Overcoming the Tyranny of the Blank Page

by Ralph Piper

At some point in your writing process, you will sit down in front of your medium of choice (whether its paper and pen like me, or a computer screen) and, try as you might, you’ll find yourself staring at a blank page or perhaps a blank screen — and nothing, absolutely nothing is coming up.

Like the page you’re looking at, it appears that your mind is drawing a blank — at least at first. Soon though, you’ll be full of thoughts. Thoughts about what you can’t do, and about how bad you are as a writer and scholar. Deep down, you know that you’ll never get this thing done because you’re really just no good at it — in fact, you never were good at it, not from the start. You’re really a charlatan and it’s been a wonder that no one has discovered this about you sooner.

Now, when you can’t finish this work, all will finally see the extent of your fraud. You will fail.  You will never succeed in life again and your partner will see you for the worthless, loser, wanna-be writer that you are……..Oh ….and your cat will die.

Been there? There now?

Congratulations! This means that not only is your brain fully functioning, but evidently so is your creative energy.  Just take a minute to identify and revel in how inventive you’ve had to be to come up with this story — and probably with almost no evidence.

The problem here though, is that you’re using your creative energies to create anxiety about your work, rather than to create the work itself. Why you might have done that is probably an interesting story — perhaps you think that the writing process should be easier — or would be easier if you were smarter, or older, or younger, or more hip, or had less hips, or disciplined, or thinner, or taller, or vegetarian, or ate more fiber, or hadn’t done “that thing in the 60’s”. But at the moment, whatever the story, it’s probably only another avenue that will lead away from your work. Which means that it won’t be helpful.

As I’ve told many of my clients, sometimes understanding the why is only helpful when it doesn’t matter anymore. What might be actually helpful at this moment, is to try something that will shift your creative energies to someplace they can do more good. To do that, you have to move out of that space you’re in now.  And one of the ways to do that is to focus your attention elsewhere – preferably in the present moment.

There are many ways to bring your attention back to the present moment, and back into the focus of your work. One is engaging in some type of physical exercise. We’re not talking Gold’s Gym here — just some stretching, yoga or perhaps even a little dancing around the house. Moving your body can often help to re-focus you in the present. Another is ten minutes (or whatever you can stand) of meditation. Try focusing your attention on an object, a mantra or even just your breathing — anything that will bring you back from the future (where anxiety lives) and into the here and now.

Once you feel yourself coming back, notice how your body feels — where it feels tense or where you might feel “closed”. Allow yourself to breathe into those spaces and feel them opening and loosening. Finally, find the place in your body where you feel the most centered, the most grounded. Breathe into that space, and when you feel more grounded, ask yourself what task you want to accomplish right now and how much time and effort you’re willing to devote to it RIGHT NOW. Then ask yourself if the answers you gave are reasonable. If they are not, try again until they feel right. Then focus and get started.

Good luck!  

Ralph Piper is a psychologist and coach based in Princeton, NJ, he often works with master’s and doctoral candidates who are writing a thesis. He can be reached at dr.piper@comcast.com or at 609-658-8645

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