Writer’s Block, Part 1: The Blank Page

As NaNoWriMo draws ever closer, the panic is starting to set in. My writing has suffered enormously during the pandemic, especially as I’m now working from home, and I feel like I may just start on November 1st and completely lock up.

So, for my own benefit and for the benefit of anyone else worried about their writing, I’m putting together a series of posts about writer’s block and how we can handle it.

What Is It?

Some people (presumably the writing equivalent of those who never get hangovers) claim that there’s no such thing as writer’s block. And it’s sort of true, in the same way that there’s no such thing as the common cold. There are thousands of different cold viruses, which is why there’s no cure for colds – you could potentially cure one, but you have no idea which one any person has.

Likewise, there are many different kinds of writer’s block. Today, let’s look at the one we see most often in film and television.

The Dreaded Blank Page

It’s time to write. Our protagonist gets themselves a beer or a coffee or a ham sandwich or whatever it is they like to have on hand while they’re writing, sits down at the typewriter (funny how many writers in films seem to prefer those things over modern computers) and… stop. There’s a blank page lined up in the typewriter. Their fingers are poised over the keys.

And nothing happens.

Obviously, the Hollywood fiction is nonsense. Nobody really writes like that (or do they?). But the dreaded blank page is a very real problem, and it’s usually one of two things.

Waiting For The Muse

Writers are a superstitious lot – even me, though I otherwise pride myself on being a rationalist, sceptical chap who laughs while walking under ladders and stops to tickle black cats that cross his path under the chin. One of these superstitious beliefs is that of the muse.

Writing is a weird business. Once you get into the flow, the words just come out and you’ll look back at them later and think “how the hell did I come up with that?”. Other times, you’re forcing them out, hacking together something because it needs to be done, and when you look at them later the words are just wrong. It’s impossible to believe they came from the same source. Therefore, the good stuff is coming from somewhere else. Some call it God. Some think they’re channelling the universe. Some may even think they’re being guided by the soul of Shakespeare for all I know, but I very much doubt they are.

I know perfectly well that my muse is actually me. It’s not God writing (even my best stuff isn’t deity-level good!) but just the better part of me, the part that isn’t second-guessing itself and trying too hard. That doesn’t mean I can just turn it on, however. I can’t just sit down and tell my brain to start writing. The muse, internal or external, is fickle.

You sit down at the blank page, call out to the muse, and there’s no reply.

Blocked.

Perfectionism

The movie writer that comes to mind for me here is Larry Donner, portrayed in Throw Momma From The Train by Billy Crystal. He spends a good chunk of the movie stuck on the opening line of his novel – “the night was…” what? The night was cold? Wet? Dark? (Of course it was dark; night is always dark!) Eventually he settles on “humid”, before one of the students in his literature class starts their piece with exactly the same sentence.

That opening line is always the hardest. It needs to be good, to hook the reader and set the scene. But nothing you write sounds good enough. You write a few words, a sentence, even a whole paragraph, and then delete it all. It’s terrible, it’s forced, it doesn’t work. And you’re back at the blank page.

There’s a way into the story here, somewhere. You can feel the potential of the story in your mind, all those wonderful people and places and events boiling away, ready to be given life… and you’re unable to find the way in. Every time you think you’ve found a door, it opens onto a brick wall.

Blocked.

How To Fix It?

These two blocks are really just two different versions of the same problem. You have an empty page, and you don’t know how to start. In both cases, you’re looking for a way in – either by hacking at it yourself, or waiting for someone or something else to show you the way.

There’s a simple solution, and it’s so simple that I keep forgetting it myself.

You start writing.

“But I don’t know how to start writing!”

Yes, you do. You put down one word, and then another, and you keep going. It’s easy, ridiculously so. That’s why we keep forgetting.

Writing is a lot like riding a bicycle. It’s hard to get started, and you’ll be wobbling a bit, but once you’re going it gets a lot easier and a lot smoother. All you need to do to defeat the blank page is start writing.

It doesn’t need to be good. You don’t need to keep it. Just start writing. Once you get into the flow, the words will get better. The muse clocks in. The universe aligns, and you just keep going. The problem isn’t that we don’t know how to start – it’s that we’re trying to write and edit at the same time. We’re fighting ourselves. Once we get out of our own way, the rest is easy.

How do I know it works? Because that’s how I wrote this post. I started with a blank page and no idea how to start, so I just started typing. The beginning has been changed. Even the title has changed. That’s fine. The ones I first wrote were only there to get me started.

Just start writing. Let it be crap. Let it be gibberish if you must, but keep it relevant to what you’re trying to write.

More next week!

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