I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain. Frank Herbert, Dune - Bene Gesserit Litany Against Fear
There are people in this life who have a fear of spiders, enclosed spaces, open spaces, flying, the number thirteen, clowns, intimacy, dead things, and homosexuals. I don’t get any of them. I understand the words. I know what homophobia is and triskaidekaphobia. My wife ran into a mottephobe once in St Enoch Station. He was working behind the counter and Carrie just so happened to have her butterfly top on. The guy got into a panic and couldn’t serve her until she’d done her coat up, the poor love.
I know exactly what it’s like to have a crippling phobia but of what I’m keeping to myself. What I am not afraid of, however, is a blank page. I imagined you’d call that tabularasaphobia considering the fact that they didn’t have pages back in the day (tabula rasa = blank slate) but apparently the accepted term is vacansopapurosophobia. Neither is an expression that trips off the tongue.
Phobias are supposed to be irrational fears. No doubt some are more than others. I can see why someone would be afraid of heights. It’s not so much heights as falling from those heights and I can’t imagine anyone not being a bit afraid of falling and hurting themselves. But what harm could a wee sheet of paper do? It’s not the page, or more often the screen these days, but what it represents. It’s like Sisyphus’s hill, it’s not insurmountable, but once you get to the top everything resets and you find yourself back at the bottom and, like poor old Michael Finnigin, you have to “begin ag’in”.
The pressure comes from the fact that people place too much importance on the opening lines of a novel as if everything depends on getting it spot on. I worked out once, though please don’t ask me how I did my calculations, that I devoted twenty-four hours working on the first sentence of my first novel and to this day I can’t say I’m happy with it. In case you haven’t availed yourself of a copy of the book here’s that sentence:
Had it been Death that had called that day everything would have been all right.
The main thing I kept changing was adding (and then taking away) a ‘Now’ at the beginning of that sentence but another popular version was:
If Death had called that day then everything would have been all right.
I just dug out the very first draft of the book, basically a long short story, and the first sentence is exactly as it appears in the final book, word for word. I probably considered that sentence for a matter of a few seconds before I starting typing, a minute tops, and yet I kept going back and reading it over and over again, not simply the first sentence but the first paragraph, the first chapter and then on until the last sentence. But more than any other sentence in that book that first one will have been read hundreds, probably thousands of times and to what end? And how long did it take you to read it, two seconds perhaps, maybe less?
It was the day my grandmother exploded.
It’s an absolute corker but really it has very little to do with the rest of the book. You can’t say the same about my sentence because Death is one of the characters, albeit a minor one, who does finally appear. I didn’t know that when I wrote the sentence. I didn’t know anything bar the fact the protagonist is a guy who thinks he’d be better off dead. That was it.
Rather than list off all the famous ones – there are plenty of sites available – here are a few from my library that please me:
The thing I never did was sit staring at the computer screen worrying about how I was going to start. I pretty much typed the first thing that came into my head. There’s nothing that says you have to stick with it. I inserted an entire chapter, albeit a short one, into my third novel at the start which I would never have thought about because the direction of the novel changed completely during the writing. The important thing I find is to start. You can always chuck out anything that doesn’t work. What wastes more time: writing rubbish or writing nothing? At least if you’re writing there’s the possibility that it might not be rubbish but if you don’t write anything then you won’t have written anything. Forgive me for stating the ruddy obvious but sometimes it helps.
So what is it about blank pages that gets some authors right in the stomach? One author of historical fiction, Christina Phillips, writes: “That dreaded blank page is sitting there mocking me.” I can get that. You feel vulnerable, inadequate and would rather being cleaning the fish tank than sitting there pretending you’re a real writer. Maybe it’s not vacansopapurosophobia you’re suffering from. Kat Johnson suggests an alternative: atelodemiourgiopapyrophobia - the fear of imperfect creative activity on paper.
- Atelodemiourgiopapyrophobia - the fear of imperfect creative activity on paper.
· Word origins: ‘Atelo’ from Greek ateles literally ‘without end’, meaning incomplete, inchoate, imperfect. ‘Demiourgio’ from Greek demiourgia literally workmanship, handicraft, meaning creative activity. ‘Papyro’ from Middle English / from Old French papier / from Latin papȳrus, papyrus plant, papyrus paper / from Greek papūros.
This really only affects artists these days since most writers will work on a computer screen and you can erase any false start over and over again without ruining that perfect white surface. It’s one of the things I love about computers, I can make my writing look beautiful right from the off, it looks like the finished product and not some scribbled mess.
This is where I think tabularasaphobia is a better expression for the abstract quality of the fear we writers have. It’s not the blank paper we fear, it’s the blank mind. Or the fear of saying the wrong thing the consequence of which would be what? Rejection? Ridicule? That’s not such an unreasonable fear for any writer to have. The list of famous writers who have been rejected over and over again grows longer every day. Somewhere in the world a writer is being rejected as I write this. And there goes another. And another. You never know, someone might very well be rejecting you as you read this. Better check your inbox just in case. Maybe you have kakorrhaphiophobia – the fear of failure or defeat.
