Mar 23, 2007

Facing the Blank Page

by Heather Horrocks

Today I’m offering a mish-mash of writing-(and blank-page)-related musings.

First is a quote, attributed to Nora Roberts: I can fix a bad page, but I can’t fix a blank page. Even Nora, who writes three million books a year, can’t fix a blank page. That’s why she immediately and prolifically fills them up with words.

None of us can fix a blank page. That’s why, if you’re a writer, you need to fill your blank page with words, too.

What keeps writers from doing so? Part of the problem is we’re so conscious that our words are not perfect. One of the most freeing concepts I’ve learned about writing is that first drafts are supposed to be bad. That’s the whole point of them. You write a crappy first draft, then improve on it and keep polishing until it’s a final draft.

Anne Lamott tells a story in Bird by Bird about her first drafts being "so long and incoherent and hideous that for the rest of the day I'd obsess about getting creamed by a car before I could write a decent second draft. I'd worry that people would read what I'd written and believe that the accident had really been a suicide, that I had panicked because my talent was waning and my mind was shot." That’s how bad our first drafts are supposed to be. Something that we don’t want to show anybody else on earth.

Puke green dreck is what one writer called her first draft pages. But without a crappy first draft, your pages are blank. Sad, pathetic little blank pages with no meaning. Life without meaning. Blank pages without meaning. Writing without words doesn’t work well.

But then, after you have your crappy first draft, you have something to fix. How exciting!

And that’s what I’m pondering today. The blank page. The page that scares us away from the computer (or the pen) because it will be so very hard to cover with perfect words. Doesn’t that blank page seem to grow larger and scarier the longer we avoid it? And then, after awhile of not tackling it, suddenly we take it on--and find it’s not so tough, after all. That’s the magic of writing--when you’re actually writing, you come up with the answers you need to make the writing better. When you’re just thinking about writing, you don’t.

When you’re feeling afraid, remember what Robert Cormier said: "The beautiful part of writing is that you don't have to get it right the first time, unlike, say, a brain surgeon. You can always do it better, find the exact word, the apt phrase, the leaping simile." We’re not brain surgeons! Our first drafts don’t have to be perfect! In fact, they won’t be. We write crappy first drafts, and how freeing that concept is!

One of my favorite writing books of all time is by Richard Walter, Professor and Screenwriting Faculty Chairman of UCLA (at least at the time the book was published in 1988) entitled SCREENWRITING: The Art, Craft and Business of Film and Television Writing. He tells a wonderful story of (yes, you guessed it -- blank pages : ).

Okay, here’s the direct quote from Richard Walter’s book: The story is told of director Frank Capra, who was asked in an interview to explain precisely how he achieved that special quality known as "the Capra touch." For page after page he rambled on about this technique and that one. At great length he discussed how he had lent "the touch" to this film and to that one. And in all of these pages nowhere was mentioned Robert Riskin, who had merely written the films. The day after the interview appeared in the press, there arrived at Capra’s office a script-sized envelope. Inside was a document very closely resembling a screenplay: a front cover, a back cover, and one hundred and ten pages. But the cover and pages were all blank. Clipped to the "script" was a note to Capra from Robert Riskin. It read: "Dear Frank, put the ‘Capra touch’ on this!"

Isn’t that a great story? We can put our special touch on our blank pages, turning them from blank to powerful, with a few stops in between colored drecky green.

Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen) wrote a story called The Blank Page (to read it, go to "Who then," she continues, "tells a finer tale than any of us? Silence does. And where does one read a deeper tale than upon the most perfectly printed page of the most precious book? Upon the blank page."

A visit to will bring you this tidbit: In former times printed manuals had some blank pages, usually with the remark "this page intentionally left blank". In most cases there had been technical reasons for that. Today almost all blank pages disappeared and if some still exist here and there, they present flatterly comments like "for your notes" instead of the real truth: This page intentionally left blank!

Blank pages. Do you intentionally leave your blank pages blank? Or do your fears keep you from putting your stamp on your blank pages?

The blank page. Don’t let it stay that way for too long, or it will get far too scary.

Take out a blank page and look at it. One simple white blank page. Not so scary, is it?

Now, today . . . fill it with words. And smile.


  1. Thanks for the reminder, Heather. I had time to write today...and I did write a paragraph or two, then found many reasons to walk away from the page...just so that I didn't have to face my fear(s). Hmmm...I'll have to think about that for awhile.

  2. I love your postings, Heather. I always feel that writing is the perfect example of the miracle after the expression of faith. To me, there is no greater act of faith than sitting down at the computer and actually beginning to write. The touching of fingers to keys is faith in action, and I always find that when I assume that position, ideas stream. It always surprises me, and I wonder if I will ever reach the point where I'm not surprised.


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