didn’t have to fight tooth and nail, as so many committed writers do, to free that writing time from other obligations. No one needs to remind you that you could have used that time more productively. So I have an idea: let’s all agree that informing a writer acutely aware of a ticking clock is, at best, redundant.

At worst, it’s kind of cruel, isn’t it? Good writers, after all, tend to be rather sensitive people: to paraphrase H.G. Wells, it takes a mind unusually open to stimulus to produce strong sensations on the page. (Actually, he was talking about matters below the waist at the time, but it’s still a useful principle, is it not?)

Instead of nagging Firma — who, I think we all can agree, has been doing an awfully impressive job of nagging herself — to use her time better, let’s dig into why she and hundreds of thousands of other writers experience difficulty jump-starting that writing session. Part of the problem, in my experience, lies in the expectation that every last second a writer spends with a manuscript should be productive, as if the writing process consisted solely of slapping words on a page. To be fair, there’s certainly a lot of external validation of that attitude; heck, there’s even a month every year devoted to exhorting folks who haven’t found the time to sit down with their stories for the past eleven months to write a whole novel in thirty days.

Why, that month is coming up very soon, isn’t it? What a remarkable coincidence.

As any established author chafing under a deadline can tell you, pressure to produce X number of pages within a short time frame has a nasty habit of exacerbating writer’s block. Even if the deadline in question exists only in the mind of the writer — an obligation that can be as nebulous as plan to finish that chapter by the end of the week, or a commitment to try to write X number of words in any given writing session — finding the time and energy to sit in front of the computer may not the hardest part of the process by a long stretch. For many, many writers, the biggest challenge emerges from the intimidation of that blank screen, that bare sheet of paper.

It’s conquering the fear of starting.

If you feel this way, you are certainly not alone. Many writers have terrific ideas, but find themselves stymied once it is time to commit those ideas to paper. Almost invariably, those newer to the game blame themselves, as if falling prey to writer’s block were a question of character. (Experienced writers know better: they blame the unreasonableness of their deadlines. But that’s another story.)

The demons of self-doubt can be deafening, can’t they? Especially for a creative mind looking for an outlet. Stumped writers worry that they are not talented enough, or that no one will be interested in what they have to say, or that their writing is not important enough to justify taking time away from all of their other obligations. So they just don’t start, or if they do, once they do clear the time from their busy schedules, they feel guilty for not utilizing every nanosecond of it with productive keystrokes.

Obviously, you’re never going to find out for sure how talented, interesting, or important you are as a writer if you don’t make the time to write in the first place, but ultimately, I suspect this fear isn’t a rational phenomenon as much as a matter of conditioning. Americans are, after all, trained from birth to work as hard as possible, and to feel that there is virtue in slogging through quotidian workplace tasks, because there is a paycheck attached to them. By contrast, since the rewards of writing tend to fall into the very, very long-term range, writing feels like a luxury.

Which, as any lifetime writer can tell you, it isn’t. Not if the storytelling urge is really in your blood.

That last sentence made half of you feel guilty, didn’t it? I’m not surprised: in the throes of writer’s block, even encouraging statements can induce guilt or feelings of inadequacy. “If I were really meant to write,” the blocked writer scolds herself, staring in frustration at the blank computer screen, “my fingers would be flying right now.”

Not necessarily. Blank screen-staring is a vital part of any successful writer’s job description. The pros call it processing.

So do not, I beg you, conclude from a few isolated bouts of block that this is not the life for you or stop trying to write after merely a week or two of effort. Do not conclude it even if it goes on for weeks or months at a time, or if you find yourself making excuses about why you can’t write today. This type of block is common, I tell you, and transcends boundaries of talent.

As does coming up with creative ways to prevent oneself from sitting down to stare at that infernal screen. Heck, about a third of the working writers I know can’t make themselves sit down to write until after every iota of the housework is done, right down to the last folded t-shirt and balled-up sock. For some reason they can’t quite define, writing for them seems to be a perpetual when-I-have-time-for-it phenomenon.

I’m not going to lie to you –- if you find that you’re not cozying up to a computer on a regular basis and writing, it’s going to take an awfully long time to produce something publishable. If you are waiting until you have an entire day free of work, laundry, and other obligations, you may well be waiting for quite a long time. Most Americans work far, far too much (and in return receive the lowest amount of vacation time in the industrialized world) to have a lot of leisure time available to give free rein to their creativity.

