The fear of the blank page

Or, things I am trying to do to improve both my writing and blogging.

Start a book blog, I decided, it’d be fun, I decided.

Yep, I’d say about 75% of the time, yes, it is fun, I mean, I love reading and also talking about books and passing on my opinions, I mean, what’s not to like?

Honestly, not much but the biggest issue I’ve found so far along this 6 month journey or so has been that the blank page scares me.

I’m not the most confident of people and I’ve been thinking about the best way to do this, I mean, I don’t want to be negative about any book or about any theme or writing, but I do have to be honest, there are times when I’ve started and (gasp) DNF a book, and then I’m left with the conundrum, do I write something possibly negative or just don’t write anything at all.

I’d rather try and be as positive as possible and if needs be, just avoid writing about the things I specifically didn’t like but I also don’t want to be misleading.

I should also say, I am quite open with the fact I read some real trash – I mean, the National Enquirer for me is a perfect Saturday morning treat so I want to be able to write about books I have chosen but with the caveat of this is trash and I’m well aware of it – I don’t want to give myself airs and graces but I do know some people who would quite happily judge and read the trash but would be shocked and ashamed to admit it…..I’m not really worried if people judge me, I just want to be able to write how I feel and what MY opinion, no matter the subject matter.

I suppose over all I should just write what comes to me, what I think and feel and then be prepared for any feedback, positive and negative.

I am trying to improve my blogging so if anyone has any thoughts or suggestions, am totally up for that!

From reading hundreds of other blogs and hints and tips from anyone who wanted to give them, the only solution to combat writer’s block is hard work. There is no secret magic place where all the inspiration is waiting for someone to bring it to light. But, for a writer struggling with writer’s block, it seldom helps to hear advice like “You overcome writer’s block by writing.”

There are two techniques which together can help you ward off writer’s block and never to fear a blank page again. Enter Ernest Hemingway and Steven Johnson. I saw these examples and actually could see the logic and good points of both schools of thought.

Writing requires mental energy. When you sit down to write your creative energy is most likely not flowing. It’s the same as running or any other physical activity — you have to warm up.

There is some truth to the old saying of always stopping while the going is good. Ernest Hemingway was famous for perfecting this technique to fight writer’s block. And his method is almost laughably simple.

“The best way is always to stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next. If you do that every day… you will never be stuck. Always stop while you are going good and don’t think about it or worry about it until you start to write the next day. That way your subconscious will work on it all the time. But if you think about it consciously or worry about it, you will kill it and your brain will be tired before you start.” — Ernest Hemingway

When Hemingway had been writing for a couple of hours and still had energy left, he stopped. Even though he knew what to write next, he stopped. The next time he would sit down to write, he would re-read the sentence and finish it. And then he was already writing. No waiting for inspiration to strike. No nothing. Just complete the work already in front of you and off you go.

The technique Hemingway used to get the creative juices flowing is superb to continue working on something you are writing. But what about the blank page, when you have nothing to write on? Because stopping mid-sentence and using this as a starting point is fine when you have something to continue on.

When you find it hard to write in the morning or when you come home in the evening after a long workday at your day-job, the energy needed to write might not be there at all.

One technique which has helped me a lot is to stack projects. The idea is that writing something — anything — will get your creative mind going, and before you know it you are oscillating between projects and are writing on all of them.

The writing can be everything from a new blog post, an article or chapters in a book or transcribing audio notes. When you have more projects going — with one main one and several simmering on the side — you can always switch between them when you get stuck in one.

You will always have something to write somewhere by doing this and is not bound to keep on hitting your head against a problematic passage in one project but are free to switch around between them.

Science writer Steven Johnson calls this keeping a “Spark File.” This is where you store all your research and small tidbits of writings. Things — which is not necessarily about the project you are working on — or small sentences you like the sound of, but which is not fitting for the piece you are writing

Like so many people who want to write but don’t know where to start, I also used to have a yearning to write that I didn’t understand, let alone know what to do with. So I read a lot instead.

Here are the six techniques that I’ve read about being used over the last decade and am going to implement myself to get myself going every time I fall off the writing bandwagon. Try them — at least one of them is likely to work for you. And when it does, I would love to hear about it.

  1. Continuous writing

This classic tool is classic for a reason — it works like a charm. I have yet to start the timer, put pen to paper and not find anything to write about. Even on days when I solemnly swear there is nothing in me that wants to be written about, there is still something that I didn’t know about that finds its way to the page.

In the writer’s workshops, every single participant was able to write many pages using this tool, and they always rated it as their favourite. If you’ve never tried it, give it a go!

Here’s what you do:

Get your notebook and pen ready (or your blank document if you’re doing this electronically) and decide how long you want to write for. Usually we do this for at least ten to twenty minutes, but you can go for longer if you like. Or, you can decide on the number of pages instead of time — say three to five pages, longhand.

