Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Thursday, 22 April 2010

What are you so afraid of?


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.

blank_page 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?

Inevitably there have been some corkers of opening sentences over the years; my own personal favourite is by fellow Scot Iain Banks, from The Crow Road:

It was the day my grandmother exploded.

Crow Road 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:

On the stairs, there was a clear, plain silence.
Reading in the Dark, Seamus Deane

I am, therefore I think.
Birchwood, John Banville

My brother’s cradle and the other baby stuff got us from Mineola to Birthrock.
The Way The Family Got AwayMichael Kimball

We came in over the sea, we came in the morning, just after the sun, coming low out of the east across the flat sea, on time, the two of us.
Standard TimeKeith Ridgway

One of the things about The Sofia Experimental Breadboard Octet was that they weren’t an octet.
The Little White Car Danuta de Rhodea

We had to take the universe in hand, my brother and I, for one morning just before dawn papa gave up the ghost without a by-your-leave.
The Little Girl Who Was Too Fond of MatchesGaétan Soucy

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 defeatbe 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.

Bergman 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:


water bomb instructions 

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.


Elisabeth said...

Neither the blank page, nor the empty computer screen terrifies me, Jim.

I suffer from a contrasting condition - a sort of graphomania.

I cannot stop writing and once I begin I can write for hours. Little of what I produce is of value, and not much is worth re-reading; yet the pleasure I derive from putting my thoughts down in words on the page is enough to keep me going.

Therefore, Jim, although your wonderful post reverberates to some limited extent for me, I cannot identify so much with this terror of the empty page/screen.

I can however identify with the need to rework words again and again into sentences - rather like the first sentence of your first novel - to the point where I can no longer grasp the meaning of those original words.

As for opening sentences, they can be helpful as starting points for other writings.

In one of my short story writing classes years ago our short story teacher came in with scraps of paper on which she’d written the first sentence from a number of unidentified, published short stories. She put them in a hat, and asked us each to choose one. She told us then to take the selected sentence and use it as the basis for a short story.

Mine was: ‘At the tea stall Mr and Mrs Das argued over who would take Tina to the toilet.’

I found out later the words are those of Jhumpa Lahiri.

From them I wrote a short story, one of the few totally fictional stories I've written that actually seems to have worked.

It's a terrific exercise and I recommend it.

Thanks for a fascinating post, Jim.

I must stop writing now.

Jim Murdoch said...

You’re talking about what my wife, who first introduced me to the concept, calls “firsties”, Lis - someone gives you an opening line and you write a poem (in our case) or a story following on from it. I have two or three poems where someone else started me off. None are especially good but they were fun. I sent one to Dave King a while back, a line that’s been kicking around with me for years, which I could never do anything with and he wrote a poem. The line was, “The French have it right, Death should be a woman,” or something close to that. I’d still use it if I could fit it in to anything but I think I’ll take it to my grave to be honest.

I have to say it amused the hell out of me when I went and dug out that first draft of Living with the Truth to find that it was exactly the same as the first line I wrote all those years beforehand.

By the way surely what you suffer from is autobiographomania.

Rachel Fenton said...

Like Elisabeth I don't have a fear of white space either - I find tabula rasa paradoxically both stimulating and relaxing and, whether it be words or paint, I soon have a texture to pluck at and criticise!

Curiously, just thinking a little pc screen is set to a peachy cream against greyblue....not exactly white....but I can write on anything...

Dave King said...

Excellent post.
If writers block is fear of an inadequate opening, I would have thought the answer might be to not start at the beginning!

I do recall at school a writer (name long forgotten) coming in to talk to us about writing a story. He said he wrote his first book (unpublished) at about our age (12?). He commended his first line to us as something to aim at:
Crash! The captain's head struck the deck> I've always remembered it!

Your indecision about whether or not to start your line with "now" or "if" I can absolutely relate to - though not particularly with regard to first lines!

Jim Murdoch said...

