Writers young and old know the many different types of writer’s block intimately. They’ve had long dinners with indifference blocks, stayed up late on the phone mediating arguments between frustrated and overwhelmed blocks. Maybe (probably) they attended the wedding of lazy and bored block. Let me go on record saying it was a beautiful wedding—everyone wore sweatpants and microwave lasagna was served, but I didn’t feel so good after. A blank page is a shifty emotional detonator; sometimes it goes off with a bang, while others you are left waiting for a boom that never comes.
As I thought about my future as an English educator, I started dreaming my insecurities as a writer stuck out like bright red warning flags all over my body. My future students would see them and say, “how are you going to teach us about writing when you are hardly a writer yourself (my students are also demonic and inhuman in these dreams, so bear with me)?” The problem, though, is I thought all these things made me less of a writer instead of more of one.
When I was first discovering my identity as a writer, I spent a vast majority of the process in the planning stage. I think back to many long days and nights, and a reel plays before me of my own most brutal moments of writer’s block: going weeks with minimal progress, feeling accomplished after jotting down a small idea in my notes that I’d never return to. I could outline the ‘perfect’ story, essay, or article, but when it came time to draft, I froze. Anne Lammott said herself, “Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people.” (Lamott, 1997) I held my ideas like precious gems that should be acknowledged in quick moments of polishing just before returning quickly to a dark velvet box. All my focus was on speaking eloquently—I was trying to create a work ready for publication instead of a first draft. Other writers must know the feeling of having an idea they love, but are paralyzed as they hold it over a blank page: what if we fall short in conveying its beauty to our audience? Just because we are inspired people does not mean we are inspired writers. I could publish collections, books, even entire anthologies of all the work I wanted to write. The article you are reading now started with a very daunting blank page.
In these moments of extreme mental gridlock, it is incredibly helpful to turn to other writers, if not for inspiration than for empathy. Writers and artists all share this inherent struggle in the creative process. Among us all, we can find solutions and (temporary) solace. Writers block is inevitable, but turning to others for help can keep us from stopping altogether, from only ever saving our ideas in velvet boxes.
As I wrote this article and thought of all the ways I could tie in my own experiences with overcoming a blank page—nay—conquering the blank page, I thought immediately of my dear friend and fellow writer Will Walton. We first met as coworkers at Avid Bookshop—spending afternoons together alphabetizing shelves and talking about any and everything, but especially writing. Almost four years later, here we are face to face on Zoom from our quarantine locations.
Walton published his debut novel, Anything Can Happen, in 2015 with Scholastic. Shortly after, in 2018, his second book I Felt a Funeral, In My Brain was released. He is now a graduate student in the Creative Writing program at New York University. His professors thus far have included writers such as Joyce Carol Oates and Anne Carson.
I know the purpose of this call with Will is to talk about writer’s block, both how to overcome it and how it manifests, but we are so excited to see each other safe and healthy, we spend the first few minutes catching up.
GW: How was my cat niece on the flight home from Brooklyn?
WW: Olive did so well! You would have been so proud. Also, I gave myself a haircut today.
Will is one of the most active writers I know—one of many reasons I envy him. I asked him to tell me about his earliest memories as a writer, and he took me to a moment in high school, “The first thing I wrote was for my friend. So, I knew it was going to have an immediate audience. It was meant to be a gift for him.”
Writers so often find inspiration and ambition in writing for an immediate audience. My pen pal and I have months of effortless correspondence to prove this. He went on to explain, “I was just very excited to be writing, so I had little inhibition. I didn’t have a lot of trepidation about it. Then I got older—that excitement sort of lasted through my first book, because I was going to prove to myself I could write the book and that all felt very important…It was with my second book when I had a readership and a deadline, and there was money involved. That was weird.”
That horrible, fear inducing word: deadline. Why is it that when we have an immediate audience, ideas come more naturally? Talking to a friend like Will, for example. I came into the interview with one question in mind, and yet our conversation covered so much more. Having a question to push off of, or something pressing to share, makes it easier to dive into the writing process. We want our words to have a sense of urgency and purpose in being communicated. So how can writers find things worth saying when they don’t feel inspired?
Walton started describing the process of writing his second novel in more depth, saying, “It got to a point (with my second book) where the anxiety was so bad just firing up my word document was hard. I was doing weird stuff with my margins, trying to control everything. What I ended up doing was just moving back into a notebook and writing free-hand, not putting a lot of pressure on myself to revise there.”
This brought to mind Lamott’s famous words on “Shitty First Drafts.” (Lamott, 1997) Sometimes, the best way to be a writer is…to just write. When sitting before a blank page, it isn’t necessary to know everything you want to fill it with; that is the purpose of writing to think, which is exactly what led to such a successful second book from Walton. His writer’s notebook contained, “stuff that even exists as it is in the book,” he says, ” I did revise the book; I tried to keep it pretty loose feeling so it would be a representation of the process of getting a handle on something that was hard to do, like losing a loved one.”
When we write to think, we give the blank page an opportunity to bring into existence its own life, to evolve and take shape in an authentic way. Viewing the writing process as a means of thinking subtracts the pressure to be perfect; thoughts do not always come out fully formed and ready to exist on their own. Writing must reflect this, Walton goes on, “Recently the author Shelia Heti talked about this. She started doing screenshots of her drafts when she was writing in a word document. Because she was realizing her anxiety pushed her to over-revise, so she would lose a lot of the electricity that would come out of her original drafts. She would lose the wildness; she said we often tried too hard as writers to tame our stories.”
Like all great writers, Will took the advice of a fellow writer, and he now has a ton of screenshots on his desktop of verses, drafts, and words he likes. Writer’s block and the fear of the blank page is, more often than not, caused by a fear of failure: a universally understood phobia. Anne Lamott, in a similar fashion, uses a one-inch picture frame. On days when she finds getting started particularly hard, she uses her one-inch picture frame to try and find a one-inch part of her story to tell.
Walton says, “most people in general who deal with inner criticism—writers, artists—have this tendency to over-revise.” Taking the pressure off the writing process, even when deadlines are steady pressing back, can lead to more fulfilling and thought-provoking work.
In The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron assigns ‘morning pages,’ Walton explains, “Every morning you wake up and write morning pages (Cameron, 2020) before you start working on whatever your project is. The morning pages are just whatever is in your brain from the time you wake up to the time you are more awake, or are ready to start your day.” So, recording one’s thoughts at their most vulnerable and fresh, reveals “something kind of cool that happens with your brain right when you wake up.”
Finding times in the day to write when your brain is doing something exceptional, when you’re in a different state, also strips away a lot of the pressure in filling a blank page. Those words speak to other experiences we have throughout the day. If one writes from that place, later on they can reach back into it and pull out language and ideas for future use.
Through open dialogue with a fellow writer, I found a few ways we, as writers, can work against the pressure of perfection and the death-grip of writer’s block:
- Write a friend. Explaining to someone close to you who understands the struggles of getting started allows a community of writers to share what works for them, but it also gets your pen moving on the page.
- Focus on something small (i.e. a screenshot, a 1” frame) Maybe these tiny pieces will one day fill holes in our larger pieces. Or combine into something all their own.
- Find times to write when your mind is at it’s most supple and off-guard
Rome was not built in a day, and War and Peace was not written in one either. As a matter of fact, like all books, it started first with a blank page and a will to write.