“Fight the blankness” is what Colum McCann advises writers in his book Letters to a Young Writer. He means the blank page, the blank mind, but his underlying point is to remind writers that they have to write. The book has plenty of advice, much of it tongue in cheek, for anyone looking for inspiration from one who has sweat it all the way to the National Book Award ceremony.
I’ve read books called On Writing (by Stephen King) and On Writing Well (by William Zinsser), How to Write a Damn Good Novel (James Frey), and Bird by Bird (by Anne Lamont). Save the Cat (by Blake Snyder), itself a best seller, is written specifically for screen plays, and there are plenty of books, essays, and blogs about organizing and plotting a writing project. Each has contributed something unique to my understanding of the craft.
Given how much writing there is out there on writing, why is it so hard to write?
Writing isn’t just a skill or a talent. It’s a practice and an art. It takes showing up, and showing up, and showing up to make the words sing, the pages dance, and the reader delight. Show up, yes, and also be present. Be in the moment with your story, your characters, their triumphs and their worries. Build their conflicts so that they dwarf those real life moments that we can’t make up. In spite of poverty, depression, frustration, and social rejection (for, as James Frey says, “Being an unpublished novelist has about as much social acceptability as being a shopping bag lady.” Frey How to Write a Damn Good Novel p. 162), you must show up and focus.
In her seminal work Steering the Craft, Ursula K. Le Guin (daughter of the wonderful anthropologist Al Kroeber), advises writers to ‘deserve their gift’. “To make something well is to give yourself to it, to seek wholeness, to follow spirit.” It takes talent and energy and spirit, not talent or energy or spirit.
We mold our work like diatomaceous earth, conscious-fully following some rules and breaking others. Every writer's end goal is similar, but it is the journey itself that is the point of the travail, and improves our crafting.
Writers must constantly “fight the blankness”. We must show up and shadow-box with the barren landscape of the page, the screen, our mind, even the desolation of our own vacant soul, when no thought worth sharing bobs to the surface. And from deep within our scarred ego we must find vigor that we did not know we possessed; we must show up and show up and show up.
Footsteps, silent or echoing, can leave us chilled to the bone. I recently ate lunch at the Eagle and Child, or the Bird and the Babe as the Inklings called it. The deep amber wood, creaky floorboards, and foaming ale brought me to the table where sat Clive Lewis, his brother Warren, and John Tolkien, among many, crowded around those sticky tables in the Rabbit Room. It was smoky and dim, and the men were brash, loud, laughing. I wanted to write it, and then my fish and chips arrived. The table I sat at, near the tables of those great writers of afore, got loud with laughter and banter and I felt it. The knowing that our own great efforts are no less in potential than theirs. They were men, hard working and inspired, yes, but also full of bad jokes, and laughing a little too loudly. They feared failure but stuck out their necks anyway- because they had to.
Visiting the places where writers have worked and grown, from J.K. Rowling to Shakespeare, it becomes clear that the process is very personal, the muse tender and fickle. There is no recipe for process, except to open up and let in the world - the chill of inspiration and the warmth of friendship. And keep learning. Curiosity itself brings inspiration, sparking the muse. Walking in someone else's footsteps is interesting, and fun, but our floodgates open because we feel the call, the silent whisperings no one else can hear, and we give them sound. We shape them into Golem, Snape, Peter Rabbit, The Artful Dodger, Othello. No one else can hear them until we give them a voice. If these newly formed personalities struggle and fail, they have still, in the way of fictional characters, had life. If they thrive, establishing themselves in the lexicon of best loved/hated characters, we rejoice, but we plot and plan. Until we no longer hear the whisperings and echoes from the past, or the future, or from other worlds entirely, we write.