Wednesday, 15 June 2011

The Tyranny of the Blank Page

It is so intimidating to begin. When the page is blank it is so full of possibilities. Every word written diminishes your options. It's not only intimidating, it's disheartening. What helps you when you're facing that page? I've developed two separate files on my computer that help me. One is encouragement - quotes on creativity. The other is instruction - descriptions of their process as shared by writers I admire.

At the moment my favorite (paraphrased) quote on creativity is:

What nobody tells people who are beginners — and I really wish someone had told this to me . . . is that all of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, and it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase. They quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know it’s normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will
close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.
Ira Glass, host of This American Life.

You can find a link to the video here:
He recommends giving yourself deadlines. He recommends COMPLETING work. I find him inspiring, I hope you do too.

In the second category of support for my writing (instruction): I want to learn from the best. I recently discovered the Vorkosigan saga by Lois McMaster Bujold. I recommend her books to everyone. They are amazing. Operatic in scope, human in a way that will touch you. The author recently posted about reading order on her MySpace page. Essentially she grouped the books by story arc. I read them beginning with Shards of Honor and then continuing chronologically (as they are listed from # 3 onwards in, then add the most recent novel, Cryoburn.) I read them obsessively through December and January, and then read Falling Free and Dreamweaver's Dilemma at the end, when I was desperate for more. If you like science fiction then I think that order works wonderfully. If you will only read mystery then I would start with omnibus book The Borders of Infinity, which gives you a nice mystery in the novella, "The Mountains of Mourning." I would then read from Brothers in Arms forward. They could all be classed as types of mystery (from espionage to straight mystery) from there to the end, if you take them in story arcs. (For instance the mystery in A Civil Campaign is slight - the book is more about political maneuvering. However, if you treat Komarr and A Civil Campaign as one story, then it is essentially a mystery; one which also examines the natural aftermath of investigating a crime and then having most of the information on that crime classified, so that it cannot be openly discussed.)

Having read Bujold, I despaired. Her sheer talent seems so far beyond what I could reach. Then I read a bit of an interview in which she talked about her writing process. She imagines one or two scenes at a time, works through them in her mind, then captures what she imagined on paper. It explains why her books move from one powerful scene to the next, why there are so many scenes you go back to re-read (and then find yourself re-reading the rest of the book because you cannot stop). I'm going to try her process...and keep Ira Glass's advice in mind!

So my question to you would be, what helps you keep writing?