When I was in my late teens, Rachel, I used to buy boxes of coloured typing paper – remember this is when I only had a manual typewriter – and I still love to see a book printed on coloured paper although they are rare. My children’s book was typed on orange foolscap pages. I still have it. It’s never been transcribed onto a computer so if the house goes up in flames that’s it.

I think probably one of the reasons I don’t fear the blank page is that I do so much work in my head that I’m never short of stuff to write about when I do decide to organise the stuff on the page. I’ve started every book with a first line that’s never changed because I spend so much time jumping up and down on it before I write it I’m sure that’s how I need to begin. The first line on the children’s book was, by the way: “Henry Martin Mole was a mole which is a very useful thing to be with a name like Henry Martin Mole,” or something very close to that; I’ve not looked at the thing for twelve years.

And, Dave, I’m a terrible one for adding in bits before sentences, things like “To be honest,” and “Believe you me,” which don’t add anything to the meaning of the text. My wife is always editing them out. For years my dad would insert, “Do you see what I’m driving at?” into every conversation. Several times usually.

Eryl said...

I don't think I've ever suffered from blank page syndrome, but I am a bit odd when it comes to empty notebooks. I've now stopped buying them, but for years I collected them almost addictively and then didn't know what to write in them. So they would taunt me. I think I had some notion that a writer must always carry a notebook and take notes about everything. I now know that's not how I work. My camera is my notebook equivalent, but mostly I write about things I didn't even notice I noticed, if you see what I mean.

Jill Wellington said...

Very interesting post, Jim. Wow...lots of phobias involved with writing. I have faced a few myself. Thanks for sharing!

Kass said...

Highly enjoyable post! I don't have the fear of a blank page or screen because I have no aspirations as a writer. Sociologists tell us that most of our behavior is relative to an audience, real or imagined. I don't imagine anyone really cares about what I write. I'm pleasantly surprised on my blog when people comment and seem interested, but I write for my own amusement and to connect with people.

Jim Murdoch said...

Ah, yes, Eryl, the first page of a new notebook. I’m much the same. If my writing was beautiful then I wouldn’t mind but I tend to scrawl in notebooks often on buses which makes the writing even harder to read. I always carry a notebook. I even have notepads beside my chair in the living room and by my bed although I’ve never actually used that one. If I get an idea in the night I’ll usually get up and write straight onto a computer.

I never use my mobile for anything other than a phone. And I basically call two people on it, my wife and my daughter. I took a couple of photos and a wee video when I first got the thing but I can’t remember how to do it, the same with using it to record a message. It’s strange because I’m not a technophobe normally but I’m just not into mobile phones at all. Most of the time mine’s not even turned on.

Thanks for dropping by, Jill, and I think most of us have had to face a few of those ‘phobias’ over the years.

And, Kass, that’s a good point. I think the more we think what we write matters the harder it is to write anything. I suppose it’s like the comedian who feels every time he opens his mouth he needs to be funny we writers feels we need to be profound or something.

As for whether anyone really cares about what we write... I think there are some cans of worms that are best left unopened. I think all of us would like to think we care more than we actually do. I sometimes feel that the kinds of relationships we develop online are much the same as if we were in prison or some other closed community. You make friends and play nice with those who are there but ask yourself, if you stopped blogging tomorrow, who would you keep in touch with? After two and a half years doing this I’m still surprised how narrow my circle of friends is.

The thing too is that what we write although it’ll lie around for years and so feels like a permanent record really only sees its day in the sun for a very short time before other blogs pile on top of it and bury it. No one has the time to read everything they’d like. I’ve easily written over three quarters of a million words online. Ken Armstrong recently nipped my head to make sure I had an offline archive but who is ever going to read it all? No, it’s like journalism that way. Every day there’s something new to read. I could count on one hand the number of sites where I faithfully read everything they post. And I feel guilty that there aren’t more but then are all these people really reading everything I write? Like I said, there are some cans of worms that should stay firmly shut.

Kass said...

