HOW TO DEFEAT THE TERROR OF THE BLANK PAGE
Or The Art Of Perseverance In Creative Writing
The blank page can terrify.
It mutely demands of you as a writer to commit to the page. Sometimes, the stream is clear, the ideas are bright and the will is strong and so the commitment is easily fulfilled. But there will be times when the stream is murky, the ideas misshapen, and the will is most unwilling. Will you postpone? Will you soothe your conscience by saying, well its only one day that I am not writing and I can always catch up the next day and what is the big deal if I don’t write anything today.
How on earth does one get the strength to persist? To endure? To persevere?
I turn to James Joyce.
8 Years To Create A Masterpiece
James Joyce wrote the most difficult book in all of literature, Finnegan’s wake. It is one of those books that has challenged even the best and brightest of literary scholars. It is a book that he wrote right after he finished a masterpiece that is just as difficult to grasp but at least you are able to understand the prose. That book is Ulysses. It chronicles the life of one Leopold Bloom in the course of an ordinary day, 16 June 1904, in Dublin. It was inspired by Homer’s epic poem Odysseus, and there are many parallels between the novel and the epic poem. The novel is highly allusive and also imitates the styles of different periods of English literature. This means that James Joyce had to acquire a mastery of form and language. Back then no one had ever read a book like Ulysses. It broke all kinds of rules and even invented what is now known as the stream of consciousness style of writing to explore the psychology of the characters. Not only did James Joyce have a total grasp of the English language, but he also bent it into new forms and ushered in the era of modern storytelling.
It only took him eight years.
A Bacterium Could Not Hold Joyce Down
I had finished reading a book titled — The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses — by Kevin Birmingham. It was an informative and exhilarating read that chronicles how the censors tried to kill the book because of alleged obscenities and the few ardent supporters who kept the book alive. Not much has changed since then when it comes to what authorities and artists perceive to be obscene. The fear of the written word, and the filmed narrative, to severely affect the morals of the audience, is still a contentious topic between artists and authorities, although compared to the past, there is a bit more allowance. In the past, you’d be hung, but I guess now, there is more room given in the noose before it is tightened.
The persecution and the efforts to quell the publication was itself fascinating to read, but what struck me was knowing what James Joyce suffered throughout the writing of his novel. He had glaucoma. An affliction of the eye. Pus was building up in his eyeballs because they were infected by a bacterium known as treponema pallidum.
Otherwise known as syphilis.
James Joyce was going blind because of syphilis.
He put off going for an eye operation known as an Iridectomy. And reading the description gave you an idea why.
“He had to be medicated with atropine and cocaine before the blepharostats pried his eyelids open. The surgeon held Joyce’s eyeball with fixation forceps so that his eye, riveted in the surgical light, watched the blade advancing like a bayonet. The cornea resisted for a moment before the blade pierced the surface and slid into the eye’s anterior chamber. “
Excerpt from The Most Dangerous Book
Is it any wonder Joyce dreaded a visit to the surgeon? James Joyce could barely see after the operation. He had a nervous breakdown, haunted by the prospect of a life spent groping for scraps of paper like an old man.
But yet he toiled.
Many times he had to peer closely at children’s books with large fonts just to reassure himself that he was not going blind.
But yet he toiled.
And he wrote.
And he labored on Ulysses.
Setting Limits To Help You Improve Your Discipline
We are all desperate for ways to improve the quality of our lives, be it in the areas of work, relationships, and finance. For me, I am a sucker for literature that informs me of the most efficient ways to improve one’s creative output. One of the books I thought was useful was Greg McKeown's Effortless. In that book, he talked about setting upper and lower limits of production. For example, normally, I would set a goal to write 10 pages a day when I am working on a television script. McKeown recommends that you set 10 as an upper limit and perhaps 3 as a lower limit. That way, when you have a bad day, or just one of those days when the spirit is not willing, you can still aim for 3 pages. I have found this practice to be very useful as a way to improve one’s discipline. You are not intimidated by the notion that you have an impossible summit to climb each day. You can count on a good day’s worth of accomplishment by simply advancing a certain shorter distance. On a good day, I will go beyond 10 pages. But I would always ensure that I adhere to the lower limit of 3 pages a day. If I am writing an article, I would commit to 1000 words as an upper limit, and 200 as a lower. Seasons can come and go, but I will commit my 200 words on paper.
An Artist’s Takeaway
Malcolm Gladwell, the bestselling author of The Tipping Point and one of my favorite writers in New Yorker magazine, popularized the notion of 10,000 hours of practice. Basic idea is this. To achieve a level of competence, you have to put in your 10,000 hours of practice.
Put aside the number of hours. The key word here is practice. For the mastery of any craft, practice is inevitable. If you wish to be a writer, you must write. You must put in the hours. You must face that blank page. You must prod that part of your brain that creates. You must find ideas and you must craft and write the pages. Begin by setting your upper and lower limits.
Remember James Joyce whose eyeballs were wrecked with syphilis.
But yet he still wrote his pages.
So what is stopping you from writing? You, of clear sight, and sound health.
Start writing yours and vanquish the terror of the blank page.