Blank Page Blues

There is a simple law of success: whoever can tolerate a certain amount of discomfort longest will win. In sports and situations of pure physical endurance, it’s obvious– no pain, no gain. You’ve heard that before. But the same is true in creative or intellectual work of any kind. Whether you’re talking about writers staring down a blank page, readers mired in a dense 18th century text, or students in the middle of a tough chemistry problem set, there is a fundamental inner war going on between temporary discomfort and our natural need for immediate gratification and pleasure.

Take writers for an example. Actor/comedian/Monty Python-er John Cleese admits that he, like everyone else, feels anxiety when sitting down to write. All writers have the same sensation, that nagging feeling of discomfort and unease when they’re at work, especially when they’re just getting started. Don’t know what I’m talking about? Open a word processor and look at the blank page for a minute and think of something to write about. That’s the feeling. The best writers, says Cleese, are the ones are simply able to tolerate that feeling for longer. They’re able to sit with a blank page, and later a rough draft, and rework it enough times that it starts to take shape and eventually express what they’re trying to say. The discomfort is completely impossible to avoid; you need to be prepared to accept it for as long as it persists. Good work is is difficult. It has to be.

You’ll note that this flies in the face of artists who claim that their craft just flows from their fingertips naturally and effortlessly. There are a lot of these types of people. They want you to believe that their work is easy. Inevitable, even. They can’t help but be great, like it’s just their natural state of being.

Artists who say that are liars. They might do great work, but if it’s really that easy then they’re either full of shit or egomaniacal.

You need to accept that it’s going to be a struggle and plan for it. It funny how you can  sit down to work on some project, but almost immediately you lose focus and your mind wanders. You start to crave novelty, and you want to do something else. It’s like you have two personalities– the one that decides to do something, and the one that actually carries out the task— and they don’t play really get along. The first has good intentions, but it’s naive. The second isn’t exactly malicious, but it’s undisciplined. It can’t concentrate. Yin and yang. And that is why your novel remains unfinished.

Another way to look at it: Everyone makes strategic plans, but they fail when it comes time to execute, precisely because they can’t tolerate the anxiety. They second-guess themselves. They think that the pain means they’re doing it wrong. But tolerating the pain, the discomfort, the anxiety– that is what makes you good. Whoever learns to fall in love with this feeling, even seek it out, will win in the end. So practice feeling it when you’re looking at the blank page, or when you’re stuck. Observe the hesitation in your stomach, the compulsion to switch tabs and check Facebook. Familiarize yourself with it.

It’s the essence of meditation. The whole idea idea of meditation is to become aware of your thoughts without trying to force them. Just observe them and see where they wander. When you start to lose focus on your breath or on your mantra, gently guide your mind back to its proper focal point. It’s just the same with creative work. Notice your mind drifting and notice the discomfort that comes with any creative act, and then learn to accept it and live with it. Accept that the first draft will suck, but the first rewrite will be better. And the second rewrite will be even better. Observe this as predictable behavior of your silly mind. Embrace it.

Some people don’t get this. They thing that if something is uncomfortable, then it must be bad. They listen to all those idiotic artists who preach that their art is like a free-flowing fountain of rainbows and expression, and they think there’s something to it. Forcing it will just hurt you.

Pay these people no mind. Fighting through the discomfort is a good thing. It means you’re pushing yourself and growing. It means you’re doing it right.