Halloween may be over, but for writers a ghostly presence still haunts them: the blank screen/page. I haven’t thought about this specter for a while because I’ve spent the past few months submerged in a book manuscript. However, recently I hit the SEND button, delivered the book to my editor, and unwittingly invited the spirit back to my desk. It’s time to begin again.
I know certain writers would rather run screaming from the room than sit down and face that blankness. It’s hard, it’s frustrating, and yes, scary. But my family and close friends will tell you: I don’t do fear. It’s not that I don’t have fear — it’s quite present, in fact. Sometimes it’s like a tiny badger on my shoulder, tugging at my dreadlocks in the most annoying way. I just don’t let the little guy pull me around all day. I believe in handling fear.
How do I do that? By constantly reminding myself fear is a complex emotion. It’s made up of many different worries and concerns. If I can get under the hood and see what’s broken, missing, or bothersome, I can address those issues and — poof! — dismantle the fear.
Here’s how it works. What is the fear of the blank screen really about? For some writers, it’s about a fear of writer’s block. And that block, depending on who you are, can be composed of a nasty brew of low self-esteem, lack of confidence, parental issues, and a host of other ghosties. Choose one and bust away.
If I’m blocked, I know it’s because something’s missing. I don’t know what to write because I haven’t done enough thinking, research, reading, planning, resting or something. I may not know what it is, but my plan of attack is to figure out what’s missing, fill the void, then get back to writing.
But when I was working on my novel Unforgivable Love, I had a totally different writing/fear experience. The final stages of that book’s revision kicked my butt. Even though I knew what I was doing with it — I even had a list of to-dos I was working my way through — there were times when I was afraid I would never be done. If I had let that fear stop me on any given day, I would have ensured the non-finish of the novel.
So I had to break it down. What was my fear really about? And what could I do about it? Here’s what I found and what I did. I decided the issues goring me most were frustration and isolation.
This was really the heart of the matter. I would think I had one chapter to write and it would become two. Then I had to go back to the beginning and make changes to accommodate the new material. I felt like Mickey Mouse trying to destroy those broomsticks in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, only to have them keep multiplying. The work always seemed to increase not decrease.
Fortunately, thanks to an excerpt in Narrative Magazine, I discovered words of comfort in Memorable Days: The Selected Letters of James Salter and Robert Phelps. I devoured the whole book, especially Salter’s 1972 letters describing his writing of the manuscript that became the novel Light Years. I felt as though we shared the same struggles:
“I’m on page 115 (of my own book). I hardly remember what is behind me. It’s like a densely enacted journey during which you’ve made notes. When I’m finished with this first, tedious working-out, in the summer, I’m going to look at it like a ruined garden, I hope I will, with dimensions that please, lovely corners, walls, and weeds, weeds everywhere…”
And when Salter had his breakthrough, I knew mine couldn’t be far behind. Even now I still love reading these words:
“But a few minutes ago, searching for the place to insert an anecdote about marriage I’d heard, a place in my manuscript which is now almost 300 pages, I had a wonderful thing happen to me, I suddenly realized: it’s there! I had begun to read and I saw that I liked it, even more, I was completely taken by it, and also, for the first time I caught that faint glimmer that is light at the end of the tunnel. To think that this will be a book, and a book that I am deeply interested in, what comes from the vitals, as Kazantzakis said. Suddenly I am filled with energy.”
I don’t write in total isolation. I’m lucky to have a writing partner who meets me via Zoom for several hours each week and we write in each other’s company like two people sharing an office. But as I neared the end of my revision, I felt my world had become vastly constricted. I couldn’t see beyond getting my family fed, my son to school, and working on my book. As time went on my hair grew down to my hips, I stopped writing to friends, weeds overtook my yard, and rooms in my house disappeared under clutter and laundry. I started to feel like a wild woman alone in the forest and feared I would not find my way back.
But I happened to pick up Dani Shapiro’s Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life and learned this was okay. She too, while finishing a book, let her hair grow long, lost touch with friends, didn’t clean windows. And in this she gave me permission to take care of myself and my book through its final push.
“I took care of my family, and my book got written. That was all I could manage…As you near the end, you will likely feel selfish. You will want to do everything you can to protect your instrument—which is to say, yourself—as you inch toward the finish line. This is as it should be, as it must be, if your work is to reach its potential. Embrace this selfishness, for now. Wrap it around you like a quilt made of air. Let no one inside of it except those you love the most. Don’t leave that essential place. Be a good steward to your gifts.”
Dani’s wonderful words told me I wasn’t alone, and this time would soon pass. Even more, I will probably enter this phase again with the next book. But I’ll recognize it next time, and be a little less floored. As I came back into the world I had the opportunity to meet the lovely Dani in person and thank her for easing me through this revision and the fear. I’ve learned the light at the end of the tunnel often is people like Dani Shapiro and James Salter showing the way.
What do you do to handle your writing fears?
The Alma College Master of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing offers the opportunity to enter an artistic community in which you will read deeply, study and hone your writing craft, and participate in energetic discussions that will help you see your poems, stories, essays, and memoirs in the context of current issues and events. Learn more at alma.edu/mfa.