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Writing is Fighting: Conquer Your Fear of the Blank Page

Why you need to get out of your own way and just let the words come out without judging

One of my students came to me a while back seeking help with her writing. “I suck at it,” she said several times.

I repeatedly told her that she really doesn’t “suck” at it. She just has some bad habits and, more importantly, she tries too hard. Her writing is stilted and filled with language that doesn’t sound at all like it came from her. She’s a 16 year old, vivacious, smart, funny girl and her writing sounds like it was written by an 80 year old alien.

Later, in class, I gave my students a timed writing assignment. Because I was a little mad at them about a previous homework assignment that more than half of them blew off, I only gave them about 45 minutes to do their paper. I wasn’t being quite as mean as it sounds, though. They were going to do a peer review exercise during the next class meeting and this was my way of ensuring that they all had something to share.

Anyway, the young girl who was convinced that her writing “sucks” wrote an amazing draft. It was funny and real and sounded just like she talks. The bad habits were still there, but the paper was solid and the best thing she’d written all year.

I wrote a note to her: “See, this is what happens when you get out of your own way and just let it come out without judging it.”

Most writers have a hard time with this. We judge, judge, judge our writing as being terrible, unworthy, weird, bad, stupid, boring. Or, we go 180 degrees in the opposite direction and think it’s the best thing anyone, ever, in the history of the world has written. That usually lasts for about 8 seconds, then we swing back to thinking it’s trash.

Michael Connelly, the brilliant writer of the Harry Bosch novels was a guest author on Prodigy (yes, PRODIGY!) back in the days just after his first book, The Concrete Blonde, came out.

One of my friends had him sign a book for me as a gift. Inside he reminds me that, “…writin’ is fightin’. I think it’s true. I hope you keep up the fight!…”

I’m with Mike on this. Writing IS fighting.

Fighting to get out of your own way. Fighting to keep that idiot judge from shutting you down before you ever get started. Fighting that fear of failure.

Like a lot of writers, I have a hard time getting started. Suddenly, the kitchen needs cleaning, laundry just has to be folded, or Twitter needs checking.

It’s the same thing for me when I know I want or need to go run, but I keep procrastinating. I learned awhile back to make a little deal with myself: just put on the stuff and do a mile, then, if I still want to quit, I can. I’ve only ever quit after a mile once and that was when I was coming down with something.

With writing, I sort of trick myself into getting started in much the same way, usually be doing some brainstorming or free-writing. One way I used to free-write was through “morning pages”, something I read about in The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron.

I still keep a journal, but rarely do I use it for free-writing any longer. These days, I am more apt to work out a paragraph or two in my head while running, and then get it on paper as soon as I get back. That then gives me something to work with. It’s easier to face the page when there’s something already on it, even if that something stinks to high heaven.

The very wise writer, Anne Lamott, says “Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something — anything — down on paper. What I’ve learned to do when I sit down to work on a shitty first draft is to quiet the voices in my head.”

Once I get started, I try to leave off at a place that I’m actually anxious to write. That generally helps me to avoid that initial panic. Most of the time, I begin my writing time by reading back over what I wrote in the previous session, and do a bit of rewriting.

I have to be really careful when doing that, though. I’m a perfectionist so, if I’m not careful, I’ll keep on rewriting and never move forward. That almost happened when I was writing my first novel; I would start every session all the way back at the beginning of the book, tweaking and nit-picking my way forward. Eventually, it became too unwieldy to do that and all of the available time was spent on the same 15 or so chapters.

At that point, I learned it was best to only let myself look over and rewrite the previous chapter. Usually, that would take me about thirty minutes or so and then I’d be into the story and could move forward.

What about you? How do you face a blank page?