On Blank Screens
by Christopher Meeks
For a few seconds, I pictured writing the words "I'm stuck"
and simply sending it in as a column.
Once I started writing something, though, it all came to me. This is a topic I know. Sometimes that's all it takes—just to write something.
At the end of column four, "Starting Out," I wrote that writer's block is simply being either too intimidated to begin or too frantic to begin. From some of the notes I received, I realized this is a topic that can use more explanation.The killer opening: You don't have to start at the start. Brilliance will come in due time.What to write: Know your topic—through research or thought—before you start.
Too much to write: Set reachable, regular goals to avoid being overwhelmed by the length of a project.You know you:
Figure out what it takes to get you to start writing.
If you are someone who faces a blank screen often, the first thing to ask yourself is "Why?" If you're not the self-examination type, ask yourself anyway. Do you fear not writing the killer first sentence or paragraph? Or is it that you're not sure of your topic—you're not sure of what to write? Or do you have so much swirling in your head, you don't know where to begin? Perhaps you don't feel
compelled; you are someone who admires writing, you can do it well when you have to, but you're not particularly driven to do so. And, of course, there's Freud lurking in the background asking, "Do you fear failure—or even success?" Hmmmm?
The killer opening
Jill stalked in and—
No, that's not it, too angry.
Jill wished Kevin could only understand—
No, too whiny. Maybe something with an asteroid.
As Jill watched the asteroid approach her house, she had thoughts of the future. And did Kevin fit in?
Some people have the mistaken notion you always have to start at the start, write in a linear fashion, and then conclude. If you can't come up with a killer opening, how are you
supposed to have a brilliant middle and the clever conclusion? Hence, many a writer gets stuck, a mastodon in the tar pit.
Here are some ideas to get over killer-opening syndrome.
- You might simply begin "Insert Dazzling Opener Here," and then move on, perhaps even describing what your opening should include. Some writers find that if they are not browbeating themselves for an opener, they are more relaxed, less intimidated, and the rest starts
to flow. You can return to the opening later.
- Another approach is to toy with an opening you'd never write, and then make a variation or two. Keep it all or the best of it, and then move on.
- You might write a dull opening just to get you going. You'll come back to it.
- Or, you might start at the end, type a little of the middle, and then go to the start—or any variation thereof.
- Some people like to make an outline so they know what
they want to write about. Knowing that can lead to a start, brilliant or not.
The point is—and I've said this before—writing is rewriting. Do you think painters start in one corner, work their way down the canvas, and have, voila!, something as perfect as the Mona Lisa, no need to touch up? Of course not. Do you think actors read a script, memorize it, then go on stage and are instantly mesmerizing? Of course not. All of
the arts are about making adjustments, about trying things and discarding some. (The trick, of course, is to know what to keep and what to discard.) Why do some writers insist their craft has to be brilliant from the first word?
As Einstein found, space is curved. Linear is not always linear. Don't be stuck to the notion that there is only one way to write. Feel free to write in pieces—writing without worrying if it's any good—and assemble it and rewrite it
later. This is to say: Sketch in your work, then go back and improve it.
What to write
Writer's block is not always about being intimidated. Some people may be starting the project too early (even if it's due tomorrow). In other words, they start writing before they know what to write about.
Sure, you might have the general topic, but do you have all of the information you need? Do you have all of the facts at your fingertips or know where to get them quickly? Research may be required.
While I'm alluding to nonfiction here—most of you will be writing factual Web pages, after all—this principle holds true to all writing. Some fiction writers may not have the "facts" of their characters. Is he tall or short? If he's a baker, what
kind? Does he make bread like the La Brea Bakery in Los Angeles, old-fashioned heavy and round loaves with thick crusts, or does he bake white Wonder bread? When he wakes up in the morning, what does he typically do?
As I mentioned in my last column, "God is in the details," and if you don't have the details to work with, you're SOL. (If you don't know the phrase, here's a nice translation: "Sorry out of luck.")
Beware, the other extreme. I've known many people to put
off writing because they are forever researching. Once you get the hang of research, it can be fun. You don't want your research to overwhelm you, though, nor do you want it to be your excuse for procrastination. After all, we all live in the Three Bears' house, and things can be too much, too little, or just right. Make your research just right.
