6. Conquering the blank page.
WHY SO SCARY?
In varying degrees we can all occasionally baulk at it. Or at least be given pause to reflect. There’s a bunch of psychology going on with this. And like everything in this relative universe, context is key.
But the phenomenon is real enough to have become a cliche and can strike the professional and amateur alike.
So why am I banging on about this glass half empty view at all? Surely this is just perpetuating the issue by focussing on it?
Well actually, naming something and looking at it – seeing it for what it is – is the best way to dissipate its power. It’s the unnamed, unseen fear skulking in the shadows that has the greatest power to make us freeze in our tracks.
So let’s thrash this out for good.
The fact is that insecurity is an ever-present threat exactly because it is fundamental to the creative mindset – as fear is fundamental to survival on planet earth – a natural part of our survival instinct. For the creative mind our critical faculties are part of our standards and so vital to the process. It’s good fear, if you like. There’s even a word for it; EUSTRESS.
Eu- being a greek prefix for well, or health, (like in the word euphoria) and -stress, relating to emotional strain. So eustress, or good stress, keeps your critical faculties and emotional sensitivities on line. So with the right standards and sensitivities present and correct you’re properly ready to get down to it.
Like many issues the root of the problem is simply something natural and useful that has gotten a tad out of balance. Phobias are just that. For instance, it’s perfectly natural and healthy to fear heights as falling from them can cause injury or death. However, when you’re unable to cross a bridge in your car because you’re paralysed by vertigo then your fear has become counter-productive.
So lets look at what can happen in those moments of often unrealised or unconscious dread that can manifest in less than obvious cop-out routines.
One of the most common is trying to create the perfect atmosphere in which to work. Prefix all of the following with, “I can’t possibly set to work…without a quiet, well lit work space…without peace and quiet – free from the interference of radios, roadworks, colleagues, kids, cats… without the right amount of time available…without the presence of lucky socks, pens, printer cartridges, the right shade of white A4 Conquerer, 100 gsm.
On another tack, there’s a whole raft of less writing-related excuses. Things that must be achieved before enjoying the luxury of getting donw to the act. eg. “I can’t possibly sit down to write something before… taking out the trash… taking the dog for a walk… finishing my emails… catching up on my social media… fixing that dripping tap… creosoting the fence… building a small model of the houses of parliament in matchsticks… you get the idea.
For all the prerequisites we gain respite.
At the root of the avoidance any number of subconscious concerns may bring their nebulous anxiety to bear.
One major fear symbolised by the blank page has its roots in that it binds us to all of those that have conquered its implacable blank stare before us.
“To be or not to be”, hangs in the air above the clear white space.
And not just because the moment is a perfect reflection of that ultimate ultimatum, coined by the immortal Bard. His challenge taunts us to either step up and take a swing – risking failure, ergo artistic death, or remain inert and impotent – risking artistic death of a worse kind. Like a shark must swim to live so a writer must write (or any kind of creator must create).
The line is as good a symbol as any of the legacy of literature. Or any creative act that has gone before that seems to exemplify unattainable artistic perfection.
We may begin to sense the corporeality of the phantasms of long dead giants of literature, art and music – their spectres gathering in phospherescent glare of our laptop screens. The mothers and fathers of all the greatness that has ever been put down in words or pictures or musical notation. Their silent, eloquence, patiently damning and deafening, so we can’t even hear ourselves think.us
“Come on dear thing”, they emit. “We’re waiting.” No? Got nothing? Don’t worry, we can wait. An hour? A day? A millenia… enia… enia…
That unifying moment forcing us to rub shoulders with those who have achieved immortality via the same blank page, canvas, or stave, can leave us entirely unable to muster anything we might consider worthy. Given the ranks of creative genius looming over us, how could we?
Perhaps worse still, if you look really closely with your mind’s eye, is the presence of an all too familiar figure skulking among your creative heroes. A mealy-mouthed mirror-image Judas… YOURSELF! The most supercilious judge of all.
Because even if you aren’t competing with Shakespeare in your head, you’ll be there to point out plenty random unattributed material in your own memories. Material that seemed so clear and concise. So well reasoned. With a turn of phrase as jaunty as a tinker’s cap. Each and very example more competent than anything you’re likely to achieve. And you can and will go on like this ad infinitum if that’s your particular cop out.
So whether it’s a micro-second or a month before we commit, we remain in the limbo of no man’s land between inaction and action, between life or living death, before we simply move.
UNFETTER YOURSELF. LOWER YOUR STANDARDS.
Surely everyone knows that the notion of a great creative act springing forth in a flash of inspiration is total baloney. An urban myth. As much of an illusion as the retouched pictures on the covers of glossy magazines.
Nobody sits down and writes something great from the get go. Perhaps we realise logically that greatness is more evolution than revolution. But, of course, emotions are not bound by logic.
THERE AIN’T NOTHING TO IT BUT TO DO IT.
As you write more regularly, leaping past that moment of critical self-reflection becomes habit. My personal talisman to combat block is a three word ritual, “We open on…” A icebreaker no different to the English classroom prompt, ‘It was a dark and stormy night’.
