Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Fear of the Blank Page

Photo by Rennett Stowe

The joy of discovery, especially about the things you care about, is a wonderful feeling.

I like the idea of having essay assignments because they allow me to explore the subject I am studying in my own terms (to a certain extent). I can learn new things on my own and put my thoughts out there about the things I’ve learned.

However, despite having to write many essay assignments during my four years in university, I still have problems with writing them.

I get intimidated by word count and page numbers. The professor telling me how many pages or how many words I have to write is like giving me a whole chicken and asking me to eat it all in one go. I know that is not the case, but in my head that is what I am thinking about.

Knowing that I have that huge goal in mind and looking at the blank Word document in front of me, I get anxious. To avoid my anxiety, I procrastinate - I convince myself that I still have time and that I can do it later. Deep inside I know that is not true, but I can be very persuasive at times, even towards myself. It is bad to fool others, but it is worse to fool oneself.

I am still struggling with this fear, but I found 3 ways of dealing with it that seem promising.

1. Break the task into smaller pieces.

I can’t eat the whole chicken in one sitting.

If I have a 10-page essay to write, for example, then the first thing that I’ll do is break the task up into parts.

For example, for the first week, I will only focus on the research that has to be done for the assignment. Then, the second week will be the time when I start on the blueprint of the essay. Then, I’ll move to the introduction. So on and so forth.

A colossal task can be made manageable if I take it one piece at a time. Remember, Rome wasn’t built in a day.

2. Don’t look at the page.

Simple, but surprisingly effective.

Since I am anxious when I look at the blank age in front of me, the best way to overcome it is to avoid looking at it. Not that I am avoiding the problem, but I am removing the restriction that prevents me from writing.

Once I free myself from the shackles of the blank page, I can just focus on the one thing that matters at the time – writing. Word count and number of pages are not as important as getting the message across.

I cover my computer screen with something and look at the keyboard. It is surprising how smoothly ideas flow from my brain to the tips of my fingers when I don’t have to think about how much I’ve written or how much more I need to write. I just focus on the writing and I write my minds off.

Of course, there are going to be errors (lots of them) in my writing since I am looking not looking at the screen. I don’t worry about that because that is what editing is for. As long as the main ideas are written down, the process of editing will be a breeze.

Don't let perfection get in the way of the writing. Just write.

3. Writer’s block? Write about it.

Writer’s block: the enemy of all writers. Or is it?

Once, I took a writing course and my professor gave me an interesting advice: when you have writer’s block, write about it. I don’t think writer’s block is the inability to generate ideas. Ideas are there, but words to express those ideas are not coming out.

To overcome the blockage of words, write about anything on the side. What the professor suggested was brilliant: using the writer’s block itself as the topic of writing. Describe the block, the feelings, the fear, and be as detailed as possible. Turn a problem into an opportunity.

The main point is to just write – let the words come out. Break the blockage with a constant stream of words. Pretty soon I'll find myself able to continue my original work. 

Having written all that, I still feel the fear and it is still affecting me. I even experienced it before writing this article. But here I am, writing my words and putting my thoughts out there, and there you are, reading them.