On Writer’s Terror

October 30, 2013 § 31 Comments


A guest post from Sharon Rawlette, suitable for Halloween:

terrifiedEveryone who is a writer or knows a writer is aware of how terrifying it can be to sit down in front of a blank page. Why? A carpenter doesn’t look at a bare cinderblock foundation, drop his tool belt, and run away screaming. A chef doesn’t look at an empty frying pan and despair. Why does the writer, confronted with a blank piece of paper or a window labeled “Document1,” want to give up the ghost?

I think it has something to do with the fact that the carpenter has blueprints. The chef has recipes. And no one will complain if they build or cook the same thing twice. The writer has no such luxuries. The writer is cursed to start over, from scratch, every time. Like Sisyphus. Except the writer has to make the boulder, and each time it has to be a unique but precisely sculpted blend of levity and gravity, transcendence and relatability. In short, a miracle. By 11:59 tonight, please.

Honestly, I think the real trouble lies in that a writer doesn’t know how she does what she does. It’s not wise to admit that these days, when everyone is supposed to know everything, especially about the way they make their living. But it’s true. A writer can make herself sit at the desk and string words together, but she can’t make them be the right ones. She can try to think profound thoughts and have unparalleled insights, but trying will probably make the good stuff flee, like the soot sprites in Studio Ghibli’s My Neighbor Totoro.

Writing is not so much a process of creating as it is waiting–waiting for the good stuff to show up. We writers fill up a lot of pages in the waiting, what Anne Lamott calls “shitty first drafts.” Sometimes there are second drafts that are just as shitty. Or third drafts that are even worse. But the practiced writer keeps cranking out the pages until, here and there in all the crap, they see enough decent ideas or turns of phrase to make them believe they have the kernel of a story, or an essay, or a book. Then they trim out as many of the awful passages as they can bear (sometimes the awful passages can be very close to one’s heart), whittling things down to a tenth of their previous size, and the process begins again. Write, write, write, until more good stuff appears and we can throw more of the crap away.

There is no recipe. No blueprint. No line of stepping stones that will lead one to the creation of a brilliant piece of literature without moments of wandering in the dark. We writers strive to bring into being something bold, original, and heart-stoppingly magnificent. But, as clichéd as it may sound, that stuff only arrives by way of inspiration. Don’t get me wrong. We writers have to work hard. We have to show up. We have to put pen to paper or fingertip to key. We have to cry and sweat and bleed. But there’s no direct link between our suffering and the end result. Our tears, our sweat, our blood get poured out, and then, magically, from somewhere off in left field, the miracle appears. And the end result seems so disconnected from our effort that we wonder why it couldn’t have just shown up earlier, before we had that little visit to hell.

But of course, the work was necessary. The work did get us the result. It just happened somewhere in the depths of the unconscious. We couldn’t see the gears turning, the neurons firing, the gods descending and re-ascending from our little brains. And so, when it’s time to face the next blank page, we still have no clue how we do what we do.

And we’re not at all sure that it will ever happen again.

Sharon Rawlette’s work has previously appeared in Salon and the academic journal Philosophical Studies.

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§ 31 Responses to On Writer’s Terror

  • ascreaminmy says:

    wonderful! thanks for this.

  • vpfarming says:

    So true. Document1 has no peers. Though Document2 is a good friend too.

  • I really love this. Thank you.

  • ryderziebarth says:

    I needed that. I feel so much better and can come out from under the bed now. Thanks,Sharon.

  • Wonderful post. I am going to direct everyone in my workshops to this link. Thank you!

  • By all means! Thanks so much for reading and commenting.

  • nextline says:

    Your comments remind me of those of Tim Fountain in his book “So You Want To Be A Playwright” p.49 – “It’s not a question of ‘if’ but ‘when’. You will get stuck…Fail, fail again, and fail better. All works of art are flawed, all stories imperfect, all narratives imprecise. Once you have that idea in your head, the fear of failure will leave you forever. Do not be the sort of writer for whom the band is playing in the other room. If you do get stuck on a specific scene then leap forwards. Just keep on writing.”

    • I appreciate this realistic attitude. Who was it who said, “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly”? I believe one essential requirement for becoming an accomplished writer is the ability to write badly and still believe that, in the future, one will write better.

  • Unk Harry says:

    I usually have a dozen stories on the go at once, hung up like laundry on a line. No, more like the sticky tape used to catch flies only in this case the vermin are elusive snatches of phrase, noticed character traits, or other bits that have some tangential relevance to the hanging bit already started. Sooner or later, the tape is full, not necessarily with the desired prey but enough to start a story. Like wandering through life with a bug net, to continue with the flying pest analogy, scooping aerial plankton in hopes some of it is worthwhile.

