Don't Fear the Blank Page

Okay, let’s make believe for a second. You’re Dan Brown and you just finished writing the Da Vinci code. You’re ready to start on your next big project but it’s just not happening, you can’t write. It’s writer’s block. What do you do? Well, luckily we know what Dan Brown does. Here’s an interview with him on the BBC:

Interviewer: At some point in Inferno, and I’m not sure what point you were at, you suffered writer’s block. And in a sense it seemed that what you put yourself through was a form of torture. This idea that you hang upside down to get inspiration back, have you always done that?

Dan Brown: I realize it makes me sound very strange.

Interviewer: Well marginally.

Dan Brown: Marginally, haha, I have always found that hanging upside down is a great way to oxygenate your brain and also to see the world in a new way. It works for me strange or not.

Interviewer: What about the gravity boots?

Dan Brown: Yes I do use those every day.

Interviewer: But they haven’t appeared in a plot yet.

Dan Brown: No, I guess they were going to be secret but at some point they got out into the press and people find them fascinating for some reason.

Yeah, hanging upside down, wearing gravity boots. You know, normal stuff. But it’s not, okay, maybe it is? I don’t know. A lot of writers have these weird things that they do to get writing again, but that doesn’t seem right. I talked with Dr. Hastings (actually I call her Candace because we work in the same office at Texas A&M) about writer’s block. She’s co-authored a book on creative writing and also, as you heard, does a lot in the academic realm related to writing.

“To me writers block is when there is a gap between the ideas you have in your head to write about (because the ideas are usually always there,” Candace said, “but they tend to be abstract and to make those ideas move from the abstract to the concrete, putting them actually on the page, whether that be writing a song, writing a poem, even doing a paper, a dissertation, for some reason that doesn’t connect well and it’s so frustrating that it almost gets worse and worse as it goes rather than getting better until you push through that block.”

But why is it that they harder we push the worse it gets? You’re trying to write and can’t, it’s like it just won’t happen, there’s nothing there. It’s like one of those finger traps you got in birthday party goodie bags. The more you try and get out of it, the tighter it gets. And okay, this is totally pathologizing the issue. It’s not like you can walk into the doctor’s office and they’ll write you a prescription that will magically take away the metaphorical finger trap. We’re sitting here trying to find out how to do it ourselves. And really what it boils down to, I think, is fear. Fear of not being good at what we’re doing.

“I think sometimes what happens is that we’ve been trained to think that when some that it goes smoothly from their head to the page and I think we’re not honest as writers about sharing our angst with each other, I think it’s an individual act,” Candace said, “so when we see someone writing prolifically and we’re not it causes this kind of spiral downward and then there are kinds of questions about our ability, our talent as writers, our skill, we block ourselves into that, we just don’t have any open space to get out and the room gets smaller and smaller and smaller and smaller.”

And fear begets in-confidence, and in-confidence begets a blank page. And there’s no magic confidence fairy, at least no one’s told me about it. So how do you fix it? There are lists after lists of prompts and writing exercises all over the place, people will say to write every day at a certain time, Dan Brown says hanging upside down is what works. And maybe all that will. But are those permanent? I doubt it. My friend Bill Moran is a poet who writes, well to mimic Candace, he writes prolifically. He’s constantly on a performance tour and because he’s an MFA candidate at Louisiana State University, is always writing. I’m baffled by it. I don’t understand how he doesn’t run out of material. But I asked him about it, and well, he does, he does run out of material. Bill goes through weeks of dry spells where he isn’t writing but he doesn’t call it writer’s block, instead:

“Writer’s block is a really good way to become self reflexive,” Bill said, “like ask yourself why, like why is poetry not coming to me right now, why do I like this stuff, why do I not like this stuff. It’s just time for you to understand your own writing process and I encourage everyone to be self reflexive in that sense and ask themselves ‘why isn’t anything coming to me’ and give themselves time and forgive themselves for not writing every day if they need a break from it, it could be the case that they just need distance and time and then they can reenter again as soon as something strikes them.”

Okay, so the idea, then, is maybe to become more comfortable with allowing those gaps, to be able to say, “I’m not writing right now and that’s okay.” Basically: how do we get out of a finger trap? We relax, we stop fighting it. What get us out of writer’s block is taking a look at ourselves, considering that we probably won’t put gold on the page the first time we go at it, and that it’s okay.

Candace continues, “if you’re a writer most of the stuff you’re going to actually get to page is not going to be very good. That doesn’t mean you’re not a talented writer. What that means is that you know you have got to get it on the page. When you finally make that leap and put something on the page that’s a brave act.”

A brave act. There it is. Writing is hard. It’s gritty. There’s no guarantee whether you’re doing creative or academic writing, or anything else, that it is going to be good. But it’s the confidence, the ability to say, “I’ll try it anyways,” that gets us moving.