Like a lot of writers, I fear the blank page. I fear the mess I’m about to dump on it, knowing it’s some of the most embarrassing, asinine crap I’d never want to waste a reader’s time with. It has to be.
To face this fear, I’ve developed routines and rituals in an effort to ‘prep’ myself. Unfortunately, I’ll sometimes extend ‘preparation’ to the point I go straight to ‘decompression’ without having scribbled so much as a comma. Some of my ‘pre-work’ habits can lead dangerously into non-work.
Distraction is an insidious enemy, friends. Let us identify its faces.
Reading: Okay, duh, of course we should read. That’s what inspired us to take up writing in the first place, yeah? And it’s instructive. We study other writers- how they’d faced their own creative issues- to inform our work.
Sometimes, however, I get so wrapped up in somebody else’s work I put off my own. Sometimes, intimidated by other writers, I’ll think I can never measure up. They have some verbal gift I’ll never possess, so I’m a fool to bother.
Every writer faces it. Those crafted sentences we’re awed by were revised and edited and labored over. The writers crafting those sentences faced their own inferiority complexes to other writers. And it goes on and on.
Sometimes, you have to put the other writer’s book down long enough to quietly enter the dialogue on your own. The work is there to inspire you, not impair you.
Games, and puzzles: Lately I’ve become addicted to 2048 Tile. Man, don’t do it, you’ll never get your life back. Also, set aside the Sudoku and crosswords for awhile. Look, I know how you justify it to yourself: If you’re doing a puzzle or playing a game, you’re mentally engaged in problem solving, analysis and thinking on your feet.
Great, except you’re not writing.
Day drinking: You’ve had your coffee, hoping it wakes something up in your brain so you can crank an idea out. While you were drinking coffee you read the paper and played Sudoku. Now you’re thinking you’re pretty blocked, and after cranking the gears you need something to loosen them a bit. Kinda fuzz out the hard edges so you can access your subconscious a little.
Personally, I have a bookstore I favor (Book Cellar, in Lincoln Square), which has a café that serves beer and wine. So I’ll sit there in the middle of the day, hoping- surrounded by all the other books and magazines- that osmosis sets in.
However, there are also a few bars I might haunt for ‘atmosphere’, or the odd conversation with another regular or a random stranger, hoping it might generate a story idea or at least some dialogue.
If I write anything down, I have a harder time than usual deciphering my own scrawl. Eventually I forget about writing, as involved as I might get in a devolving conversation.
Plus I’m eventually too buzzy to have an idea worth pursuing anyway.
Social Networking: Because you have a life, friends and a history. You wanna get into an online debate over the merits of The Wipers Vs. Die Kruezen? Or click out algorithms to find your spirit latte? Go ahead, but it ain’t writing. Some of the more disciplined writers cut off their facebook accounts- some shun the internet altogether- at least while working on a project.
Believe me, your friends can wait. If they can’t, then they’re not great friends.
Life shit: Rent, bills, food, maybe even a separate job you have to do to stay on top of those things. Writing is a game of making time. Carry a pocket notebook, it’ll help.
The title of this piece: I know, some of you are gonna screw up your faces and say “Ewww” about a thing you probably do anyway. But since it was a major event in Ulysses I think it’s okay to discuss it here.
Hey, I understand, you’re getting the…ahem…creative juices flowing. It has its literary spokesmen: John Cheever believed it improved not only his concentration but his eyesight (contradicting notions that it causes blindness); Flaubert claimed it helped him finish The Temptation of Saint Anthony; Thomas Wolfe struggled with his second novel until a his own automanipulations led to a marathon writing session; Balzac claimed that it- along with coffee- fueled his writing binges.
The thing to keep in mind, however, is that Balzac stopped before releasing the fireworks, and wrote in that state. To me, that’d be a gnawing agitation. Other writers, such as DH Lawrence found the act expended more than it returned. And in the words of Mark Twain:
As an amusement it is too fleeting. As an occupation it is too wearing. As a public exhibition there is no money in it. It is unsuited to the drawing room. And in the most cultured society it has long since been banished from the social board. It has at last, in our day of progress and improvement, been degraded to brotherhood with flatulence. Among the best bred these two arts are now indulged only in private.
As recreation it’s fine. But again, it isn’t is writing. So you might want to save that for post-writing ‘decompression’.
Look, writing is work. It taxes you, mentally and emotionally, on both the good and bad writing days. The fear you face in the blank page is legitimate, because the page remains blank until you fill it, and then you have to cut through your filler.
It’s unglamorous because it isn’t performance. There’s no fanfare for the act of writing, there’s only a response to the finished product. That may explain why we put it off. But to reach the end result, and its response, we need to…ahem…rub out our peripheral concerns.
And I know it’s easier said than done, because life is distraction.
And I know, because I live it too.
Oliver Hunt has been published in HairTrigger, The Handshake Magazine and The 2ndhand.com.