Too much to write
Some people are simply intimidated by a project's length. "How am I going to write a whole book?" or "How am I going to write not only a home page, but also another 20 subpages, all linked together?"
Even writing about this topic is too much to write. After all, there are whole books and semester classes on the topic of project management, so I'm not going to attempt that here.
Rather, I'll give you a metaphor. Picture Sir Edmund Hillary (not a "Sir" then) and Tenzing Norgay, who in 1953 scaled Mt. Everest. They were the first to do so successfully. They had to walk more than a hundred miles through the foothills just to reach the base of the mountain—there weren't any helicopters to drop you off back then. They also climbed without the lightweight clothes and materials of today—and also without the knowledge that Everest could be scaled.
Many people had failed previously; some of them died trying. But Hillary, a beekeeper from New Zealand, had a goal for each day, and he strode steadily to success.
"I'd rather always have this philosophy," said Hillary in a recent interview, "that I'd like to start out on an adventure that is very uncertain, that is very challenging, that we'll give it everything we have. But there's a very strong chance that we may not be successful. And then, if you can manage to
battle your way through and succeed, then you have this tremendous feeling of accomplishment."
Give yourself a do-able goal—500 or a thousand words a day—and climb your mountain.
Not compelled ("The Muse")
The romantic notion of writing is that you leap toward your desk and, in a burst of inspiration, you hammer out your
tome like Vulcan at his forge. Waiting for this moment is called waiting for the Muse. The idea of a Muse comes from Greek and Roman mythology—so this shows you how long the idea has been around. But it ain't the way it works. (If it does, cherish the moment.) Writing is more aligned with the wheat farmers of Iowa. It's something you have to work at steadily, even daily if you have a big project. Nothing better sets up the mind for writing than doing it regularly,
preferably at the same desk at the same time each day. Your mind becomes trained.
The psychology of you—success and failure
You know you best. When it comes down to it, you may know what it takes to get you writing. Some people have a whole routine, such as sharpening pencils or waking up, swimming,
and then writing. Other people know they write better at a certain time of day. (For me, it's the morning.) For still other people, it's having a deadline. (If so, and you don't have a deadline, then give yourself one.)
Don't fool yourself. "If only I had more free time" or "If only I didn't work so much" are popular ones. John Grisham was a full-time lawyer and family man, but he still found an hour each day to write his first novel.
I have an uncle who has been a brilliant surgeon and who has helped pioneer new methods of surgery, including a simpler way to remove gallstones. He had to decide in college whether to become a journalist or a doctor. He chose the latter, but part of him always wanted to be a writer. As a young doctor, he spent a year in the '60s in Vietnam. Last year, he decided to retire early and write a novel about a doctor in Vietnam. He has a great start, but now he's
stopped. The blank screen is getting him. So, too, is all of the free time that he's never had. Many other things beckon. (Right now, he and his wife are sailing a 40-foot yacht off the coast of Maine.)
He has not found the discipline yet to write steadily. I've told him to sit at the screen. The blank screen can become boring—but don't move. Sooner or later you'll write, just to entertain yourself. If you've given yourself an hour a day to
write, then sit there for that time period. Soon, you'll write.
About the author
Christopher Meeks writes for and teaches creative writing at CalArts, and he also teaches English at Santa Monica College. He has published four nonfiction children's books and written many short stories. His stories have been published most recently in The Santa Barbara Review,
The Southern California Anthology, Rosebud, and upcoming in Writers' Forum. His first full-length play, Suburban Anger, was mounted in 1993 at the Playwrights Arena in Los Angeles.
In August 1997, his play Who Lives? was staged at the 24th Street Theatre in Los Angeles, and its good reviews have other theaters across the country considering it now. The play earned several
grants for its production, including one from The Pilgrim Project, a group that assists plays that "ask questions of real moral significance." For seven years, he was a theater reviewer for Daily Variety, and he wrote a column for Writer's Digest for two years. His screenplay, Henry's Room, won the Donald Davis Dramatic Writing Award.
Illustration: Ingo Fast Technology from www.artville.com