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Approaching the blank page – part 1

July 26, 2009
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This is it. This is the moment. You are a writer. You want to write. You sit down, open up your notebook, fire up the word processor, put a sheet of paper into the typewriter, sharpen that pencil, dip pen into ink, your fingers hovering over the keys – however you write, you’re about to begin, and you’re about to begin on a blank page.

And that’s when you stop. You are on the precipice here, peering over the edge into the void, a little scared, and wondering what you are supposed to be doing now.

The blank page is terrifying. It is pristine, pure – do you really want to defile it with poor spelling and grammar, cliché and redundancy? It is also potential – this could be a shopping list, or it could be a book that changes the world forever. And you won’t know until you write.

So how do you start? Well, that greatly depends on how you answer the following question…

Do you know what you want to write about?

If you do, then there are all kinds of techniques, tricks and tools you can use – and they are for another day. Right now, I want to speak to all of you people at the back of the room, trying hard not to make eye contact, looking a little sheepish and who gave an embarrassed, mumbled “no” in answer.

If you don’t know what you want to write about, then the blank page is the scariest thing you’ll see. Because you don’t feel its potential, instead it seems to mock you.

So, in this situation, when you don’t know what to write about, how do you approach the blank page?

You don’t. You back away from the blank page.

Counterintuitive, yes, but if you don’t have anything to say, then you need to find something to say, and you won’t find it by staring at a piece of paper and cursing your inability to fill it with squiggles and words. You can’t see the wood for the trees, and in this case you can’t see your story for the pulped tree staring back at you.

If you don’t know what to write about, then you are not just lacking in inspiration, you are lacking in ideas. This is nothing to be ashamed about, it happens to every writer. The solution is to go hunting for ideas. The best writing connects to the reader, it is visceral, it grabs them and speaks to them intimately.

So your ideas have to have that same power. You won’t get them sitting alone straining to fill up a page. If you are lacking in ideas, then take a break from writing.

Go read. Watch television, or a movie. Call on old friend and have a chat. Talk a walk around town, and observe people. And I mean really observe them, wonder about their lives, their jobs, how they are feeling, what they are up to. Walk in nature and listen to birdsong, watch insects buzzing from flower to flower. Read a newspaper and catch up on world affairs.

This is where your ideas come from – from the vast theatre of life, the ongoing drama that is the human experience. Some of my best writing and ideas have come from random news stories, snatches of conversation, and observing people and asking “what if”.

A news report on declining bee populations led to an apocalyptic short story of a world without bees (The Silent Hives, also available as a podcast (click on the episode title to listen)). My daily commute to work led to a short horror story in the London Underground. A holiday in New England gave me the location and character inspirations for a novel (Ithaca and Cornell, and the Lucifer Falls area providing the title for the story).

It’s all out there, and it’s yours for the taking, so go and soak it all up. Take as much time as you need, and once you’ve got an idea, or two, or three, or four hundred, come back to that blank page.

Then we’ll think about how to start.

To paraphrase Burton Rascoe – what no non-writer can ever understand is that a writer is working when he’s staring out of the window.
  1. July 26, 2009 4:37 am

    Great post. I constantly have to keep reminding myself to recharge, to fuel up on ideas by constantly reading and taking things in.

    But I’m certainly more curious about the next part, the part about approaching the blank page, when you’re boiling over with ideas, but just don’t know how to start.

  2. July 26, 2009 7:19 am

    Without your post Paul I would have been really struggling to work something to put down for my column tomorrow. As it turns out, reading our column got a few little creative explosions happening in my head. So thank you!

    I have to admit to be a prompt tart. While I do get ideas from the world around – I generally need something to kick start those ideas into action – thus my heavy reliance over the past 18 months on Fiction Friday and the photo prompts here. They’re sort of like jumper leads for my creative outpourings. Having said that my Christmas story last year came about from dicussions with you about the impending Christmas season, memories of friends horror Christmas get togethers and my own efforts of making rum balls. Still have no idea where I got the crazy twist from – I think it just showed up when I asked one of those “what if?” questions.

    Your story about the bees is my second favourite postcasted story right behind “The Redemption” (is that what it is actually called – we all just know it as the story about the coat The Redemption?) Would love to see some links to your stories in your column so others can enjoy your stories as much as we have here.

    Oh and loved the quote at the end. Must mean that I am always at work 🙂

  3. July 26, 2009 9:01 am

    What can I say, it was late and I was too lazy to look for the links, but since you’ve mentioned it I’ve edited the article to include links to The Silent Hives.

    Redemption is the working title, named after the ship in the story, that I’ve never gone back to. For those interested, you can read it here or listen to it here – again, click the episode title to get to the audio.

  4. July 26, 2009 11:19 am

    I enjoyed this! Along similar lines, some time ago I posted “Writers! Are you now, or have you ever been, distracted?” which I hope helps with the blank page problem, and in the process introduces fellow writers to that terrific writer about writing, Natalie Goldberg. Her is the link if anyone would like to read it :

    Thanks, Anne W

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