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  • Mary Bergida DeLuca

The Blank Page Syndrome

"I am beginning to realize that a single good idea in a day is a breakthrough. I am learning that sometimes I can fill my hands with scenes, emotions, phrases even before I arrive at the page."

 

I’m afraid of blank pages.

I assume that a normal, healthy, writer should see them and feel the surge of possibility, like a painter before a canvas. However, when standing before the blank page, (I generally do stand at my desk) my greatest fear is that I won’t have anything witty, or fresh, or true to say. And while my writing occasionally flows out of my fingers fully formed, more often it’s fragile and embryonic. And perhaps, this is just as it should be — the rhythm of my own creative life being one of developmental growth.

Sometimes we turn to other "real authors" for formulas, thinking that miming their practices will overcome our own fears of coming to the page with empty fingers.

Several years ago, when beginning a masters in creative writing, I believed (perhaps because this is what I was told) that if I followed the exact pattern of other successful authors, I would also produce novels and screenplays by the stack. It was so convenient. I now knew the secret to writing success.

However, within a week this simplistic world-view was challenged. I vividly recall sitting over a foamy latte before the big glass window of a coffee shop overlooking the main street climbing up to Capital Hill in Seattle.

“So, according to this lecture, you have to write in the same time and place, every day for three hours, underneath a window that you can't see through, and write by hand with a pencil,” I enthusiastically told my new, very cool, writer acquaintance.

She looked at the vapors of my words in disgust: “I hate prescriptive people.”

Within a few weeks, I felt the same. With stories due to my program every three weeks, I wrote whenever I could. I wrote at all sorts of times and in an array of moods and mediums. I wrote as long as I had to get a piece completed, while also working three jobs on the side. I was terrified of the blank page, but even more terrified of not having something to turn in at each deadline.

And then this fearful and frantic writing method caught up with me. I got sick and my body treated food as though it were glass.

And once I was finished with grad school, the “write until you tear your body and soul apart” ceased.

At this post-MFA phase, sitting down to write, reminded me of the hurricane of my last practice. Once again, the blank page was uncomfortable. My practice became writing in guilty spasms. This lasted for a few years amidst cross continental moves and new jobs.

Once life normalized, I began a timed writing practice. “Just a half hour,” I’d prod myself. This certainly was more consistent, but still felt like a duty.

I am beginning to realize that a single good idea in a day is a breakthrough. I am learning that sometimes I can fill my hands with scenes, emotions, phrases even before I arrive at the page.

As synchronicity would have it, a friend recently shared with me Brenda Ueland's, If You Want to Write, wherein the central message is: Any worthwhile writing emerges from unhurried ruminating, before filling the page.

This method of unhurriedly, but intentionally, gathering ideas fills me with excitement.

The other day, while picking up my living room and daydreaming, a scene came to me for the screenplay I'm writing — a scene that showed the quirkiness and history of a Georgian Era mother and daughter through a humorous display in their own living room. I wrote down the idea and realized I'd accomplished more in moments than I had in weeks of plodding.

Maybe that day, I didn’t fill my blank page, but I found an outline which will allow me to animate many pages of script.

So this summer I've decided to go for a two pronged approach.

  • Part one, gather ideas and let them grow.

  • Part two, try something that many successful writers do, but I, in inane stubbornness, have never tried: word count. Perhaps my fear stemmed from again following some prescriptive formula.

I have begun committing to a specific word count with an accountability and goal tracking app on my phone, and set it to send me reminders 5 days a week. (Yes, human accountability is far superior, but not always available.)

I've set a goal of 300 words per writing day, but I am hitting closer to 500. It feels so satisfying to see the number of words in the “word counter” at the bottom of my document increase as I go. Perhaps it’s much like a newbie jogger saying: Wow, if I’ve hit a mile and a half, why not two?

Somedays my 300 words come from efforts on my screenplay, other times it's 300 words of journaling. This gives me the space to also ruminate on my own life and thoughts, and thereby perhaps catch a breakthrough idea for a new scene or character. And the time and posture of my practice varies too; Some days I work at my standing desk, some days spread across the love seat in our living room. Recently I wrote while flying over the Arctic ocean and Greenland.

Perhaps in time, I will find other writing practices that fit new phases of life, but for now, this gathering of ideas and stretching toward a goal of daily word output feels like a healthy writing lifestyle.

Even if “The Blank Page Syndrome” is pathological for me, perhaps this very reality offers me evolving ways of overcoming it at each new interval of my life.

Consider:

  • What are one or two rhythms that can work for you at this point of your life?

  • Options to explore could be writing by word count, or trying an accountability app, or perhaps good old-fashioned writing by hand on your bus ride, or even verbally recording your stories.

Rather than gritting, or perhaps even grinding, our teeth in pursuit of writing habits, I hope you will discover along with me that commitment to a practice or two, especially fresh ones, is helping us overcome our phobias of the blank page.

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