Staring at a Blank Page: on writer’s block

A colleague recently asked me about writer’s block and what I do about it when it strikes.

What is it about a blank page that makes people sweat? Personally, I love ’em. You won’t find me short of a word, just short on time.

So what to do when the clock’s ticking, you’ve done your research, you know your audience, you have an idea (fiction or otherwise), but you can’t get started? (Bear with me: I’ve written a longer post this time.)

Know thyself
Why? Because if you have insider information, know what mind-games you play on yourself, which times of day you’re most likely to fall asleep at your desk etc., you’re in a better position to find a winning strategy.

I know, for example, I chew things over in my head and put off committing to paper until the 11th hour. My strategy, therefore, is to set earlier deadlines. Hard, on-the-calendar, non-negotiable deadlines. It works for me.

Be prepared
Imagine you have to write a paper on Swiss alphorns. You find yourself reading the prescribed stuff… and then everything BUT. Glaciers and cheese have suddenly become very interesting. And so have handlebar moustaches.

You’d be surprised how your own private obsessions might come in handy, depending on who your target audience is. All of it – mountains and cheeses, and statistics on alphorn players in different regions of the country – will be useful to build the picture, set up the story. Because let’s not forget that papers and presentations are also narratives.

Find a way to care
In scriptwriting terms, this is what some people call finding the central dramatic question. It’s the kick in the guts, the thing that engages you from go to woe. Will she get the guy with the moustache? Will the moustache be big enough in time to prompt the multinational to sponsor him? Will he shave it off to support cancer research?

Find your way into the story or argument so it’s interesting to you. If it’s not, your reader will know. Readers aren’t stupid. (Plus we like surprises, and we like to feel part of the human race. That’s not too much to ask is it?)

So, to find a way in…

Ask questions
Remember that annoying kid who used to sit near the front of the classroom, who always interrupted the teacher to ask, ‘Why? How? Who? Which?’ You have to be that kid.

You have to ask those questions of yourself. Every time you put something on paper you need to ask why. If a why question is not specific enough, then ask a specific what. What would make that piece of information relevant to your topic, your argument, your audience? Who would care about that?

Just start writing
You might say, ‘Well it’s ok for her, she’s a writer’. Sure, I have lots of tricks once I start. I can edit as I go, I have an eye for how it will look on the page, and an ear for how it will sound when it’s read, but it comes down to this: If you don’t start, you won’t finish.

You might find that, once you start writing, the ideas just come. But most of all, once you have the ideas on the page, you know what you’re dealing with and you can start imposing structure.

But what if you just can’t approach the topic at hand?
Doesn’t matter. Write about something else. Write about mountains, write about moustaches. All roads lead to Rome, in my experience (all moustaches lead to mouthpieces, lead to alphorns), so just start writing and see what happens.

In this day and age of instant gratification, we forget that it takes time to craft something new, to synthesise ideas. ‘Yawn’, we say, ‘I don’t have time for this. There must be a program to do it for me?’I’ve got news for you: No, there isn’t a program. You’re the filter through which the percolating ideas are poured. So the sooner you start pouring, the sooner you will finish.Failing all that
Panic. It’s a tried and true way of getting something done. Many people function like this. You have the deadline, it looms, it looms, you feel the pressure, but not enough just yet, you procrastinate a bit more, feel the deadline closing in and then, Bang! At the 11th hour you dash something off, and in the frenzy of trying to meet the deadline your mind suddenly, inexplicably, becomes sharp – and creative!

To articulate it a bit better, I’m going to use the words of master storyteller Shekhar Kapur (Director of the movie Elizabeth):

Get rid of your mind, get out of it, into the universe, because there’s something out there which is more truthful than the mind.

Daniel Pink might put it like this: it gets you out of the left cerebral hemisphere, out of the ‘I do it this way’ hemisphere. It gets you into the creative zone, and it lets you write all kinds of things you might never otherwise let yourself imagine. Because you’re in a state of panic.

And then, after the sprint, you might fall in an exhausted heap, which isn’t the most balanced, most ‘middle way’ to approach something. You can hear your loved ones saying, ‘But why didn’t you just plan ahead and manage your time better?’

Well, I have news for your loved ones: You did plan ahead. And you tried the logical, measured way of putting a document together, but it ended up ‘boring’. Why should we whip ourselves about this? My own view: Life’s way too short to worry about these sorts of things.

Writing is an adventure
If you forget everything else, remember this one. If you approach each challenge, each document, as an adventure, you can’t lose. Through writing we learn about the world, we learn about ourselves, and we learn the value of patience.

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