Hieronymus "Harry" Bosch seems to always be fighting someone. The bad guys, his superiors, and considering he has a different girlfriend almost every book, his love interests. Of course, this is exactly what you look for in a fictional gumshoe, so all is well with the world. Hey – nobody wants their crime thriller hero to be the nice detective who plays by the rules.
Michael Connelly, the bestselling Bosch author, may very well have a quarrelsome streak in him, too. Connelly often talks about sitting down to the blank page as if it’s an ongoing battle.
“Somebody once said ‘writin’ is fightin',’ he says, “and I think that is very true. It is not easy. You have to fight to get what you want to say out. So this means that when it is going well, the feeling is almost euphoric. It also means that when it is going badly, the feeling is proportionately opposite. So there are lots of highs and lows.”
What’s interesting is that Connelly has used the “writin’ is fightin’” phrase as his inscription in at least one book he signed for a fan. That was for The Concrete Blonde, which was published in 1994. So clearly, it’s a mantra that’s stuck with him for a while.
But is writin’ really fightin’?
Connelly has written 31 bestsellers (and counting), so it is difficult for me to argue with him with any credibility. However, at book 30, he softened his stance somewhat – so maybe I have a leg to stand on. Connelly said:
“…but it’s a good fight and sometimes even a fun fight, if there is such a thing. It’s you against the blank screen and every day you have to see what you’ve got.”
It should come as no surprise to any reader here that yes, I believe there is such a thing as a “fun” fight. That’s my first rule: writing should be fun.
A Different Way to Look at the Blank Page
I am not trying to pooh-pooh experiencing the blank page as a fight or get you to buy into a “positive way of thinking” or dismiss the fact that facing the blank page can be hard. It is hard, 100%. And equating it to a fight is a very natural way to approach it.
But I do believe at the same time that this approach can counter-productive. Here’s why.
Does fighting make you feel good? Does the thought of struggling to sit down to your desk every day to wrestle and punch and beat up the blank page send electricity through your fingers? If so, then “writin’ is fightin’” is the motto for you. Skip ahead to the video below – you’re done!
But if you want a different way to look at the blank page, not as a fight or a conflict but a positive experience, then read on, dear literary pacifist!
I’ll go back to Connelly’s description of the “fun fight”. This suggests the kind of friendly competition that can be stimulating, inspiring, soul-feeding. I envision two friends sitting down to a game of chess or shooting pool as a pleasant way to connect and while away some time.
…which is exactly what writing should be, too. Especially in that first draft/blank page stage. It’s so much easier to be creative when you feel free and enthused rather than anxious and ready to bare knuckle. At least it is for me. I’m happier, I’m more likely to take risks, and I’m less likely to feel badly if those risks don’t pay off.
We talked before about Da Vinci and his multi-step creative approach. Let’s look at his most famous work – the Mona Lisa.
There are many different theories on who Mona Lisa is and why he started to paint her. (You can read more about the history of the Mona Lisa here, if you’re interested.) We know that it took years for him to finish, that there were sketches and different versions along the way, and that he spent a lot of his time perfecting his sfumato technique to give Mona Lisa her enigmatic smile. I’m sure he was serious about his work, but he didn’t rush it. And, I imagine, he enjoyed smoothing out the lines, softening the light, and edging closer and closer to the masterpiece it finally became.
But what if Da Vinci approached painting the Mona Lisa as a fight? I think that anxiety and agitation would come through in the painting. Those soft, soft lines would be harder. It would be the opposite of sfumato. (Sfuming maybe? Sfracturing?) Da Vinci would have likely called it a day years before he actually did. We can only fight for so long until we are exhausted.
How to Make the Blank Page Your Friend
So, if we want writing to be more like a pleasant chess game with a friend or a “fun fight” as Connelly calls it, why not make the blank page your friend?
I’m not being tongue-in-cheek here. I’m talking about actually befriending the blank page. Get a coffee, maybe a scone or a cookie, and sit down with your blank notebook or blank computer screen for a few minutes before you start writing. Talk to the blank page, even. Ask it how its day is going, what it’s looking forward to, what its hopes and fears are. Talk about your day as well, and maybe tell it what you want to write about or what you hope to accomplish in your writing day.
You may be surprised to find that you have more in common than you think!
Seriously – try it. At the very least, you should feel yourself becoming more comfortable with the blank page. That’s because although you are still staring at it, there are no expectations – no pressure for you to write. You may even find that this conversation sparks an idea that makes you put your coffee down and get typing. If not, then after you talk to your blank page (and new bestie), starting writing on that same blank page about what you want to accomplish. This isn’t serious writing. Just carry on the conversation, like you’re writing a letter or an email to the blank page. Expand on your ideas a bit: why you’re thinking about that particular topic, how you think you might do it, and – most importantly – why it’s so important to you to be writing about it.
Maybe a scene pops into your head as you’re doing this. Maybe you’ll start outlining the story (or poem, or whatever). Or maybe you’ll just start writing. But whatever happens, you’ll feel freer, more comfortable, and ultimately more creative.
And for many of us, it will be way more fun than fightin’.
Key Takeaway: Facing the blank page doesn’t have to be a fight. Make friends with the blank page and work together to fill it up.
What’s Your Go-to for Facing the Blank Page?
How do you face the blank page? Any tips or tricks you’ve learned in your own writing? Let us know in the comments!
I’ll leave you today with a video below of a painter demonstrating Da Vinci’s sfumato technique. It’s a long video at over two hours, but I found that if you skip through the video every ten minutes or so, you can see the painting evolve.
Skipping through the time lapse reminds me of a short story that I wrote recently – the rough outlines of the first draft, smoothing the emerging picture and filling in the white spaces, and the soft, soft edges of the final. All done with a careful brush but a carefree spirit. (You’ll note the painter doesn’t rush and doesn’t fight the painting whatsoever…!) Try it for yourself – it illustrates (metaphorically, at least) a great way to approach your own work.
Until next time, keep writing with wild abandon!
Such a unique way of looking at the first stumbling block in writing - going to have to try it!