Wednesday, October 20, 2021

The Curse of the Blank Page

by Janis Patterson

This isn’t a post about writers’ block. I don’t really believe in writer’s block. The mind is always going, always creating, always fabricating, always dreaming. There’s no shortage of ideas or knowledge of exactly where your story is going to go.

No, this is a post about ... I don’t know. Ennui is as good a word as any. I have two books both almost finished. I know just what needs to happen in both of them. I also know exactly what is going to happen in two more books that are both about half finished. (Yes, I almost never have fewer than four projects going at once. Weird, I’ve been told, but this is the way I have always worked.) Pages of dialogue flow through my mind. Descriptions of settings are firm in my mind, some of them clearer than actual places I have physically visited.

So what is the problem?

Ennui. Or perhaps accidie.

I guess I just don’t want to write the words even as they are yammering in my brain. I sit down at the computer, open the current file and sometimes get a couple of hundred words done before being startled to find myself playing a killer game of solitaire MahJongg or working an electronic jigsaw puzzle - both guilty pleasures. Or finding that I really need to clean the gasket on the dishwasher with a Q-Tip to make sure it’s really clean - right now! (If you saw the perpetually chaotic state of my kitchen you’d know how insanely weird that is.) 

In talking this phenomenon with my writer friends I’ve been given the usually sage diagnoses/advice to burn out (take a couple of hours or even days off), to adjourn for a session in the hot tub (which I do every morning and have for ages), of boredom with the project (I have four going, remember, all in different genres), to relax and read more to refill the well (done that, and lack of ideas/settings/plots is not my problem) and to get a physical checkup to make sure nothing physical is wrong with me (done that, all okay).

No, I have come to the conclusion that the problem is me. I don’t know what it is, but it comes from me. I’ve been a professional writer of one kind or another for most of my adult (and some of my younger) life and have always - always! - made my deadlines. I’ll make these too, but it will probably be a close thing. At my age the inevitable thought of retirement comes to mind, but even in this weird time it is met with horror and denial. I love writing and honestly can’t think of anything else I’d rather do. (Except be a movie star, maybe, or an astronaut... see? My imagination is alive and well and overactive to boot.)

It would be tempting to blame this condition on the plague hysteria that has destroyed our lives for the last year and a half, but that’s the easy way out. To be honest, my life didn’t change that much from pre-plague life to current plague hysteria. I have always worked at home. My commute is from the kitchen to my office, which is just the length of the house. 

No matter how enthused I am when I wake up in the morning (after coffee, of course) and rush to the computer, by the time I get there and turn it on, finish with my emails and go to Word I just sit there and stare at that big blank screen, and that big blank screen just stares back at me like some omnipotent empty eye. I know what I should be putting down - my characters and my actions are ready and I’ve been polishing them in my head all night - but suddenly I realize I need to scrub the refrigerator right now!

Perhaps a part of it is a kind of fatalism, a foreknowledge that it will be a waste of time. The money just isn’t there. My sales have fallen so far down the return is minuscule, hardly worth the electricity it takes to run my laptop. Of course, I don’t write just for the money, but it is a consideration. The old reward-for-value thing - in other words, no reward, no worth. And that’s a hard thing to face, especially for one who used to make respectable money. What has changed? The market or me?

I’ve even thought of changing formats when I write, though I’ve used a word processor/computer since the early 1990s. While I loathe writing anything by hand and absolutely refuse, I have thought of digging out my old manual typewriter, but realize that would take too much energy. Besides, I’d have to clean out the storage closet where it lurks in the back with the other things I keep for sentiment’s sake. Then I would have to put everything back, and by then it would be time to fix supper.

I apologize for dumping on y’all, but several people have asked me when my next book would be out and quite frankly I don’t have the slightest idea. Sigh.

So - it all comes down to ennui (boredom) or accidie (sloth), and both devolve on me. Apparently the only cure is discipline, something I have always been lacking. But I will get better. I promise. Besides, The Husband has promised me a blow-out steak dinner at our favorite steak house when I get back on track. It should work. Hey - I can be bribed!


Marilyn Meredith a.k.a. F. M. Meredith said...

Such an honest post. Though I never thought about going back to a typewriter--I've gone through many of the feelings you mentions.

Vicki Batman, sassy writer said...

I'm with you. One short story isn't inspiring me at all.

Kevin R. Tipple said...

Must be nice to not "believe" in writer's block. Some of us know a far different reality. Pray you never join us.

JeanL said...

You are describing nearly a textbook case of burnout. I hear you on the sales, believe me! I'm in much the same position that way.

Have you tried dictation with one of the many fine programs available?

Or have you actually tried giving yourself a two-week vacation? It sounds like you have not taken any time off writing for quite a long time. Mark it out on the calendar and do some 'refilling the well'. Trying to push the way you feel right now will just make it worse.

Believe me, I have been where you are, though I don't have as many books out.

In your head, your books are already finished and there's nothing new for your mind to work on.

And go out on walks if the weather will let you. Physical exercise really does help.

{{{Hugs}}} said...

I know exactly what you're experiencing. I'm in the same spot with a book that only needs a half chapter to finish and I don't get it done. Maybe I'll write a few sentences, but that's it. What to do? I like the suggestion to take a vacation.

Morgan Mandel said...

For some reason, I'm not really in the mood for writing as much as I used to be. Yes, I believe a lot has to do with poor sales. With so much competition out there, and so many books going for free, it's hard to make any kind of progress sales-wise. I'm lucky if I get a book finished each year, but usually it takes at least a year and a half, maybe two. When I'm in the mood, i crank out some pages. Seems there's so much other stuff that needs to be accomplished which keeps me from writing, like dreaded housework. And, really, I should time myself on Facebook, because I spend too much time there.

Cathy S. said...

I hear you, sister! I've been dealing with that since we moved up to Idaho last year. I feel drained of creativity. Have you tried just writing for fun? Choose a plot you always wanted to write, even if it's not under contract? I'm writing on the site Wattpad right now, and the joy of writing is finally coming back after a year-and-a-half of the Blank Screen. Just know you're not alone.

Elizabeth Varadan, Author said...

This was a good post and describes what I think every writer goes through, one time or another, and perhaps more than once. But you also mentioned in passing that "the money just isn't there." And yet you love writing. Do it for the love, not for the money. Those books don't just need to be written, they need to be read. You are depriving readers of four good books.

perry said...

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