“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” (Hemingway)
When I was a kid, I lacked a basic ingredient needed for life. Fear. (I also lacked wisdom, but one blog at a time.) It wasn’t that I was courageous, it was that I was fearless. And there’s a difference. I climbed trees no one else would dare, and I jumped off buildings no one else would climb. But I now face a weekly task that terrifies me.
Every week I face a blank sheet of paper.
It sounds like a silly fear, but that blank sheet scares me. The empty page mocks my empty mind. I keep a ten page list of blog ideas that once sounded exciting. But each new week, as I open a blank Word document, my inspiration-list looks boring, and I freeze.
So I take out the trash, change the font on my blog, look at my bank statements, and wind up our grandfather clock. I get up from my desk seventeen times before writing my first word. Then I delete it. And return to that damned blank page.
I finally get an idea but I can’t begin. Should I write, “This morning I saw a monster perched on my laptop” or, “When I was a kid I lacked fear”? I get up and brush the dog.
A blank sheet of paper is my weekly terror. After writing today’s title, I got a glass of water and cleaned the coffee maker. Then I re-typed Hemingway’s quote. And mowed the lawn.
Coloring inside the lines
My fear comes from formless uncertainty. I feel directionless. Will any topic I choose be interesting? Of what value are my musings? I grope blindly as I type thousands of words.
Yet, once I’ve completed that dratted first draft, the sun begins to shine. I print out my twenty-seven page tome and begin to cut, rearrange, re-word, and delete. At this point, it’s fairly fun. I’m pretty sure there’s a nugget in there somewhere. I simply sift through the rubbish.
My first draft usually has nine different topics taking us in ten different directions. I pick one and ruthlessly delete the rest. Sometimes I save a nugget to my ten-page, future-inspiration list.
But editing is coloring inside the lines. A shape has been drawn. I have direction. I refine, retune, and reword (and delete twenty-five pages). The formless fear is gone. I’m just polishing.
A philosophy professor taught me how to think with a blank sheet of paper. His specialty was Moral Philosophy. He asked me to write an essay entitled, Why Be Ethical? But he made me write it before I read a single article on the topic.
He urged me to think outside the box, “Tell me what you think before your mind is boxed-in by other thinkers.” Then he made me read many (better) articles on the subject; and then he made me write my essay again. I found myself arguing with him, with them, and with myself.
Thinking outside the box frightens us because it’s so easy to be wrong. Or stupid. And we will be wrong. And stupid. (Just a minute while I dust the mantle.) But writing on a blank sheet of paper surfaces our silly, poorly articulated beliefs. Now we see them and can deal with them.
After I wrote my second essay (on Why Be Ethical?), I wanted to tear up the first draft. It was so dumb. I was embarrassed that my professor had read it. But my second attempt was vastly—vastly!—better, because my hidden beliefs had been exposed, argued with, and sharpened.
My professor wasn’t teaching me to agree; he was teaching me to think.
Finally, after writing the second essay, he asked me to critique my first (dumb) draft. It was easy. Upon review, it was perfectly clear that I had operated inside a box before reading a single article. My original thinking was unoriginal. Blank pages do not exist.
It is impossible to think outside the box. Someone else has drawn a box on our papers. It shapes our thoughts. Culture is constantly (though invisibly) doodling on our blank pages.
Exposing the invisible ink
Beliefs about reality have been drawn on our hearts with invisible ink. They need exposure for examination. Here’s how I reveal that hidden ink. I grab a blank sheet of paper and ask myself:
- What am I most angry, afraid, or ashamed of?
- What are my worst behaviors (ignoring advice, people pleasing, harshness, etc.)?
- What do I believe about God’s love, anger, and holiness?
“What” questions expose the state of my heart. They are first drafts I can easily critique. Now I ask, “Why?” “Why do I fear this venture will fail; why do I believe in God’s love but not his anger (or in his anger but not his love)?”
“Why” questions unmask the invisible boxes scribbled on our hearts that control our lives: “If this venture fails, my life is worthless,” and “I don’t believe an angry God can be loving.” So we ask ourselves “Why?” again, “Why do I think my life be worthless? Where did that lie come from?”
