The tyranny of the blank page.
I hate when people ask me what I am thinking. That whole ‘penny for your thoughts’ stupidness. There is something about that question that drives all thought from my brain and leaves me staring dumbly at my questioner, a scarecrow-black-button-eyed blankness to my face, barely able to stutter out a ‘Don’t know, nothin’ in answer.
A blank page is that exact question. That blinking prompt at the top of the empty page is not, contrary to what you may believe, blinking patiently for your brilliance to flow through your fingers. Oh no. It’s blinking a morse code subliminally into your brain that is saying sarcastically (yes, morse code can in fact communicate tone, I swear) “Ok genius. What now, huh? Whatcha thinking?” And my response is often considerably less articulate than a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel could muster.
This seems to be a common issue for creatives. We may have been itching all day to start a new story that’s been stewing in our minds for the last two weeks, but as soon as our butt hits the chair and we see that vast space of white punctuated only with a little blinking bar, all thought flees our minds and all that can be heard is the small sound of a tiny whimper. No, not from the dog, from your own throat.
Fortunately there are tricks to slaying the blank page and the mind trap it thrusts creatives into when they look at its flat expansive whiteness. Here are three creative ways to beat the blinking bar into submission and get your creativity all over that white page.
1. Cast a Wide Net
Read widely, not just in your niche. Read about politics, economics, psychology and computer aided drafting. Pick up a magazine you’ve never heard of while sitting in the doctors office. Talk to creatives outside your genre or even outside of writing. Seek out entrepreneurs, architects or film makers to discuss creativity, passion and process, or anything else that comes to mind.
New ideas are born at the collision of differing points of view, differing priorities, varying needs and unique backgrounds. Research indicates that what makes a group truly intelligent and innovation is diversity. The combination of different ages, skills, disciplines, working and thinking styles, social backgrounds create a sort of cosmic bank that birth entirely new ideas and new approaches. Scott E. Page, a professor at the Center of the Study of Complex Systems has shown that diverse groups outperform like-minded experts. ”Progress depends as much on our collective differences as it does on our individual IQ scores” he says.
I once solved a major plot block from an idea I got reading an obscure book called Sensemaking in Organizations. No one was more surprised than I was that a plot problem in a fantasy novel could be resolved by something from a book like that! Read widely, read from differing points of view, and the impacts you encounter will generate new ideas to help you fill those pages.
2. Reward Yourself
Reward is important, and while we all like to think that creativity is reward enough in and of itself, we all know there are times this is simply not the case. No matter how much you love your work you will encounter days where it is a slog through the Swamp of Sadness instead of a laughter fueled skip through wildflowers and butterflies. This is a job, and like any other job, there are days when you might rather lick a public bathroom clean than sit and stare at a blank page until inspiration hits.
One way to combat this is to craft a reward system for yourself that you can use on these days. In the world of business they call it Performance Management and it is an extremely effective tool managers can use to positively impact the performance of their teams. We can also use it on ourselves to coax work out of our fingers when we only want to stop moving, revel in sadness, and sink into oblivion.
Think about things that you find incredibly rewarding. Maybe it’s one of those Maple and Bacon donuts from Voodoo Donuts, maybe it’s a long hot bath, perhaps it’s time spent working in the garden. Whatever it is make a deal with yourself that as soon as you get out one page of writing (or some number of words) that you get that rewarding thing. The trick is the reward needs to be immediate – something you can get right after you finish writing – it cannot be something that happens at some vague point in the future (like a trip to Hawaii). The other trick is that you must see this commitment through. If you accomplish the writing goal and do not reward yourself as you promised you would, you kill the effectiveness of this approach. Likewise, if you skip the writing goal and just go do the rewarding think you’ve also chopped off your nose to spike your face. This didn’t work out well for Tyrion Lannister and it won’t end well for you either.
3. Wait Until Your Gonna Pop
Have you ever seen what happens to a banana that is left outside in the glaring summer heat for days on end? The skin turns black of course, but what you might not realize is that the flesh of the fruit actually liquifies within the skin. Seriously, you could poke a straw through the skin and if the whole think didn’t explode in your face from the internal pressure you drink the fruit through the straw. It becomes that liquified. Don’t ask me how I know this. The story is not really appropriate for polite company.
Most conventional writerly wisdom tells you to write down every idea as it comes to you and to never be without a notebook. They tell you to write every single day, to take action action action at all times. This has its place and I am certainly not saying this isn’t a good idea. I do this regularly. But there are times when it might be of benefit not to take this approach, and instead, to leave your story out in the hot summer sun for a week or so until it’s liquified and bloated to the point of bursting. Then, when you finally sit down to write it feels more like poking the white head off an extremely swollen zit, or finally being able to pee when you’ve had to hold it way too long. Your need will overwhelm the “whatchu thinking about” challenge of the white page.
Hopefully you will find some of these helpful in your own writing endeavors. Happy writing people,
You can find more information from the following:
“Measure of a Leader” by Aubrey C. Daniels and James E. Daniels