Quitters never become winners but they can become whiners. So what do you do when you have a phobia? The first thing you have to do is understand your fear and put it in context. Agoraphobia patients can experience sudden panic attacks when travelling to places where they fear they are out of control, help would be difficult to obtain, or they could be embarrassed. That is what they are afraid of, not outside. So you take steps, you make sure you have contact details on you, that your mobile phone is fully charged, that people know where you’re going, by what route and how long you expect to be. You can’t anticipate everything but you can do a lot to minimise your fears.
I think one of the most important things is to realise that you’re not alone. Writing is one of the loneliest of professions so it’s not as if you’re sitting in a room with a hundred other people all sitting staring at blank screens. I wonder if that would help, packing your lunch in the mornings and heading down to your office, a room you share with . . . would even one person be too many? I guess it would be a real problem if a writer suffered from monophobia (fear of being alone) and how the hell could you write a novel if you suffered from neophobia (fear of anything new)? My wife and I both have our own offices but most of the time I write in the living room with her and I don’t have any real problems. The bird chirruping to his reflection in the mirror is actually more distracting. (When he gets too bad I stick him on the shelf in the bathroom and let him chatter away to the mirror there.)
I think using the wrong metaphor can go a long way to clouding our judgement, talking about “confronting” a blank sheet of paper. All the word means is to go face to face with something but it has such connotations of hostility.
For me as a writer there is nothing so frightening than looking at a blank page that needs to be filled with words. Not that I have no ideas, rather the contrary... – Matthias Wurz
Matthias makes a good point. Oftentimes the fear is not what to say but what to choose to say because there’s so much we have to say and we can’t say it all at once. What I find helps, especially with blog-writing, is just to say something. Quite often the first paragraph or two of my blogs is me just warming up to a topic. If I were writing articles for a serious publication then I’d edit them to death but everyone online accepts a more casual approach to writing. Let’s talk about my very first blog for a second. It’s called ‘Death and heroes’ and I wrote it on 6th August 2007. I doubt anyone read it other than my wife and me. It’s not even an especially literary post; it’s about the death of Ingmar Bergman and my first line was:
Ingmar Bergman is dead.
That was me. I’d started. I was no longer sitting looking at a blank screen. It’s not a great blog, four short paragraphs, but that was me finished. I’d written a blog. What more was there to fear? The next post was more refined and on topic. The first one was simply to get one out of the road.
Was I afraid of that first blog? Nah. It’s the wrong word completely. It blows the whole thing out of proportion. That’s what I hate about all these fancy schmancy phobias – they turn something into something else. I don’t like going out when it’s icy. I’m afraid I might fall and injure myself. Does that make me pagophobic or maybe cryophobic? Or I might have traumatophobia. Or is all this getting out of hand?
It’s a blank sheet of paper for Christ’s sake. Get over it and write something. It’s not going to bite you. Your firstborn is not going to die if you don’t. There’s not going to be a knock on the door in the middle of the night from men in black no matter what drivel you write. It doesn’t work that way.
Eric Stoveken calls this “blank page syndrome” and this is what he has to say about it:
Think of blank page syndrome in terms of other things in your life and you will soon see it to be the ridiculous psychosomatic condition that it is. Try to imagine having parked car syndrome, a disorder by which you can't shift your car into first gear for fear that you might secretly be a lousy driver. Or empty desk syndrome where you never go to work to avoid being bad at your job.
Do either of these seem reasonable? Of course not. Likewise, blank page syndrome should make no sense if you are compelled to be a writer. – Avoiding blank page syndrome as a writer
It really puts the whole thing into perspective, doesn’t it?
I wrote a story once about a blank page. It’s a bit too long to post the whole thing here but I’ll leave you with the opening three paragraphs:
from Blank Page
The future as a blank page – it’s a popular metaphor – and I thought I knew what my dad was going to go on about the moment he opened his mouth. Why, I’ve no idea, because, predictably, and, in that way that endears people to him, he flipped the whole illustration on its head and left me gobsmacked. Or am I just seeing him with a daughter’s eyes?
“The future,” he began, before pausing for effect no sooner than he’d started, “is like a blank piece of paper and there’s nothing more foreboding that being faced with a white sheet of paper when you’re not sure what you’re expected to say. But who says you’ve got to write anything? You could draw on it, scribble on it, fold it up and put it in your pocket, rip it to shreds or make an origami water bomb out of it. It’s your future – you’re the one who has to live in it when everyone has long run out of remarks to pass about it. Remember that.”
He’s a clever old thing, my dad, and that wisdom rests on a pile of mistakes a mile high. “We learn from our mistakes,” he once told me, “which is why I’m a genius.” He’s not a genius but I do tend to listen when he goes into wise old owl mode. It doesn’t happen too often these days and I know that these are some of the moments I’ll go all smooshy about when he’s gone. I’m not so young and inexperienced that I don’t know that; I am, after all, my father’s daughter. The difference is, I just know about stuff – he’s been there, bought the T-shirt and outgrown it. I wish I could pinch that the way I do his shirts.