Again, I could parrot other writing advice-givers, blaming every difficulty upon a lack of willpower. I could, for instance, order you crabbily to turn off the TV/DVD/DVR/iPod/TiVo/other electronic distractions, but honestly, we live in a world. Things happen. I would be the last person to advise you to be less aware of what is going on around you.

Mr. Wells’ sensitive nervous tissue, you know. Anyway, chances are that by the time you collapse in front of the TV, you’re pretty exhausted from work, keeping up with the kids, and so forth.

I could also echo William Faulkner’s famous advice to Eudora Welty, when she complained about how difficult it was to find writing time while taking care of her ailing mother: I believe his plan involved a window and a flinging action. Somehow, however, I can’t feel that urging you to defenestrate your nearest and dearest would free your mind from clutter when you next pulled up a chair to your writing desk.

Besides, where would that leave you when you wanted to take Mr. Wells’ advice literally? After a productive writing session, some human contact can be very nice. Best to keep supportive folks on this side of the sill, I say.

That being said, and as much as it pains me to tell you this, it probably will not get your book written to expend your few leisure moments daydreaming about the month-long vacation at a mountain cabin that would permit you to dash off a first draft in its entirety. Even professional writers, the ones who are making a good living at it, seldom have huge chunks of completely untrammeled time at their disposal. Life is obtrusive, after all.

If you can afford to take such a retreat, great. There are plenty of artists’ colonies and secluded bed-and-breakfasts that would simply love to shelter you for a period of limited, intense work. (Check out the back of Poets & Writers magazine, where many fellowships for such retreats are advertised.)

But I would bet a nickel that the very idea of arranging your life to disappear for a month’s writing retreat feels impossible right about now. You’re a responsible person with obligations. If you have kids, it’s hard to imagine disappearing for that long; if you have a demanding job, it may well be impossible. Not to mention the need to pay your bills throughout this theoretical retreat.

So it probably behooves you to make the most of the work time you already have – and to make a commitment to using it productively.

If you have been able to carve out an hour or two per day, or a few hours at a stretch each week, good for you! Yet the need to make the most of every second can in and of itself can be intimidating; as I mentioned above, if you waste your scarce writing time, you feel terrible, right? (Which, incidentally, is why most writers are so sensitive to our kith and kin’s remarking that we seem to be sitting in front of our computers staring into space, rather than typing every instant. Reflection is necessary to our work, but it is genuinely difficult sometimes NOT to fall into a daydream.)

Here’s one trick the pros use, one that I find works well for editing clients writing everything from bone-dry dissertations to the Great American Novel. It may seem suspiciously simple, but I assure you, it works: play the same piece of music at the moment you sit down to write.

As in every time you sit down to write. Not just the same album — they still make those, right? –but the same song. Preferably one that reminds you in some way of the project at hand.

Do select something you like, because it’s going to be your book’s soundtrack for a while. And do pick more than one song to play — always in the same order, please. It’s fine to create a playlist, or you can listen to the same CD beginning to end. You’re going to want at least half an hour’s worth of music, enough to play in the background until well past the point at which your brain generally starts switching into writing mode.

Here’s the trick, though: if inspiration does not come winging to you immediately, don’t do anything else but write. Stay there in front of that blank screen and think about your story. It’s fine to write something other than the scene you planned, as long as it remains within the world of your book. Go ahead and write character sketches, if you like. Brainstorm an outline for a future scene. Write a hunk of dialogue that doesn’t currently have a place in the storyline. Picture taking your protagonist and antagonist out to a four-course meal at the restaurant of their choice. It’s up to you.

Oh, stop groaning: it’s better than berating yourself in silence for those first ten minutes of trying to write, isn’t it?

What you may not do, if you want to give this experiment a valid try, is plan out other books in your series. Don’t write on another project. And, of course, don’t give up and start answering e-mails. Don’t surf the net. Don’t check Facebook.

I’m serious: don’t do anything else for at least half an hour. The time is going to pass slowly, but don’t give up. It doesn’t matter if you’re bored — in fact, for the purposes of correcting the problem, it would be great to bore yourself in this manner.

Why, you ask in horror? You’re prompting the creative part of your mind to get cracking — and that you’re willing to sit there until it stops resisting getting to work on the darned interesting book you’re writing.

