Sunday, April 11, 2010

Blank Page Paralysis

"Be intent on your actions, and only your actions; never allow yourself  to be motivated by the fruits of your actions, or fall into laziness."  (The Bhagavad Gita, 2:47)  This could be a writer's mantra.  "Write.  Write for the sake of writing.  Don't stop."

Last night a friend called.  He had to prepare a speech, and didn't know where to start.  Funny thing is, he'd already gotten a good start:  he'd figured out what form it would take and what it would be about.

But he didn't know where to start.  It sounds silly when I put it that way, but most of us have been in the same position.  It's blank page paralysis.  The page insists on staying blank even though we have thoughts to spew over it.

I advised him to "just start writing."  Where you start writing doesn't have to end up as the beginning of what you're writing.  It doesn't have to show up at all in the finished product.  But you have to get off the dime.

When you begin a novel, does the first line you write always end up as the first line of your finished work?  Of course not.  It doesn't even work that way for something as informal as an email to a friend, for heaven's sake, so why should a novel or a speech be any different.

My friend is a good writer, and I mean both that he writes well (he sits down and produces output, not stopping until he's good and ready), and that his output is well thought-out, readable and entertaining.  He'll do fine.

Part of being a good writer is skill, and the rest is discipline.  Notice I said skill, and not talentTalent is a loaded term -- too many people think you're born with (or without) talent, so they won't work at it to develop it.  Defeatists.  A skill, on the other hand, is something you practice or go to trade-school for.  Anyone can develop a skill.  And anyone can write (well) if they are willing to work at it.  (Some people need a great deal of work indeed.)  You need the discipline to develop that skill and not slack off.  Then you need your discipline again to carry you the rest of the way:  to use and hone your skill on a consistent basis so that you get the work done.

To come back to the quote at the start of this post, you should do something for the doing of it, not for any expected results.  The hoped-for results may or may not appear.  If they don't, and you were banking on them, then you wasted your effort.  If, however, you were doing for the doing, writing for the sake of the writing, then nothing was wasted.  If pleasant results spring from your writing, so much the better.  The fact that you're focusing on the writing rather than getting published (or giving the speech) can only make the writing better.

If you're stuck on a writing project and don't know where to go, working on another project might be a good solution.  If you're stuck on a writing project and you know exactly where to go, then start.  Start anywhere.  You can always come back later to tweak, smooth, hammer, and slice -- you always do, right?

My guess is he's already over his crisis, but does anyone have any further advice for my friend?


  1. When writing, I usually play scenes over and over in my mind before trying to type them into the computer. With a speech, I visualize what I'd like to say followed by listing bullet points of important information I need to convey to my audience. Then I organize the points for flow and add examples or little stories to illustrate each point. After that, I write, usually on index cards. It's always worked for me. That being said, I agree with your recommendation to just write. Once you get into it, good stuff will start to flow.

  2. I totally agree with your bullet-point approach. I think he already had that in his back pocket, but was stumped by "how to start." Nerves, maybe.

  3. I've heard it said you should always start a speech with something witty. I guess it depends on the topic.

  4. Hi John-

    I hope your friend's speech went well.

    I really enjoyed your post, especially the part about skill and discipline vs. talent. It gives those of us hope who are not aspiring writers, but have occasional shades of brilliance when deeply inspired by a topic. Thanks for that.

  5. The speech hasn't been given yet, and he's working on the wit part now. It's Tyler / TBiz: he's one of four finalists for Valedictorian at his college. He needs to turn-in the first half of his proposed speech, and then he'll go through an interview before they make the final selection in a week and a half. We're excited and keeping our fingers crossed!

    Dale -- thank YOU. Most of the things (well, the general things, anyway) that writers talk about for helping them get where they're going with their writing apply to all of life. And vice-versa. Sometimes you have to change a word or two, sometimes you don't.

    These saying apply to writing:
    A journey begins with a single step. Anything worth doing is worth doing well. Invention is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. Just showing up is half the battle.

    They also apply to college, redecorating the house,
    improving your outlook on life, losing weight, etc.

  6. Congratulations to Tyler for being a Valedictorian finalist!! That's a great accomplishment and I'm sure you're a proud Papa!

    I couldn't agree with you more about the general life applications of getting started and moving forward. (Although sometimes the path is quite winding and the outcome unknown...hence the journey).

  7. Now that I know the topic of the speech I think TBiz should start out....I would not be here today if not for the love and support of my parents who encouraged me to work hard and always do my best.

  8. Oh...and good luck to TBiz! I'll keep my fingers crossed. (Not that he needs luck, but it can't hurt!)

  9. Hi John-

    Was just curious, if you don't mind divulging what Tbiz majored in? I'm guessing Software Engineering, English Lit, Journalism, Business/Finance,Math/Physics, Neuroscience...did I hit on anything close? There are so many new majors and options for college students today. I recently heard of someone majoring in How to be an Entrepreneur.

  10. Guess it's time I jumped in on this and spoke for myself!

    Wendy: Thanks! And while that line suggestion of yours is certainly true, I didn't want to focus on myself. I am speaking for my entire class after all. Besides, there are some things that don't need to be said!

    Dale: Your suggestions crack me up, particularily since many of them are things I HHHAAATTTEEE(math/physics, I'm looking at you). Closest you got was Software Engineering. My major is Computer Science, though my minor, focus, and true interest is Entertainment Technology. I am going either design video games, or teach others how to do so(give me a few more years and couple higher degrees first!). You COULD have just checked my blog, should have answred the question quickly, though actually I suppose that might not have hit you if you didn't know you could major in Entrepreneuring(that's a HUGE program at my school, so I tend to forget others don't know about it). If you want to hear some of the new weird majors, try these out for size: Outdoor Adventure Leadership, Digital Art and Management, and Sustainibility (I even mention that one in my speech). These are offered by my school as part of their Interdisciplinary Studies Program. Bunch of nutters(to me anyway).

  11. Tbiz, thanks for the info! Since I'm twice your age and haven't looked at a college curriculum catalog in many years, these new majors are news to me...and I don't think they're weird. Does that say something about me?

    Computer Science was actually the first thing I thought of, but that seemed just too obvious. And I did check out your blog and gleaned that you are deep into video games, a cat lover, and your astrological sign is Libra- you have good critical thinking skills with good impartial judgement and have an artistic mind (though not avant garde). You are on the whole balanced and even tempered but are impatient with criticism and don't like to be a slave to fashion. How accurate is that?

    Just to share something about me, my favorite pinball machine was The Adam's Family (loved the music) and favorite video games were Pac Man, NBA Jam and Pong. Can you relate?!

    Entertainment Technology sounds like a great field with a huge ever growing and evolving audience of all ages. Good luck to you and hope your speech is coming along well. Happy early Graduation!

  12. Thanks, Dale. And perhaps the most obvious answer is the best?

    I've never been into sports games, was terrible at Pac Man, and me and my friends talk about Pong in the same way scientists talk about the Big Bang. So not much relating, though I do love the Adam's Family show, but I kinda came around after pinball.

    I like your list of "traits" you picked out. The only one I'm unsure of the the impatient with criticism one. Where do you get that from? I'm trying to think about myself, and I'm not sure. Maybe Dad can help us out.

  13. I figured that sprang from your being a Libra, but no, I don't see that as accurate.