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