Sunday, 23 June 2013

Perfect Page Paradox

I own three purple notebooks.

They were all given to me on birthdays, because the people around me know that I like to write and figure it's a good present. In a way, it is . . . my favourite colour is indigo, so purple is a good colour for a present & I do use notebooks all the time for keeping story notes in, so it's nice they consider buying me more fresh paper.
The thing is, I can't bring myself to write in any of them. It's a weird mental quirk, but it seems I'm not the only writer with this personal affliction. The Word of the Day is: 'BLANK'

Blank /blangk/ adj.  1. Not written on or printed on: blank paper. 2. Not filled in; incomplete: a blank cheque. 3. Lacking ornament or opening: a blank wall. 4. Showing no attention, feeling or understanding: a blank face; a blank look. 5. complete; utter: blank stupidity. ♦n. 6. A place where something is lacking; an empty space: a blank in someone's memory; a blank on an exam paper. 7. A printed form containing spaces to be filled in. 8. A mark, such as a dash (—), put in the place of a letter or word. 9. → blank cartridge.

I am a perfectionist. It's one of the biggest problems when you're a note-taker of any kind if you like things to be neat and tidy and perfect, it means that I have to keep certain ideas together, write notes in a certain way. For instance, I have many different colours of pen and sometimes I can't write ideas down because I'm writing in the wrong colour. It's goddamn frustrating!
Incidentally, I have to say, I fucking hate it when people say "I'm a little OCD" when what they mean is "I like to be neat". OCD is not this light-hearted quirk, it's a compulsive nightmare. I physically CAN'T function until I find the right pen, and if I don't then I want to start throwing things. This isn't some cutesy-poo quibble, it's an obsessive compulsion. I'm not OCD, but I have compulsive tendencies, and I can fully understand why it's called a 'disorder'.
[although it's odd considering that OCD sufferers often put things into order . . .]

The point is, I am a perfectionist. I like it when things are perfect and pretty. But the problem is, I think that paper looks beautiful. it's so pure and perfect, a canvas of white space. If it's fresh, it can even be uncreased, uncurled, unsullied & unsoiled: A perfect page.
But at the same time, I think that a page covered in writing looks amazing. Especially if it's printed from a computer, it looks like a sea of words that I can dive into. So, if you give me a piece of paper and ask me to draw on it, write on it or otherwise mark it . . . I hesitate.
Often I procrastinate and eventually give up, because I have hit an impasse. Because there is a chance that I might write the wrong words, make a mistake or otherwise make the page look like crap. To write on the page, or not to write?
I call this the Perfect Page Paradox.

It's the same reason why I can't write in these notebooks that people give me for my birthday, because it takes that compulsion and magnifies it by my respect for the gift-giver; not wanting to mar a book given to me as a birthday present from some deluded sense of nostalgia.

Thankfully, I'm not the only madman in this nuthouse. This is a common disorder among writers, which is more commonly known as Blank Page Fear, and often manifests when writers face the first page of the story they wish to write.
They see the whitespace looming before them and grow timid.

Some find it's an issue of false starts and faltering enthusiasm. Sometimes, the sheer act of creating something out of nothing feels like an impossible task. Sometimes it's just plain old writer's block, with the page itself becomes the target of your ire, seemingly mocking you with your lack of progress.
But very often, it's a combination of all these fears that feeds a cycle of self-doubt.

Unfortunately, I don't think I can find an easy way to bring myself to write in these purple notebooks given to me by friends and family . . . but I can definitely help out other writers who suffer from Blank Page Fear, as I have never struggled to start writing a story and conquering that phobia. See, for me, the first step is easy because I have a couple of tricks to get over it, which I am willing to share.

Keep Scrap Paper
Many artists have been known to come up with brilliant ideas that they have scribbled on napkins or written out on the back of an envelope. These are often impromptu notepads which they've been forced to use under the weight of their inspiration, but I find it's a great way to get yourself writing.
Because a great way to avoid ruining a pretty page is to use a crappy, scrappy page. That way any writing on it will be an improvement. If you don't have any spare, scrap paper ask your Mum or Dad (or parent or guardian) if they have any old paper from work you can use - it's a great way to recycle old paper.
Another good idea is to tear your paper into smaller pieces. Whether your paper is old or new, having smaller pieces means that there's less worry about "ruining a good page" by writing the wrong thing, since firstly it's already ripped, and secondly you can throw that piece of paper away, knowing you're not wasting an entire page with only one sentence on it. It's also easier to cover a small piece of page in notes, meaning the task ahead is less intimidating.
Don't bother with scissors, this isn't about a perfectly cut piece of paper, just fold your paper in half (where you want to cut) and scratch a sharp fingernail along the crease. Doing this creates a fault-line which, with the proper care, will easily tear apart in a straight line creating two equivalent pieces of scrap paper.