Now you simply start writing. That’s it. No pausing to think about what you want to say or, worse, how you want to say it. Just write. No scratching out or deleting. Even if you have to start with, ‘I don’t know what to write. This is so stupid. I can’t do this…’ that’s fine. Just carry on writing, you’ll go deeper before the first page is even complete.

2. Concrete descriptive writing

This one is fairly comforting, because it doesn’t require much imagination or digging deep, not at first. So it’s sneaky in a way — it uses the reassuring details of what’s plainly visible to you to coax your pen to the page.

Here’s what you do:

It’s really very simple. Decide on an object or situation to describe,and make sure it’s a concrete, visible one. Don’t do this with complex emotions for now. Then start with the most basic sentence to describe that — nothing fancy. For instance, it could be your desk where you’re sitting right now. Or the view out of the window.

‘My desk is messy.’

‘It’s rainy outside.’

Once you’ve got the basic sentence down, start elaborating a bit. How is your desk messy? What do you see? What does the actual desk look like? Where is the desk?

Just keep expanding until you’ve done enough. Sometimes this only produces a decent sized paragraph, which is still one paragraph more than you started with. At other times, this can lead you down a rabbit hole and three pages later you’re still writing about the coffee stain on the wood under your elbow as you’re writing.

3. Write as your speak

This was by far the most common excuse for not writing that I heard at the workshops, and one that I used on myself when I first ventured into blogging in particular.

‘I don’t know how to write what I want to say, but I can talk about it!’

And so we keep talking about writing, instead of actually writing.

Here’s what you do:

Call your own bluff. If you say you can talk about you topic, but every time you sit down to write about it you’re at a loss for words, then speak up. See the process as simply taking dictation.

Sit by your desk, pen in hand, and start talking to your imaginary listener, a friend perhaps. Then write it down as you go. Word for word — no editing, no saying, ‘This is stupid.’ Just write down your conversation. If you want, you can even record yourself speaking, and then transcribe it, but that’s a lot of extra work. It’s equally effective if you put your focus on the talking, and allow your hands to simply come along for the ride.

4. Write like crap

That’s it — get it over and done with. Write it so badly that it couldn’t possibly be done worse. Then — when you decide to write it for real, you can rest assured that it can’t be worse than it was before.

And if it is worse? Well, then use the first draft, which wasn’t the worst one, and start editing.

Here’s what you do:

It’s a bit like plumbing for your creative digestion. Just write whatever it is you feel is blocking your ability to write ‘well’. But resolve to do it badly. In other words, it must be really crap.

You’ll be surprised at the true gift of this tool — it’s actually quite hard to write badly! Once you’ve experienced how truly challenging it is to write like shit, you’ll never have to worry about this particular form of constipation ever again. The words will flow now that you’re freed of the idea that you alwayswrite badly, and you will produce writing on a regular schedule again. Once a day, at least.

5. Writing Practise

This is one I return to often, especially when I’m writing in a new format, or when I feel my writing is going stale. For instance, when I first started blogging, I had no idea how to write a decent blog. I decided to seek out the blogs that I really enjoy reading and copy some of them, word for word. (Obviously, you’re not meant to publish these as your own — it’s just for practice.)

The same way students of fine art have to copy the old Masters of painting, brush stroke for brush stroke, copying exact colour mixes, brush size etc. Every detail counts. Even trainee chefs learn by replicating a Michelin star chef’s signature dish. Writers must do the same. That’s how we learn.

Here’s what you do:

Depending on what you want to write, find your favourite role models in that genre. I’ve done this exercise with novels, blogs and magazine articles, but you can do it with poetry, short stories or even songs.

Decide on how much you want to copy, (two pages, ten poems, three blog articles) and then start copying, word for word. When layout is important, as in poetry or blogs, then make sure you copy the exact layout — indents in the margin, upper case and lower case, the font used etc. It’s the details that you want to learn, so pay attention to them, word for word, character for character.

You’ll know when you’ve done enough to start writing your own pieces, using what you’ve learnt. It’s an organic learning process, so don’t become pedantic about it. Just practice until you’ve had enough, then return to your own writing. It will naturally be different.

6. Take a writing course

There is something about writing that makes us assume that we should be naturally good at it. Painters, drawers, dancers, chefs, quilt makers and potters must all go and learn their art, but writers? No. We should be do it naturally, or not at all. That’s one of the myths around being a writer.

Writing is an art, just like any other art form. And it’s perfectly acceptable to go an learn how to do it from a course provider. Just because we’re taught to write as young children, and continue doing so during most of our school and college years, and perhaps even for our day jobs, doesn’t mean that writing, as an artistic expression, is a natural skill.

I hope, if nothing else, some of these tips might help others in this situation, I can’t be the only one right? RIGHT????

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