Confronting an Empty Page: How to Write when Inspiration Forsakes you.
“This is how you do it: you sit down the keyboard and you put one word after another until it’s done. It’s that easy and that hard.” Neil Gaiman
Staring at an empty page, that seems to get bigger, more desolate and blank and impossible to fill the longer I wait; panic sets in, as my assignment is due tomorrow, and I’ve been thinking about it for a week now but somehow my ideas have run dry, my imagination has taken a holiday, and my motivation is… unmotivated.
Do you perhaps recognise the situation I’ve just described? Have you ever asked yourself what on earth you should write and how you are going to produce a coherent text when you lack inspiration? Well, I must confess to being a victim of this predicament this evening, as I sit down to write my weekly blog article, which I’m committed to publish on Mondays. I had jotted down some notes on a topic I was interested in a few days ago, but they were somehow swallowed up by the chaos of my desk and now I’m left completely alone: the uninhabited page and me. So I thought perhaps we could face this common terror together, and try to find a way out of it. I have a stock of strategies I’ve learned to rely on when I’m stuck; curiously, there isn’t a single one that works consistently, which is why it’s useful to have more than one arrow in my quiver (i.e. different strategies to use in solving a problem). One thing that often helps me begin to write is having some sort of outline, even just a list of thoughts; I know that each point will correspond to about a paragraph, which I can then shuffle around until I find the most logical order.
Sometimes, however, an outline can restrict the free flow of thoughts, so don’t hesitate to skip it and allow yourself to start writing, stream of consciousness, anything vaguely related to your topic. What’s really important in this first phase is to overcome the block and fill the page with words, any words. Dr. Brené Brown, who researches and writes about shame and vulnerability, author of several books and an excellent TED Talk, encourages us in Rising Strong
to write “unedited, uncensored narratives of our lives”, and quotes the advice of another author, Anne Lamott: “The only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really sh*tty first drafts. The first draft is the child’s draft, where you let it all pour out, romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it…” – Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird
(quoted in B. Brown, Rising Strong
Sometimes, the lack of pressure and judgement of a “Sh*tty First Draft” is exactly what we need to build momentum. If it’s sh*tty, it’s not supposed to be perfect. The editing phase will come later, once the fear has subsided;
and often we’ll be surprised to discover that most of what we’ve written can be saved, once it’s been cleaned up a little! A good way of practicing stream of consciousness writing is by keeping a journal. The discipline of regularly confronting our thoughts on paper is a great help in overcoming that terror of the blank page.
Julia Cameron, in her book The Artist’s Way
, suggests the practice of writing “Morning Pages”, which are three pages of longhand writing to be done possibly first thing in the morning. (More about this here: http://juliacameronlive.com/basic-tools/morning-pages/
). I did this for a few months last summer and found that the act of sitting down to write and reflect each morning brought a heightened sense of awareness that flowed on into the rest of the day. Furthermore, there’s no rule that states that we have to start writing from the beginning and follow through to the end. If you’re stuck with one bit, skip it and tackle another. Some thoughts are harder to express than others: even in speaking, we often jump forward or return to something we’ve already said and rephrase it or add details or depth. It’s natural to follow this method when we write, as well. In the editing phase, we can make sure we have a more linear structure, which is easier for the reader to follow. If none of these strategies work, it might be time to get up and do something else. As a master-procrastinator, this piece of advice is rather dangerous for me to follow, as I often find myself inventing tasks to avoid working on what needs to be done. However, inspiration may hit while you’re taking a walk in the woods, having a heart-to-heart chat with a friend, even choosing a new pair of shoes.
When I have an article or paper due, I often keep a pad of paper and a pen on my nightstand, as I sometimes wake up in the middle of the night with a brilliant new idea or the perfect conclusion: if I don’t write it down immediately, it’ll be lost by morning. This short article didn’t seem to want to come to life just an hour ago, but we’ve reached the end, together. Once you get going, words and thoughts just seem to follow one another. There is a popular saying in food-obsessed Italy which is rather appropriate here: “L’appetito vien mangiando
”, your appetite will develop as you eat. Write, and you’ll be hungry for more!