Write on a Computer.
This saves me a lot of effort, because the word documents are a beautiful thing, meaning I don't have to worry whatever about my stories. In fact, I don't think I'd write very well at all if I had to write stuff out by hand. Not only is my writing generally illegible, but when I write stories (or even these blog posts) on my computer I often write between paragraphs and sentences; fix up tense and spelling errors; fix formatting and spacing issues; change ideas mid-way through & even cut and paste to shift whole paragraphs all over the page until I've found the right structure. In fact, this was originally the last item in this impromptu list, but I moved it here since it fits the flow better up here.
If I had to write this out on a piece of paper, it would look like a footy coach's playbook with arrows, circled sections & big crosses all over the place. Never mind how much easier it is to use a keyboard compared to a pen, just without word processor formatting alone, I don't think I'd get much writing done.
But more than that, it's impossible to fear the white page because all you have to do is hold Ctrl+Z, and your screen looks perfect all over again. If you type the wrong thing, just highlight it with the mouse and fix it. Most readers will be none the wiser!
Of course, this doesn't help everyone. In fact, some people feel that the availability of a Backspace key makes writing harder, since they have an easier way to "hide their shame", by holding down Backspace to delete whole lines of old writing. It gives them a tool by which they can better second-guess themselves. For those of you that use the Backspace as a way to erase your guilt and shame, instead try highlighting it in red, or press enter few times to put the "bad" words on a different line. It's hard to start fresh, so if you force yourself to start new every time, you're giving yourself even more work to do. But if you keep a log of attempts that don't work, you might start to see a pattern, or identify the issue with the first line. Don't force yourself to keep staring at a Blank Page, or you'll wear yourself down into Writer's Block.
But whether you have trouble with the first page or not, by now you really should know how to use a computer. The world is fast evolving, with the realm of writing evolving along with it. There's all new kinds of writing to which computers avail us, and if you don't know how to type your stories up on a computer, I fear you're going to be left behind.

Write Every Day
If your issue is writing your actual story and not just note-taking, I find the best cure is writing every day. This has so many benefits either way, and if you want to be a writer it's perhaps the best advice anyone can give you, since it forces you to translate thoughts into words.
Remember, it doesn't have to be good writing. Keeping a journal (or blog) or just long, rambling stretches of inner monologue will help you to write.
If your issue is getting that first sentence done, then writing every day is like stretching before a run. Rather than being all creaky and clunky, trying to warm up your muscles as you go, you will instead hit the ground running and your own momentum will keep you going. The same thing works with writing. If you have the mindset to just keep going and going then you can easily put some distance between you and the dreaded first page.

Ruin it First
One of the biggest things that stops new writers from writing is their fear of failure:
  "What if I can't do it? What if it's not as good enough? What if other people hate it?"
This mindset is silly, because it's turning a muppet into a monster. Because the fact of the matter is: Yes, your writing is going to suck. It's about baby steps, people. When you first start writing, your writing sucks. I'm not going to sugar-coat it. But with time you get better. Yet another reason you should write every day. The more you write, the better it gets:
  "Practice does, indeed, make perfect. For writers, at least."
- The Absurd Word Nerd
Also, no matter how good you get, your first draft is also going to suck. That's why you have to proofread it, check it, then edit it & then check again. Sitting down and not writing because your scared you'll "fail" is like refusing to exercise because you might get sweaty, it's just silly.
But if you still find yourself paralyzed by this fear, I find the best trick is to fail first. Before you write your story, draw a big line down the middle of the page. Or, if you prefer, scrunch the paper up into a ball, then unfold it and write on it. Or write I LOVE JELLYBEANS, then draw a line through it. Why? Because then you've already failed. Whoops . . . oh well, there's nowhere to go from here but up. You failed, so what? Don't cry over spilled milk, just clean it up and get on with your day.
If you're writing on a computer, do the same thing. Mash the keyboard and write gibberish like: gm[p@j]op a sdfd aE%ASDFAGJ OPo$gmkl [asdf j#io[[p
Or just write the words "Text Goes Here", because these both just look silly, and are in desperate need of some improvement.
After a while, you won't need to do this stupid trick, because you'll get over this neurosis. Even if you write your first sentence and it says:
  "Once upoop a time." rather than freak out you'll just shrug (maybe giggle a little) then hold down backspace and start again. It's super simple stuff.

That's how I deal with Blank Page Fear. It's worked so well for me that I've gotten to the point now where I don't really deal with blank pages anymore. I open a word document and start writing straight away before the idea losing it's luminosity and when I open a new draft for a blog post, I find myself writing the first sentence, sometimes before I've even picked a Word of the Day!

So if you're paralyzed by Perfect Page Paradox, then procrastinate no more. Just put pen to paper and practice these pertinent points, and you'll be printing that pretty prose before you can say Peter Piper picked a pile of pickled peppers!

I'm the Absurd Word Nerd, and if you'll excuse me I'm going to fail at writing, and enjoy it!


  1. I have notebooks all over and can't seem to write in any of them... I use my computer and the notes app on my iphone to write all my notes and brainstorms.

  2. This paradox is sadly too common both with having pristine notebooks and when writing stories. Only way to overcome it is to pretend you're an awesome writer already and be ready to fill up the pages.


Feel free to make suggestions, ask questions & comment . . .
I would love to read your words.