  • Janet Givens says:

    I get Brevity’s weekly digest, so I’m coming a bit late to the party. Just wanted to say, “You nailed it.” Thanks for bringing the unconscious to light.

  • melissacronin says:

    It helps to be reminded that I’m not alone when facing “Document 1,” that there are other writers facing their own blank page. Thanks for sharing!

    • You know, since writing this post, I’ve tried to think of new strategies for dealing with the terror of the blank page. One I’ve come up with that seems to work is writing a few sentences while telling myself that these will DEFINITELY not be in the final draft. They’re just to fill up the space and get the juices flowing. It takes some of the pressure off, and good ideas seem to follow.

      Thanks for reading!

  • […] at 5:15 on November 6, 2013 by Andrew Sullivan Sharon Rawlette observes that “the real trouble lies in that a writer doesn’t know how she does what she […]

  • Greg Machlin says:

    I liked this. But I have this weird thing where I’m the reverse of many writers. Beginnings are easy. The blank page has never scared me, and never will.

    The problem is revising. The problem is when you’ve got something *halfway decent*… or, worse yet, *good*… but you know it isn’t good enough. Not to get a non-family, non-friend to grab it, and put down $26 of their hard-earned money. Or even *very good*… but if that *isn’t* good enough, if it’s got to be mind-blowingly fantastic–how the heck do you get there?

    That’s where I have trouble. That’s where the procrastination and avoidance kick in.

    • That’s fascinating! But don’t let this article mislead you into thinking that I never get stuck later in the process as well, because I certainly do. Sometimes things just don’t work on the second or third draft, and I have no idea why or where to go from there. If I’m really stuck, I’ll actually put the draft away and start completely from scratch again (even the terror of the blank page can be better than holding words in your hand that obviously don’t work). But I certainly haven’t found any magical formula for revision. Except to keep trying. And then, if you’re really fed up, working on something else for a while.

  • urbanspader says:

    Yes. It helps to keep in mind that writing is damn hard!

  • Tom Clark says:

    RE: Writer’s Terror. All very true. However, I’m a little amused at the carpenter anti-example in regard to screaming in terror. Often carpenters are tempted to do just that as they contemplate an empty foundation with an architect’s blueprint in hand. Architects frequently draw pretty pictures that have little relationship to reality.. They leave that part up to the carpenter.

  • Tom McGohey says:

    “Do not fear mistakes. There are none.” Miles Davis
    But then again, Miles was arrogant enough not to give a damn what anyone thought of his mistakes or his successes. It is that sense of audience that terrorizes me at times, that makes every word sound like le mot dull instead of le mot juste (to paraphrase Flaubert loosely). To deflate the literary hee-bee-geebies, I chant the following mantra: “Concentrate, Play, Risk.” I call it “the CPR of Writing.” Some times it works, some times not. As has been said by many, “when the work isn’t going well, lower your standards.” I’d hate to have to limbo my standards some mornings. There’s a line from a Philip Kelly essay (current issue of The Sun) quoting a master plasterer to his rookie grandson: “Three rules to remember son: Keep the work in front of you; be tough; be patient.” I think one could apply that to any activity, but especially writing.

  • […] “On Writers’ Terror” by Sharon Rawlette (from Brevity) […]

  • […] Sharon Rawlette struggles for a reason why and a way how: […]

  • pmdello says:

    Yep. And blog rhymes with hog: it must be fed. I have no idea how I have done it for four years. Though, I sometimes wonder if it’s not penance for past transgressions.🙂

  • dmlperalta says:

    Reblogged this on transitionary and commented:
    “But, as clichéd as it may sound, that stuff only arrives by way of inspiration. Don’t get me wrong. We writers have to work hard. We have to show up. We have to put pen to paper or fingertip to key. We have to cry and sweat and bleed. But there’s no direct link between our suffering and the end result. Our tears, our sweat, our blood get poured out, and then, magically, from somewhere off in left field, the miracle appears. And the end result seems so disconnected from our effort that we wonder why it couldn’t have just shown up earlier, before we had that little visit to hell.”

  • Amber says:

    Oh, I’m way late here. Somehow just coming upon this. It’s great. Just what I needed. I laughed and cried.

    “But of course, the work was necessary. The work did get us the result. It just happened somewhere in the depths of the unconscious. We couldn’t see the gears turning, the neurons firing, the gods descending and re-ascending from our little brains. And so, when it’s time to face the next blank page, we still have no clue how we do what we do.”

    Yet, we keep doing it. We keep showing up, don’t we?

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