The blank page is often the monster under the writer’s bed. Also known as writer’s block, a striving for perfection, or plain procrastination, putting pen to paper usually seems to involve a kind of leap of faith. Inspiration seems to be gifted to us by the gods. Thus, Hindus have Sarasvati, the Greeks their Muses. Given that I have personally wrangled with this monster on occasion, I expect it to be a popular issue amongst mentees, and so I have explored different perspectives on this matter.
In terms of generic writing, problems seem to crop up in obvious and regular places. For instance, an inner conflict occurs in wanting the work to positively reflect the writer’s skill, and the desire to be finished at all costs. In answer to this issue of sought-after perfectionism, a writer cannot edit a zero word count, and even Stephen King needs a red hot editor.
In short, there needs to be something on the page, substance to shape, while mistakes are just part of the way we learn. Moreover, flexibility in the process can lead to great creativity, and can reveal enlightened ideas that just cannot be processed through a wholly clinical approach to writing. If you can go on to enjoy this process too, so much the better.
So now there’s something on the page. But that itself might be the problem. The words stare out, expectant, challenging the writer to emulate them in the next section. Time for avoidance tactics. Was that a new email? Haven’t we run out of bread?
But if you do want to press on, after a brief trip to the shop for provisions, how does a writer mount such an attack? The advice I have come across is as follows:
• Try getting into a routine of writing so many words or for a certain amount of time at a regular time each day, making sure that the goal is actually achievable. It is valiant to attempt a dissertation in a day, but it probably doesn’t work out the way you want it to. Consider also whether time management or other issues in life might be contributing to an inability to commit to the page.
• Try stopping mid-flow (sentence, paragraph, section) the next time you are able to write, so you have something to come back to.
• Write badly on purpose, to prove that the world will not end after all. Awkward phrases or questionable facts can always be highlighted for the writer to return to later on.
• Why not try researching a bit more, as when the subject becomes clearer, the words seem to flow more naturally. It may just be that a change is as good as a rest.
• Read a textbook, or old work you’ve produced, to get a sense of style, structure, and topic.
• Is the writer considering the reader and their needs? This includes knowledge they will or won’t have, as well as wanting to hear the writer’s engaging voice, and an ease of expression.
• Write a memo, write a letter to a relative, write something. Then see if that will lead back to the main work.
• Maybe don’t call it work, because that conjures up images of slavish commitment and the end of all happiness as we know it. Maybe call it your research, or your project, and offer yourself small incentives for reaching certain targets.
• On a more academic note, writers could try keeping notes of ideas as they occur, without worrying about phrasing or specific placement in an argument, as well as freewriting or brainstorming.
• Try writing sections you feel more comfortable with, even if it means starting right in the middle of an essay.
• Pop a big red circle on your calendar with your deadline to add a little pressure to get things cooking.
• Consider writing in a room with other students, where you can all share the coffee-making duties, the pizza, and the sighs (of utter elation of course).
And take heart, because even famous writers have wrestled with the blank page beast. Neil Gaiman states: ‘The one thing that you have that nobody else has is you…So write and draw and build and play and dance and live as only you can’. PD James warns, ‘Don’t just plan to write — write.’ By far my favourite, though, Mark Twain notes that, ‘writing is all about application: the application of the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.’
Which brings me to my last point: a tidy desk is a tidy mind. In Chinese feng shui, or ‘the art of placement’ as it is sometimes known, there is a strong focus on harnessing positive energy through placement of furniture, use of light and colour (such as Yellow for mental stimulation, and Orange for emotional stimulation), symbols, and so forth. Clearing away the clutter, and any items that cause negative reactions, is a significant part of this approach. And it can, indeed, be quite therapeutic to clear the desk, place a clean pad of paper – or a crisp Word document – in the middle, and beginning writing from scratch.
In summary, then, it may not be the blank page itself, but rather a writer’s approach to it, that can cause problems: fear of what you will write, and fear of what you won’t be able to write. The only way to leap this hurdle is to try (and sometimes err). Remember, as the great artist Bob Ross would say: they’re not mistakes, ‘just happy little accidents.’ Simplify the process into making a list, then a sentence, then an essay. Put things into perspective, that an assignment is not our final judgement, though it should be an important goal in our academic lives. Above all, respect your studies, your work space, and your chance to create something, as well as yourself.
That way, maybe a blank page can be a blank canvas.