Ah Jim, as always, your honesty is refreshing. You point out one of the beauties of online writing - its fleeting nature. I'm rather comforted by the knowledge that I can turn off my computer for days, months, years, and I will still be human. What is to become of any of us? Ah, the pain of jabbing here and there with our words. Oooh, that's going to leave a mark.

Jim Murdoch said...

All I can say in response to that, Kass, is judging by the fuss that's being made over your birthday you've certainly affected a number of people for the good. I may lack the effusiveness of some of my fellow bloggers but not the sincerity so I do hope you have a happy birthday. I'm sure you will.

Art Durkee said...

I rather like blank pages. They don't scare me. They might contain infinite possibility, but I don't find that frightening. But then, obviously I'm not a writer.

In music, it's out of the silence that the music arises. In writing, it's out of the blank page (or screen) that the poem arises. In drawing, all you have to do is look, actually look, at the world around you. In music, all you have to do is listen. In writing, all you have to do is listen.

This strikes me as another kind of writer's block which I don't suffer from. I mean, not being able to make something is not my problem, and never has been. What to do with it afterwards is much more of a problem.

Jim Murdoch said...

A blank page is also a fresh start, Art. It is brimming with possibilities. Once, like I am just now, you’re 23,000 words into a novel there’s far less freedom. I’ve built a maze around myself. I start at the beginning, work my way through, and the plan is, once I get to the end, to pick up my trowel and start adding to that maze for another 20-odd thousand words. I'm free, of course, to make the maze any shape I like, move off in any directions, but I have to keep it a maze.

And, tell me, how can anyone who has written the millions of words you have not be a writer? I’ll let you away with ‘I’m not a writer first and foremost’ but it’s plain stupid to say you’re not a writer.

Art Durkee said...

I was being sarcastic, or tart, or sardonic, I guess. Sorry for doing that outside of any context.

I guess I was being tart, since I've been under attack from other directions, other self-declared Writers and Poets lately, for saying what I know to be true for myself, and perhaps for some others as well: that not conforming to their standards and expectations doesn't make my creative work of any lesser value. The whole inner compass thing I've written about before.

It's also perhaps true that, because I don't put writing as my default response to life, that I'm not a Writer by some standards: that is, it's not my default response to events to want to write about them. At least, not very often. I respect that for many writers that IS their default response, and I think that's terrific. This is an arena, though, in which I find myself not going with the pack. You know? I love the fact that many of the comments you've gotten here are along the lines that the blank page doesn't terrify—which breaks right through some stereotypes and ideas about writers and writing.

Jim Murdoch said...

What comes out of this for me, Art, is the feeling that we're expected to pick one thing to be and although there are those who a predominately writers that isn't the case. The appellation 'singer-songwriter' is one that garners respect. No one says you have to be one or the other.

I think of you predominately as a writer because that's what I see the most of and because of the sheer quantity of words. Words obviously come very naturally to you.

Ken Armstrong said...

What does Jim fear?

(This is obviously a rhetorical comment and should be treated as such) :)

Jim Murdoch said...

To be honest, Ken, I actually had a phobiaectomy about five weeks ago which was after I wrote this post. And I’m being totally serious when I say that but that’s all the answer you’re going to get. Suffice to say I am now phobia free.

Art Durkee said...

Thanks for that.

Although to be honest it's because words DO come easily to me that I don't always trust them. I've never had a problem with writing—except that there are moments and events in life that simply are unspeakable, unavailable to be described or conveyed in word, and when silence is best. I trust those moments when words fail a great deal, actually, because I DO have access them as silence, as music, as visual art.

Some Poet once tried to convince me that poetry is the highest artform available to us (as though it were a competition), because words are so abstract. I shot down his argument, though, by pointing out that there are artforms far more abstract than words, because they are wordless, and directly connected to the emotional life. I mentioned music, I mentioned dance.

Of course, this was the same Poet who has been trying to shoot me down lately because I disagreed with him about some other things. It's a ridiculous dispute, really, because "highest" is such a ridiculous term when comparing artforms.

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