Writer's Block: How to Beat the Blank Page Terrors Every Time

Pretty much everyone who’s ever written something from scratch has experienced some level of the anxiety that comes with opening a new document window or sitting down with a clean piece of paper. It happens precisely at that point where you sit down to write, and gazing wistfully back at you in all its ghostly glory is that stark. white. page.

Panic begins to flutter its heavy gray wings in your stomach. Your peripheral vision closes in.

Suddenly, without warning, you realize with a shock that your fig tree’s leaves obviously require a thorough cleaning! In fact, would you look at this house! Meanwhile, the cat reminds you that you haven’t played with her in days. Poor, poor kitty! And look, an old friend is calling out of the blue.

Before you know it, the afternoon has drifted hazily past, and it’s time to make that complicated dinner recipe you’ve been putting off. Oh, and there’s that nice wine, too.

Sigh. We’ve all done this. Writer or not, I bet you know exactly what I mean. Procrastination is a common human foible having to do with expectations, perfectionism, low self-esteem, and a myriad of other fun psychological complaints. But this doesn’t have to happen to you!

I’m going to tell you the one, weird, secret way (loving the trendy marketing-speak these days!) to put the terror of the blank page behind you forever. Are you ready? It’s pretty out there… OK, here it is:

Start.

I can feel your shock from here! But it’s that simple.

People get really uptight about the formalities of writing, and how Mrs. Graham in seventh grade went after you for not doing it exactly the way she said, and what if somebody thinks you’re dumb, and what’s for lunch anyway, and wait, didn’t you have a hair appointment today, and ……..

LOL, get back here! Hi.

So here’s what you do to start: commit to spending just 10 minutes on putting words down and de-emptifying your blank page.

  1. Now set a timer for 10 minutes. Seriously, this is incredibly helpful and will get you to relax so some kind of flow can start up. Remember, you’re only committing to doing this for a few minutes.
  2. Without editing yourself or thinking very hard, put some ideas down on the formerly blank screen or paper. It’s like a grocery list--just single words or rough sketches of things. For creative works, jot down a few possible titles. These will direct your efforts.
  3. List the main points you want to make and items that should go in (charts, photos, references, whatever).
  4. When the timer goes off, congratulate yourself! You’ve effing started! Do some celebratory jumping jacks or stretches.

You may surprise yourself by wanting to keep working. Sometimes getting over the anxiety of starting releases a nice flood of energy and creativity. As a freelance writer and editor, I've completely transformed my relationship to work using the Pomodoro Technique. Here's the online timer to go with it. This concept has rocked my world, I tell you! Check it out.

you did this to me!

you did this to me!

(Note: I do want to make the point here for creative writers that there's a difference between procrastination and letting your ideas simmer and percolate. As a writer [and mother and human being], I've come to trust in the wisdom of the Pause. Our genius does not appreciate being rushed or controlled. "Pushing the water" of your creative process can lead to shut down and all kinds of unpleasant-to-horrible symptoms. So don't do that. But when the Pause starts to turn from a natural, comfortable, pondering feeling into a gotta-birth-this-baby-NOW sensation [sorry, guys, but you get my drift], it's time to get serious about putting those first words and ideas down.)

There! Now that you've gotten over the hump (no pun intended), you can start breaking down a larger job into manageable chunks. I learned this from living and also one of the best writer's books ever, Bird by Bird, by hero Anne Lamott. For documents that require organization to be readable, I'm a huge fan of the outline. There's nothing that succeeds like an outline. You'll love it, because it will show you exactly what you need to do, step by step, and it will keep you right on track through the whole writing process. Here's how you create one. I don't much recommend them for creative work, though, as that voice will often hide in the ether if you try to impose a strict regime on it.

I hope this has been helpful. Fear not the Blank Page! Now go forth and write.

PS: So many great writing quotes, so little space! Here's a good one for today: "Get through a draft as quickly as possible. Hard to know the shape of the thing until you have a draft. Literally, when I wrote the last page of my first draft of Lincoln’s Melancholy I thought, Oh, shit, now I get the shape of this. But I had wasted years, literally years, writing and re-writing the first third to first half. The old writer’s rule applies: Have the courage to write badly."
– Joshua Wolf Shenk

What an editor actually does (authors, brace yourselves)

I’ve found that the best way to revise your own work is to pretend that somebody else wrote it and then to rip the living shit out of it.
— Don Roff

If you're not willing to shred your own precious prose--or even reconsider your whole concept in the first place--you might want to hire an experienced editor to do it for you. In this post I refer mainly to the book writing process, but the same ideas apply to any written document in varying degrees.

It came to my attention recently that many writers have no idea what an editor does. Do they proofread? No, proofreaders do that. (If someone tells you to use spell-check instead, run away!) Proofreaders aren't editors. They're essential prior to publication to check spelling, punctuation, formatting, grammar, and other important details that make a document ready to print.

Oh, just a trim? LOL.

Oh, just a trim? LOL.

On the other hand, editors can be like Edward Scissorhands. A good one can spot a special beauty or unique idea inside your creation, and (after consulting with you) will dive in head first to bring those qualities out. When she finally stands back, there may be large drifts of fluffy words on the floor. You might find yourself astonished that what you originally wrote could now be so brilliant, so concise, and so perfectly...you.