Drawing a new box
None of us thinks outside the box. My mom wrapped her hand around mine to help me form letters with a crayon. Likewise, the world wraps its mind around our minds to form our thoughts. We think inside the world’s box.
The best way to re-draw those boxes is to grab our first draft essays (on fear, sin, God) and take them to scripture for sharpening. Let scripture reshape our minds with spiritual reality. It’s okay to argue with yourself. It’s also okay to argue with God. (He’s a big boy.) But we argue to be changed, sharpened, shaped, and redrawn. We replace our hidden, false beliefs with reality.
A blank sheet of paper is scary. We’ll find ourselves wrong. And stupid. Then sharpened.
As an added benefit, the house gets vacuumed.
Sam, what a great article. I’ll be returning to this gem of a piece many times. Thanks so much for your insight.
Sam, so glad to see that you have once again conquered your fear of the blank page. Your example helps release me to conquer mine.
I have that problem starting a painting too…and so do other artists.
“It’s so fine and yet so terrible to stand in front of a blank canvas.” -Paul Cezanne
Thanks for being courageous for us every week Sam!
Great quote. It’s going into my quote database.
Sam, just wanted to send you a note of thanks and encouragement regarding your weekly blog entries. (Actually, I hate the word “blog”. It sounds like a pejorative term, and not descriptive of anything refreshing, which yours definitely is. Anyway …)
I have been sharing your blog entries with my son who is a very deep, critical thinker. When I read your posts, I oftentimes think of him since your line of critical thinking seems to be similar to his – oh,
and mine too! Sure enough, every time I send him the link, he replies back with a long email and we have great discussions on your topic and even spin-off topics. It’s fantastic! I value our time so much as we write back and forth, and converse about things. Believe it or not, most of our discussions are open-ended and never seem to conclude or be “behind us”. I love it.
So thanks so much for being the venue he and I use to come even closer together. I hope this encouragement does not inflict more pressure on you as you stare at the blank sheet for next week’s blog. Just sit down and bleed. It is working just fine!
Thanks for your great encouragement. I see we are bleeding together!
As a writer, I too have faced the terror of the blank page. Thanks for being real with your fear. Once we give up trying to be “original,” we can be used by God. It’s not about us. It’s about his kingdom. Keep writing, my friend!
Sam – I have so many days like your’s; days not blank pages. I have struggled with fear throughout my life. The sources of it are numerous, but God and I are dealing with them. There are times when I wake up and thoughts of “things” I either would like to do or need to do crash over my mind like waves over the breakwater and yet when my feet hit the floor I find a million ways not to really address my “things”. I like when you said, “Thinking outside the box frightens us because it’s so easy to be wrong.
Or stupid. And we will be wrong. And stupid. (Just a minute while I dust
the mantle.) But writing on a blank sheet of paper surfaces our silly,
poorly articulated beliefs. Now we see them and can deal with them.” Wow, what truth! Thank you again for taking me on the journey into my own heart to search and know what hidden truth may lurk there.
I so appreciate your writing. It forces me to pick up my own pen and fill in my own blank page. I usually don’t put it out for display, but there is something unique about writing what you believe and realizing there are alternate perspectives to harvest.
That maybe the thought you purchased for much of your life, was too cheap to risk your future on.
Iron sharpens iron, but it nearly always begins with a thought from another person’s soul or perhaps an aluminum pen put to paper.
Keep attacking the blank page, it will impact others more than you can know.
Thank you all for your encouraging and personal words. I see I’m not alone (and … misery loves company).
Your comments, encouragements, and insights mean much more to me that I can express, and I thank you.
Singer, songwriter, Josh Wilson just posted on FB how he’s needing to move beyond the excuses, sit down and start writing. He said, “There’s nothing scarier than a blank page.” I commented on his post by attaching a link to this Sam Williamson post. Hope he reads it.
Sounds like he could have written it.
I use all of the above excuses, except, “Wind up the grandfather clock?” This is a great writing prompt which I will save to use later…after I walk the dog…after I clean my keyboard with a cotton swab…after I find the screw that fell off my eye glasses…after a nap. Tomorrow?
You are hilarious.