How I Trained Myself to Conquer the Blank Page
Writing a good book is pretty much as tough as it gets. To write something that we feel proud of, that others will read and love, is one of the most challenging things we can do as humans. But before you worry about the intricacies of character, the art of plotting or the rhythm of good prose, you have a much more pressing challenge right in front of you, every single time you write.
It’s you versus the blank page.
Whether it’s an actual blank piece of paper or a blank screen, it exists in front of you, expectant. And there you are, holding the pen, fingers hovering on the keyboard, getting performance anxiety. Will you like the story you’re about to write? Will this actually be a good poem? Will all the excitement you had last night about this idea translate, or will you fail your idea and yourself? Or maybe you can’t even muster up the will to put 500-ish words on the page, because you have a sneaking suspicion that once it’s done you’re going to hate it. So you just stare at that blank page. And stew in your inadequacy. And feel awful.
Absolutely every writer has been there, most of us within the last few days. I’ve been wrestling the blank page for decades, and have dozens if not hundreds of abandoned stories, essays and poems lurking in drawers and on hard drives, most not even a page long. In the past, the blank page always won. But over the last few years I’ve learned a few tricks that helps get me past the fear of an untouched page, and focus on the other challenges of writing. Here’s how.
CREATE THE BLOCK, THEN THE SCULPTURE
The reason you can’t fill the blank page isn’t because you have nothing to write or nothing to say. It’s because you feel you have nothing good to write or say. Imagine that your only task was filling the page with words — it’d be pretty damn simple. It’s our harsh inner critic that keeps us from conquering the blank page.
But here’s the thing: writing is like sculpture, except you’re creating the block of stone before you carve it. So when you’re writing your first draft, don’t think of yourself as Michelangelo or Rodin. You’re not creating the sculpture. You’re creating the block. The art is in the editing and rewriting — that’s when you become the great artist. That blank page can be filled with half-formulated ideas that at times don’t even resemble the English language. That’s okay. It’s the block, not the sculpture.
If you need some help allowing yourself to write with abandon, to lower the bar and just start expressing yourself without a filter for quality, try Julia Cameron’s Morning Pages exercise. Every day, as soon as you wake up, write three pages (or 750 words) without stopping. They can be absolutely anything — whatever’s top of mind, even if it’s three pages of, “I have nothing to say right now.” I guarantee that a large percentage of what you write will be useless, but you’ll be surprised over time how many useful thoughts, ideas, sentences and characters emerge from daily free writing. And more importantly, you’ll train yourself to lower the bar whenever you write.
BREAK IT UP INTO CHUNKS
Joe Simpson and Simon Yates were climbing the Peruvian Andes in 1985, and as they began their descent, Simpson fell, severely broke his leg, and was left for dead. He then had to make his way down the entire mountain without the use of his legs, facing frostbite and dehydration. When he was asked how he did something that seemed completely impossible, he said that it was one simple mental trick. Every day, he would forget about his overall progress and instead find a point in the distance, mark it mentally and make his daily challenge getting to that point. He didn’t overwhelm himself thinking about the mountain he had to descend legless; he focused on one shortish distance that he had to tackle in the next twelve hours. And every day it was the same — a short, challenging-but-attainable goal. It was a game to him.
Writing is the same. You can’t sit there thinking, “Okay, this is page one of my epic novel. This better be the best page I’ve ever written. Ready… go!” That’s a surefire way to overwhelm yourself and to create completely unrealistic expectations. You need to chunk it out. You need to lower the stakes as you write it. You need to treat it as a mini-experiment for the day. Notice how a pianist composes a song. They don’t sit at the piano and play a new piece flawlessly on the first try. Not even close. Writing is the same. And breaking it up into small chunks makes it all the more manageable.
TEN TIMES WHAT YOU NEED
When I started working as an agency copywriter years ago, the fear of the blank page was magnified 100X because a blank page now meant I was failing at my job. For weeks I would spend hours typing out and then deleting a few sentences of copy, having almost nothing to show at the end of the day. And then one day a creative director showed me a trick. Don’t toil away at a single sentence or paragraph. Write ten versions of the same sentence or paragraph, quality be damned, and then take a step back and judge what you’ve got.
At first that sounded like awful advice — I can’t write one good sentence and now you want ten? But then I realized how writing ten versions completely changes your approach. All of a sudden you’re not a perfectionist anymore. You just need to churn out a bunch of copy. So what if a couple of options don’t make sense, or are just plain awful? You still have plenty of other versions — there’s got to be a couple of decent ones somewhere in the mix.
So if you’re stuck on a sentence, a paragraph, or that dreaded first page of your novel, try the 10X approach. Write ten versions, lowering the bar enough so that they just flow out of you. If at least a few of the options are so bad you wouldn’t share them with another human, you’re doing it right. Even if none of them are perfect, Frankensteining a few together should get you to something that you don’t completely hate. And keep in mind, this is a first draft — if you’ve written something that you don’t utterly despise, that’s a home run.
THE THIRD MORNING EFFECT
The Third Morning Effect is real. I first heard it on a panel discussion a decade ago, and I’ve since heard or read of the same phenomenon from countless writers. It goes like this:
Monday you write and write and write, and at the end of the day you feel accomplished, like you’ve written some real gold. Tuesday is a struggle — you write and hate it and write and hate it, and your inner critic is screaming at you the whole time. At the end of the day you feel like a worthless writer, a complete hack, an utter impostor. Then Wednesday opens bright and beautiful and you decide to read all of the progress you’ve made this week, and you can’t tell the difference between Monday and Tuesday’s output.
If you haven’t experienced it, this might sound ridiculous, but it happens to writers all the time. So if you want to battle the inner critic who rages in all of us as soon as we put pen to paper, remember the Third Morning Effect. I can’t guarantee that it happens every third morning, but it does happen often. So if you’re feeling inspired and you’ve reached a flow state and the epiphanies are hitting you sentence after sentence, fantastic. And if you’re ramming your head against the wall as the wrong words are leaking from your pen and you’re swirling with despair and self-loathing, equally fantastic. There’s a good chance you won’t notice the difference days later. Be okay with bad writing days. We all deal with them constantly.
START WITH A 30 DAY CHALLENGE
Ready to put this stuff into practice?
There are few things as daunting as the first blank page of your novel. So don’t think of it that way. Instead start with a one-month writing challenge. The rules are simple:
- No expectations — it’s exercise, not art. You could trash everything you write and it’s no biggie.
- No sleep till a filled page — you must write every single day for at least 30 minutes. Even if it means staying up 30 mins later than usual.
- Duct tape the critic — your inner critic has no place here. Duct tape its mouth or pay no attention to it this month.
- Any writing counts — it doesn’t have to be towards your novel, essay or story every single day.
At the end of thirty days what do you have? Well, the most important two things you have are:
- A habit. By now it should feel odd if you don’t write for half an hour every day.
- Proof. You’ve probably written a fair amount in a month. Some of it might be usable. You can do this writing thing.
If you found this helpful, hit the heart to let me know and I’ll keep posting articles about my experience writing my first novel.
If you’re curious about the book itself, I just launched it and you can check it out here, or subscribe to it here. It’s about a group of mysterious, mythic sisters. I release one of their stand-alone stories weekly with an original illustration from some incredible artists. If you’re into mythology, folk tales, or strange dreams, give it a try. It’s free of course.