Before Coffee: The Blank Page

August 3, 2016 § Leave a comment

Recently, a friend told me that writing terrifies him and “a blank page is a fall with no safety net.”

I’d just told him he really should write, and I still believe he should. Not only is he one of the few people I’ve met who are naturally eloquent both when speaking and when writing, but he also has deep and meaningful things to say. That, I told him, is a rare combination.

His fear of the blank page is understandable, though. We’ve all felt that fear. We’ve got a story to tell, and we think it’s a good one, but there’s the beast standing in the way. It looks innocent and pure and unsullied by the lusts of men, but try to touch it and it will come at you with teeth and claws and knives.

The job of the blank page is to intimidate you. To make you doubt yourself. It’s the Nietzschean abyss, reflecting back your deepest fears about your own talent and magnifying your feelings of worthlessness.

It’ll tell you that you have nothing worth saying.

It’ll tell you that your story isn’t good, that it’s been told before, that you’re not very original.

It’ll laugh at you.

These are the blank page’s defenses. This is how it maintains its purity.

But here’s the thing about the blank page: It’s just a piece of paper. A white screen. It’s slings and arrows won’t break your bones or pierce your flesh.

The best way to beat a blank page is to just start writing. You don’t have to begin with your story, if you don’t want to. You can just talk to the blank page. Tell it about the story you want to write, even if it’s just breadcrumbs at that point. Win it over.

“I want to tell you a story, blank page. It’s about an old man who used to be the most feared gunslinger in the galaxy until he lost the love of his life. He crawled off to the most remote town he could find, but still young men found him with their pistols out, hoping to prove they were deadlier than him. They weren’t, but he kept hoping one of them finally would be. And then a woman finds him, a friend from long ago, and she needs his help. You see, they’d ridden out together once before, this woman and the old man and the love of his life. They’d gone to rescue a princess, only she wasn’t really a princess—I’ll get to that in a minute—and they’d failed, and the love of his life died in the attempt. But now the woman is offering the old man a second chance to finish what they’d started. The old man hesitates. He’s afraid. He still bears the scars from the last time, broad and pale and tight across his heart. What she’s asking him to do will hurt, and it will hurt bad. It may even kill him. But in the end, the old man straps on his guns for one more ride. And this is the story of that ride. Would you like to hear more, blank page?”

The blank page won’t answer you, or it will jeer at you, but keep going anyway. Don’t worry if it’s good. It’s not. But that’s the purpose of a first draft: to be the crappy raw material for what will, after several revisions, become something amazing.

You don’t have to show it to anyone. You don’t have to worry what people will think of it. The first draft is yours alone. Hell, every draft is yours until you decide to share it. I’ve lost count of what draft my current novel is on, and no one—not even my wife—has seen a word of it.

Sculptors look at a stone and see a statue, and they set about chiseling and scraping and polishing away anything that isn’t the statue. Writers have to create the stone first, then start carving.

Don’t let the blank page intimidate you. Fill its mouth with stone, and start chipping away.


(Not sure where this image came from, and Google is failing me. If it’s yours, apologies. Let me know and I’ll add an attribution.)




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