Ideally, an editor is a cooler, rational version of yourself. Most editors are also kind and diplomatic, but our job is always to make your work gleam like the lustrous gem you mean it to be. If you have genius, an editor will bring it to the forefront. If your basic idea seems to miss the mark entirely, she'll tell you, and have another idea ready.

One thing you should expect when you hire an editor is that your work is going to change--sometimes drastically, sometimes in subtle ways that will be difficult for you to identify. It will be you, only better.

So take heed, authors! If you want your work to achieve its maximum potential, be prepared for a birthing process. if you're terrified to lose control over a single syllable of your masterpiece, it will be hard on you. But if you can relax, breathe (hee-hee-hee!), and release your grip, you'll find yourself in a collaboration that will bring the best possible you into the world.

Breaking the Rules: Write Like You Speak.

I wonder how many people really, passionately want to communicate their thoughts and ideas to the world through the written word, but never pick up a pen or open a fresh, new Word doc. What are they afraid of?

Sister Ethel and her Grammar Stick. Yeesh.

Sister Ethel and her Grammar Stick. Yeesh.

Enter the Rules of Grammar. Dunh, dunh, DUNH!

The Rules, often pounded into our tender young minds by fearsome forces (refer to photo) who had neither an ear for language nor the passion for it, have shut down and discouraged so many aspiring artists.

But there's an instant cure for this--a way to say a resounding, soul-clearing "Fuck off!" to the Rules, the people who made you learn them because they believed rules are more important than free expression, and anyone else who wants to "teach you to write."

Here's all you do: write the way you speak!

[Mentally insert heavenly choirs of angels here.]

That's it! So simple! Expressing yourself in writing is a basic, ancient human right. It should come as naturally to you as speaking. When you talk with friends, are you afraid to break The Rules of Grammar? Hell, no! You're just putting ideas out there, screwing around, riffing off each other. Exploring, adventuring. Having fun.

Aspiring writers, get over your Grammar Trauma! Put on your Big Girl/Big Boy Undies and just start writing without editing yourself in any way. See what comes out. People will completely dig your unique ideas expressed with authenticity, honesty, and vulnerability.

The main thing is that you start writing. As you relax about it and get under way, ask yourself, "Is this the way I would say it?" Try reading your stuff out loud to see if it sounds natural, like conversation.

My friends, to hell with The Rules! Free yourself and get out there. Tell Sister Ethel she can keep her gifts. :)

“Anyone who can only think of one way to spell a word obviously lacks imagination.” ― Mark Twain

Don't let this happen to you! Unless you want.

Don't let this happen to you! Unless you want.

The list of illustrious American writers who can't spell for shit is flabbergasting. They have a spectacular ear for the language (like natural musicians who "just know" how something is supposed to sound), but they can't be bothered with the minutiae of spelling words. If they're famous, they figure, "Fuck it. That's what my editor's for." They're rebels, iconoclasts, above the law--secretly believing that spelling and such mundane concerns are for lesser folk unburdened by their rare, stratospheric understanding. They might even cling to the cherished hope that some breed of Gawd-awful spell-checker (see below) will save them from ridicule and shame.

But what if you're cursed with integrity and you actually do care about whether people can understand your Magnum Opus? Do you think having an editor polish your work is out of reach, or only for "real" writers, or [insert your heavily used self-limiting belief here]? Look, that's just dumb. For every writer out there, there's a genius editor who can invisibly bring your work into powerful alignment with your original, shining vision. You don't have to go it alone! You may want your work to be read solely in smoky underground Parisian nightclubs after you're dead, but if not, give me a call.

 

I mean, "Gal"? Seriously?

A Gal often looks like this on her way to the next adventure.

A Gal often looks like this on her way to the next adventure.

When I was deciding on a name for this site, Call That Gal Media just kind of jumped into my head. It was right there, like, "Hey! 'Ow you doin'? I gotcha new business name right he'ah." At first I was a little worried about whether "gal" was kind of sexist or old fashioned. But thanks to the ever-entertaining Urban Dictionary, I found out that neither is the case! In fact, according to definition 5 (so I dug a little!), "Gal" is an uncanny description of moi:

"A Gal is someone who is a great friend. She is very crazy but so fun to be around. A Gal usually has long, brown, curly hair and is very tall. She loves to run around and look stupid, but she doesn't care what people think. That's what makes her an amazing, one-of-a-kind person. She does odd things like drink bacon-flavored soda and run down the halls with her hands in the air. A Gal will make you laugh even if you're really sad.... Everyone needs to be friends with a Gal." (BTW, if you want to see a sample of my editing and proofreading skills, check out the original version of that definition.) Oh! And if you need a snappy new business name, I'm your Huckleberry.)

Spell-checkers suck.

It'll be fine.

It'll be fine.

In the early days of my freelance experience, a very wealthy man in Santa Barbara hired me to help him polish up a number of business documents. I think it must've been his very wealthy wife's idea, because one day as we worked in his glass-walled, mountain-view office, he blurted out, "I don't see why I can't just use Word to spell-check all this stuff!" As he was saying this, I'd happened to be making a note on one of his spelled-checked business letters that referred to "pubic speaking." Pubic speaking.

When I mentioned this amusing (and catastrophic) evidence of the spell-checker's egregious lack of contextual insight, he blushed, sighed, and muttered, "Geez. All right."

And that's why you need a competent editor and proofreader. Because spell-checkers suck.