This Writer's Life

Fear of the Blank Page

The blank page. A rectangle of absence, it fills the writer with equal parts expectation and dread. A stark reminder of the writer’s apartness, it demands that you pay attention to it and not your family, dogs, messy house, or whatever else might distract you. 

We could compare the fear of the blank page to the fear of commitment, but it’s more complicated than that. The blank page equals a terrible silence. It shows you the part of you that’s not writing. No wonder its presence causes writers such turmoil.

In “The Poet’s View,” a 2008 documentary featuring John Ashbery, Louise Glück, Anthony Hecht, Kay Ryan, and W.S. Merwin, the poets share their methods for writing poems. Ashbery types drafts on an electric typewriter as does Glück; Hecht writes longhand and doesn’t own a computer. Ryan also writes her first drafts on yellow legal pads. Hecht and Ryan describe the value of keeping things they’d crossed out, which could be repurposed for other poems.

But Merwin’s method seems most useful in circumventing the anxiety of the blank page. In the documentary, he says, “I’ve carried a little spiral notebook all my life, and put little notes in the notebook. Then I write things out longhand—I can’t imagine doing it any other way. I can’t imagine writing anything on any kind of machine. I like to write on useless paper, scrap paper, because it’s of no importance. If I put a nice, new sheet of white paper in front of myself, and took up a nice new, nicely sharpened anything, it would be instant inhibition. I’d think, so now what? And I would sit there, ‘so now what,’ for quite a long time. But if it’s—I need somewhere to write it down, the back of an envelope, then it’s ok. It’s just to keep it there until I can find out where it goes.”

By its very existence, Merwin tells us, that “nice, new sheet of white paper” stifles creativity. It’s too important, too inhibiting to allow a poem to unfold. Similarly, sitting in front of my computer screen seems, quite often, to dull my imagination. Why is it so hard to put that first word down?

William Stafford didn’t even sit when he wrote; his “writing position” was “lying on the couch by the front window.” In “What It Is Like,” at the beginning of Writing the Australian Crawl, Stafford wrote, “Poetry is the kind of thing you have to see from the corner of your eye. You can be too prepared for poetry…If you analyze it away, it’s gone. It would be like boiling a watch to find out what makes it tick.” Is the clean sheet of paper or the empty white screen “too prepared?” Does its presence force us to analyze what we’re writing before we even begin to write it? Does it intimidate because it’s not, to paraphrase Merwin, useless enough?

Part of the problem might lie in the blank page’s weird perfection. We’re hesitant to mar its pure white surface. It doesn’t encourage experimentation or play. It’s not, in fact, clay. 

Stafford also wrote of his willingness to fail: “If I am to keep on writing, I cannot bother to insist on high standards.”

So lower your standards, get a harmless little notebook—the cheaper the better—lie down on the couch before it gets light out, and tell yourself that failure is perfectly fine. To quote Stafford one last time, feel free to follow your “own weak, wandering, diffident impulses.”

And remember: in spite of its intimidating appearance, that blank white page is not, in fact, the enemy. It wants our words, desperately.

Categories: This Writer's Life

5 replies »

  1. Wow! Really loved this, Erica! It seems staring at a blank white page in a notebook or on a computer screen is daunting for so many of us! Me included. I think the best way, for me, maybe others too. Is Close your eyes in bed or a lounge chair and tumble words, ideas, titles and seeds of inspiration from reading around until you get an idea, a first line etc. Certain words just beg you to write and if you get a first line of two half the battle is won. I did this with my poem “Dwindling” It begged me to write it. But maybe this is just me????



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