And, magically, once I’ve started writing I’m away. Any muse will do – it’s job simply to get you past the first few words to get the motor skills running.
Deferring to an habitual act is a tried and tested remedy to all sorts of potentially overwhelming, pressured situations. The military puts great stock in repetitive training so that when the time comes one responds like an automaton – reacting to stimulus that simply triggers a reaction.
The same psychology is at work in Karate in the Kata forms that act out the moves of imagined fight sequences so that when a realtime altercation explodes around us, muscle memory alone may carry us through.
Your habitual opening phrase can do the same. For art directors the equivalent might be drawing a border on your A3 pad.
“The key to the journey to greatness is not trying to be great in every step.”
It’s worth reminding yourself that it’s the sum of the journey that reaches greatness – your individual steps are humble servants of a greater prize. It’s your will and ambition to press on that carries you beyond your previous best. That’s how greatness is gained – not in the giant leap, but step by step. In the repetitive polish. Wax on, wax off.
Set your sights on the summit only to check your overall ambition. Then turn your attention to the path ahead.
This approach may seem less paved with glory but it’s also less of a leap – so less intimidating.
When Donny Osmond – the seventies teen idol – was having an artistic crisis later in his career, his wife saved him from himself. He had peaked so early in conquering america with his brothers, in their group The Osmonds, but at grand old age of thirty something – Donny, who had clocked up thousands of hours of live performance in concert and on television, found himself was having real trouble even making it back up on stage.
His wife saved him by telling him to stop reaching for the stars too literally. She suggested he didn’t go out there to do a great concert. Just to get up and do average. As counterintuitive as it seems it got him back on stage. At least then he had something to build upon.
It may not be an auspicious example but I believe the psychology is the same for all of us.
There is a process to be adhered to. A progression from OK, to better, to best – that never comes.
Where you start is the first step in a journey that goes around and around in circles – so much that the original path becomes entirely obscured. So the trick isn’t to write something great, or good, or even average. And judgements don’t help up front. Start with something clear or unclear. But just start. And don’t try to order things up front either. That can stop you before you go more than a few steps. Reserve judgement till later. Edit later.
Let the mind meander as it chooses. It may well find paths that will lead to the gold your looking for. After all your mind is more familiar with its neural pathways than you are. Let it wander – make associations – branch off, it may surprise you how much it knows where its going without you consciously controlling its path. Before you know it you may find you have all the materials you need to build your palace after all.
What’s more. When you put something down quickly, without thinking too hard, it tends to be more natural and flowing. It may not be as technically proficient – as our spoken vocabulary generally isn’t – but often what flows outward has a flow s you read it. You can decide in the rewrites whether you want to change the tone to something less conversational.
Importantly, though, you haven’t interfered with the flow of ideas, which is paramount; as the mind moves a great deal faster than the body.
Typing or scribbling across a page with a pen (if there are any of you that still practise such an archaic craft), is always going to be playing catchup with the agile mind – that generally dances across the mind-scape like a sprite leading a band of pack-laden dwarves across rocky terrain.
Get your thoughts down as familiar or far flung as they may be – and then and only then start thinking about how to order your thinking.
The mind is a natural pattern finder – ever on the lookout for rhyme and reason – connections and contradictions, similarities, similes, and all the other wondrous means of spinning a yarn with the threads you’ve thrown down.
So follow your nose and let trust and faith do their part – with your logic bringing up the rear. For the conceptual creative there’s nothing better than the wall of ascension.
Let go your computers. Prize your fingers from your keyboards and mice and tablet pens.
Come on, force yourself. Scribble out your ideas on bits of paper and put them on a wall. All the really dumb stuff. Don’t be shy. Really. Don’t worry about the quality. Then sit and stare at them. Don’t think too hard. Give your unconscious a chance. Stare like a goon. After a little while something magical will happen. You’ll have another thought. Scribble that down. Stick that up and repeat.
Before you know it, other ideas will begin to populate the space. Soon connections will emerge connecting your thoughts. Or perhaps a new angle will form by combining them in a new way – then an entirely new raft of ideas will form.
Then you can move some of the earlier thoughts down to the bottom of the space and put some of the better ones a little higher up.
Through this process of distillation and cross-fertilisation your ideas will ascend to heights you would not have imagined possible of your first few scribblings.
This works for all sorts of mediums from ad campaigns to website design, storyboarding to sketching out experiential customer journeys.
It’s an amazingly simple yet effective process.
Or if you don’t have a wall available, use the floor. If that isn’t possible you’ll have to stick to the micro-version on your computer screen or pad.
The most important thing is to let your mind make leaps in every direction, unrestricted by what’s gone before.
This liberates you from having to come up with ideas that are immediately relevant in a linear fashion. As so often the relevance of the conclusions our mind jumps to are only clear when you’ve followed your new train of thought down the tracks a little.
Wisdom is often only really appreciated in retrospect.
On that note I will leave you safe in the knowledge that what I say may not make complete sense right away. Give it time. Rest assured, at some point, it will.
It seems fitting to end on a line that was a reworking of another. Dan Wieden’s adaption of killer, Gary Gilmore’s final word’s “Let’s do it”.
Thanks for reading.
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