“But Anne,” I hear the blocked cry, and who could blame you? “Won’t this take a lot of time? I mean, I’ve already been flogging myself mentally for not beginning to write the instant my writing time begins — won’t this just feel like punishing myself further?”

Ah, but isn’t part of the problem that your creative urges have been taking their time to start flowing? This is a way to make it pellucidly clear to those pesky Muses that you are indeed committed to your writing process — not merely to the story itself. There is a difference, you know, on the composition level, necessarily so if what you are writing is a book-length piece.

Why? Well, contrary to what the hobgoblins may have been hissing at you in the wee hours, no author, no matter how gifted, writes an entire book in one sitting. (Not a good one, anyway.) Nor do talented authors typically whip off a first draft that’s published as is. That means, in practice, that committing to writing a good book entails a long, hard effort over time.

“Aha!” the part of your brain eager to procrastinate announces triumphantly. “In other words, what I do today doesn’t matter. Maybe, if I resist plunging into the task of writing for another three minutes, the rest of my mind will get frustrated and decide to do something else.”

Sound familiar? And see why it might take a firm resolve to keep staring at that blank screen to convince that truant portion of your mind to stop skylarking?

Both the wait time and the musical repetition may drive you crazy at first, but be consistent. Before long, your brain will come to associate that particular song with writing — and with spending some serious time not doing anything but writing. That in turn will help you sink into your work more quickly. Be consistent, and do be prepared to keep it up for a good dozen writing sessions, to set the pattern.

“But not forever, right?” you ask nervously. “I’m not committing myself to a lifetime of listening to nothing but John Denver’s greatest hits, just so I can write productively, am I?”

Naturally, you can play other music later on, but I would recommend always beginning with the same song for at least a few months. Until your brain has become accustomed to snapping immediately into creative mode, not yielding to the temptation of playing something else in those early minutes. You want the message to sink into every synapse: hearing this means it’s time to write.

Stick with it. And do be aware that if this trick works — and it usually does, if a writer gives it a solid chance — you will forever associate that music with the book. There are worse fates. Even now, I can’t hear more than a bar or two of Yaz’s Upstairs at Eric’s without falling into musings about my long-completed dissertation.

Do I see some timid raised hands out there in the ether? Yes? “But Anne,” some of you murmur, “I’m already pretty easily distracted; that’s part of my problem. Hadn’t it occurred to you that if I don’t write to music, that might have been a sensible, deliberate choice?”

It did, actually; thus the swiftness of my snappy comeback: it actually doesn’t matter what your getting-started-writing ritual is, so long as you perform it consistently. The point is to provide all of that sensitive nervous tissue with a set of nonverbal clues that it’s time to get down to writing.

You’re a creative person — experiment. If music’s not your thing, try lighting the same scented candle just before you sit down to write, if you can do it safely. (Make sure it’s set in a fireproof holder.) Burn some incense. Drink a particular flavor of tea. Always wear the same pair of socks.

At least for the duration of that particular writing project. You might want to set up a different set of stimuli for your next book. Why? Well, it will help you at revision time: a fringe benefit of establishing a ritual for the first draft is that it can make getting back into that book’s mindset a snap.

“Oh,” the creative parts of your noggin will shout, “that’s Alice Cooper singing Cheek to Cheek. It must be time to write about the planet Targ again.”

And another forest of hands has sprouted. “But Anne,” timorous writers everywhere protest, “I’m willing to try these wacky things, because I’m desperate. I can’t even begin to imagine how crazy it’s going to drive my spouse/significant other/neighbors/particularly judgmental cat to hear All the Single Ladies six times a week, but I’ll risk it.

“I’m scared, though: what do I do if this doesn’t work for me? Hand myself over to the hobgoblins of self-doubt then and there?”

No, no, fearful ones; this certainly isn’t the only way of approaching the problem. My sleeves are positively stuffed with fresh cards to toss into the game.

Before I start whipping ‘em out, though, I would like to ask of you coping with the writer’s-block blues: what other ways have you been experiencing it? Dead-of-night self-critique? Backspacing over half of what you’ve written in a day? The impulse to toss completed manuscripts into the nearest geyser?

There are many different strains of the phenomenon, after all, and sometimes, coming up with a specific diagnosis provides half the cure. In the meantime, pressing forward — and not just because you resolved to do it, or because a calendar told you so, but because you believe in the story you have to tell and your ability to express yourself well.

And, as always, keep up the good work!

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