The White Space is Your Enemy

Everyone who has ever uttered – or wanted to utter – the phrase “I am a writer” knows that the white space (or whatever shade your particular paper/notebook/word processor background is) is the enemy. It sits there, smug and blank, mocking you. Sometimes it can become intimidating, Godzilla-sized; how can you expect to pen a story, a novella, or a whole book of such pages, when one single page is daunting? The prospect of putting any mark on that pristine surface, for any purpose, becomes a task of Herculean proportion. The idea of doing it enough to fill up the number of pages that make your desired length is something out of Greek myth, a Sisyphus’ task. Eventually, it may break you, cause you to set the pen or keyboard or crayon or bit of charcoal aside and say “No. I’ll try later, when I’m stronger, when I’m ready, when I’m capable of it.”

The sad truth is, you will never be ready for it. Each time you turn away and that white space remains unmarked, you have been defeated. And with defeat comes only difficulty in even contemplating victory the next time. Or the time after that, or the time after that. Until finally you set the pen aside for good, and the white space wins.

You can’t allow that to happen. You have to say “Hell with you, blank page! I’ll mark you, and you’re gonna like it!” Or something like that, anyway. It took me a long time to figure this out. Every writer (or other creative personality, I’m sure) who actually still calls themselves that must have figured it out. Some get it faster than others. But the simple fact of the matter is that creation is a war, a campaign waged against that negative space. And in a war, you can’t win unless you attack.

It doesn’t matter if your attack is a single word or two thousand. It doesn’t matter if it’s your usual genre or not. And – here’s the kicker, and the part it took me the longest to figure out – it doesn’t even matter if it’s good or not. It matters that you wrote it. That the white space is not inviolate and invincible. That you can do something to it, and it will, in time, add up and conquer that hideous enemy.

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Jack Torrance’s “script”
(Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining)

Jack Torrance in The Shining might not be a role model, but at least he knew he had to keep words marching across that page.

Paul Sheldon, in Misery, also knew it… though he was under a very different sort of deadline; one of my favorite passages from that book comes after he’s been told he “cheated” in his first draft of Misery’s Return, and has to fix it. Misery has to come back, and it has to be “fair” (according to the Annie Wilkes definition of the word, which is not necessarily in line with the rest of the world, anyway)… but he also knows that the only way to do it is to do it. Leading to this quote:

Hadn’t he known it was all wrong? It wasn’t like him to labor so painfully, nor to half-fill a wastebasket with random jottings or half-pages which ended with lines like “Misery turned to him, eyes shining, lips murmuring the magic words Oh you numb shithead THIS ISN’T WORKING AT ALL!!!”

The key is, keep the words marching. Assail your enemy with everything you have, and worry about the consequences later. Because there’s a wonderful key on your keyboard, called “delete,” and you can break it out in full force later (or strikethrough, or however you mark “passages that need to be dealt with”), but first you have to establish a base camp from which to conduct the guerrilla raid known as “editing.” Otherwise it’s just you and the white space, and the white space is going to win.

Moral of the story, the TL;DR version: If you want to write, then bloody well write. Don’t second guess, don’t sit and think and worry about if it makes sense, or write the reviews before anyone can even see a single word, or argue with yourself if what you’re doing is right or wrong or a big waste of time. Get something on that damned page. You can fight about the details later. If you call yourself a writer, then worry about the writing. Suit the verb to the noun. You can be editor, critic, philosopher or philanderer later.

First and foremost, your goal as a writer should be to write. Get on it.

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