Strategies for Facing the Blank Page, Part I

Starting a New Piece.

Writers have been writing about the blank page for centuries. Mainly about its terrors. Few artists, if any, anticipate with relish beginning anew, whether it be a piece of writing, a painting, or a musical composition. Facing a pure white canvas, an empty music staff, or a blank page is open season for all our demons to jump up and begin harassing us.

One of my clients recently completed a story he had been writing happily along on for the past few months. As he had been approaching the end of this piece, we had discussed what he might work on once he finished. And after some conversation, he had settled on his next writing project. It was a story based on a recent experience, so many of the details were still fresh in his mind, and he looked forward to diving in.

However, while for the past months, he had sustained a robust writing practice, now days went by without his sitting down to write. And when he did sit down, he found himself returning to the story he had just completed to fuss with it. The longer he spent not writing, the more disappointed he was in himself. He thought he had worked through his writing inhibitions, but he had been wrong. Very wrong. He was so angry with himself that he didn’t want any help from me. “It’s about time I figured this out for myself,” he insisted.

“You know,” I told him, “when you’re stuck, what’s most important is to get unstuck. And it really doesn’t matter how. It matters only that you free yourself. Staying stuck only sinks you in deeper in.”

“O.K.” he replied. “Do you have a suggestion?”

I thought I understood what was hampering this writer. He had written his last story more easily and fluidly than he had ever written before. And he was very pleased with the results. Now that it was time to start a new story, the stakes were high. If I could help him think smaller and lower the stakes, I suspected he’d be off and writing again.

Together, he and I isolated four random but possible moments in the new story. Once he had these moments, I told him to begin the next day writing into the first moment for 15 minutes only. The day after that, he should write into the second moment. Etc. Once he had written into all four moments, we would talk again.

The next time we talked, he sounded much more upbeat. “I’m feeling much better,” he said. The 15 minutes flew by each day, and I found the words pouring onto the page. What next?”

I told him to repeat the 15-minute writing sessions with the four moments, and then we’d talk again. “I’ll expect to hear from you in four days,” I told him.

Instead of phoning four days later, he emailed me. “No need to talk. I’m off and running. Thanks.”

If you are a writer, one thing is certain: you will face the blank page again and again and again. Even if you are not aware of it, or have not articulated them, you have discovered strategies to help you over the threshold. I know I have, and in subsequent posts I’ll explore some of the other ways I and my clients have learned to conjure words to begin populating the empty space of the blank page.

New Orleans Wall

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