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How to overcome fear of the blank page

Writing is scary. It puts our thoughts out into the world, exposing them to judgment and criticism, if not by others then — and often more harshly — by ourselves. It’s no wonder, then, that author and essayist Cynthia Ozick defined writing as “an act of courage,” and writer E. B. White said he admired anyone “who has the guts to write anything at all.” Hesitation about writing is not limited to amateurs; even professional writers experience fear of the blank page, and many have offered advice on how to transcend it. Read on for their tips!


Just start.

Perhaps the most common writing advice from successful writers is to stop waiting for inspiration to strike and just start. This will sometimes mean beginning before we know exactly what we want to say, and it’ll sometimes mean writing badly. In his book Writing Without Teachers, English professor and writing theorist Peter Elbow suggests that the conventional view of writing as “a two-step transaction of meaning-into-language” overlooks its exploratory role in helping us discover what we really want to say; as he put it, we should think of writing “not as a way to transmit a message but as a way to grow and cook a message.” Elbow is a pioneer and advocate of freewriting, which is just what it sounds like: the practice of writing freely and unselfconsciously without editing or self-censorship. As he writes, “trying to get the beginning just right is a formula for failure — and probably a secret tactic to make yourself give up writing.”


If you want to start writing, then, don’t postpone it until you’ve figured out exactly what you want to say, and don’t chase perfection. Our clumsy, tentative first sentences and pages will often be deleted at the editing stage, but we shouldn’t think of them as wasted effort; even if it doesn’t produce usable content, the act of writing aids and clarifies thinking, forcing us to articulate and refine ideas that may have been simmering, half-cooked, on the backburner of our thought. As novelist Jennifer Egan put it, “One should accept bad writing as a way of priming the pump, a warm-up exercise that allows you to write well.”


Make writing a daily practice.

Routine can seem like a ball and chain that stifles creativity, locking us into a repetitive loop of familiar people and places and closing off opportunities for spontaneity and surprise. But many of history’s most creative geniuses are known for their almost ritualistic adherence to their strict daily routines. Novelist Anthony Trollope famously wrote three thousand words every morning before heading off to his job at the post office; if he finished a book before reaching his daily word quota, he’d immediately start a new one. Author Haruki Murakami has described his strict routine as “a form of mesmerism” that allows him to reach a deeper state of consciousness. And writer Henry James cited rigid self-discipline and order as prerequisites for creativity and inspiration: “I know that to sustain these true moments of insight, one has to be highly disciplined, lead a disciplined life.” This interactive infographic visualizes the daily routines of some of the world’s most original artists, writers, and musicians, based on Mason Currey’s book Daily Rituals.


Fans of routine suggest that structure increases focus and productivity by automating small decisions that would otherwise take up a share of our finite mental energy. It also keeps us from falling into the trap of procrastination or indefinite postponement as we wait for some lightning bolt flash of inspiration, and it keeps ideas fresh in our minds, making it easier to return to them each day. Carving out time for regular creative work means that ideas stay humming in the background of our thought, where psychologists suggest they continue to develop without our conscious awareness or effort. Anecdotal accounts of creative insight often emphasize this period of subconscious development or creative incubation and the importance of regular work in facilitating it. As writer Gretchen Rubin puts it, “When you work regularly, inspiration strikes regularly.”


Get inspired.

All that said, it’s sometimes important to break out of our familiar and comfortable routines to experience new people and places. Research shows that creativity is linked to novelty and, more specifically, to a person’s drive to discover and explore new things — so much so that psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman and writer Carolyn Gregoire have called openness to new experiences “the single strongest and most consistent personality trait that predicts creative achievement.” While there’s a dispositional component to openness — you might recognize it as one of the big five personality traits — studies show it’s also something we can cultivate intentionally, by seeking out new experiences and adopting an open-minded, exploratory attitude toward unfamiliar and potentially challenging ideas. Studies with children, for example, show that when kids engage with creative content or simply watch others be highly creative, they become more creative themselves. Creativity springs from interactions between a person and their environment, and new experiences provide us with new fodder and inspiration for creative expression. As poet and activist Muriel Rukeyser put it, “Breathe in experience, breathe out poetry.”

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