Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Blank Page: Making a Mess

Guest post by Christin Taylor

Let's begin with what's terrifying about the blank page: it holds all of our ideas and none of our ideas at the same time. When we look at that beautiful white expanse, we see possibilities. We imagine a work of art.

Yet when we sit down to write, our hands turn to cement and the words come out ugly and lethargic and lazy and we are mortified. So we put down our pens, or we stop typing, and we push ourselves away from the desk thinking, "Next time. It has to be better next time."

But all the while we're haunted by this fear that perhaps it won't. Perhaps next time will be just as bad as this time and we will be what we have feared all along - "failures" and "wannabes".

Here is the cruel irony of the blank page: While it lures us with its pristine landscape, we must first cover it with mud. There is simply no other way to write. It is a brutal act of faith. In writing, we must unleash a mess onto the page and then reach inward and grab hold of every last thread of trust, believing without sight that: "It will be beautiful. You'll see. Just don't walk away."

And here is where we have to unravel the voices in our heads, telling us not to mark on the white walls with crayons, not to scribble over the white couches with markers. Everything white must stay white or be complemented by something as beautiful and perfect as its elegant planes.

But with the blank page we must give ourselves permission to make it messy. Not just visually messy with black scrawls wiggling across the page. But also mentally messy, audibly messy. We must allow ourselves to write terrible, humiliating prose.

Because here's the other irony: Beauty follows ashes. That which is lovely does not rise out of the pristine hollows of the universe, but out of the roiling, disjointed substance of our lives. That is the act of creation: redemption. God can create something out of nothing, but we create something out of the grit of our lives.

So the blank page cannot stay blank for long. You will not magically create beauty without ever messing up, or falling out of the lines, or scratching across the margins. It just won't happen.

But there is a final image that presses itself against my mind: a rusty spigot, with a lever handle. You crank and crank the handle and the spigot sucks water out of the earth. The first sprays are nasty and muddy and rusty, but you do not stop pumping because you know what is coming. If you stopped, the water would stop, and you'd never get to where you're heading. The more you pump, the faster the water flows, and soon the particles and dirt are dispersing, the water is getting clearer and colder and soon you are clasping diamond water in your hands, slurping up big satisfying gulps.

Writing is the same way. Sometimes when we look at the blank page, we carry the conviction that we can only spill the cleanest, most satisfying water on it, but this is not true. You are a rusty spigot, and the water will not come unless you pump the handle. And you pump the handle by picking up your pen and writing, or moving your fingers heavily across the keys. And though the thoughts and words that come out may be murky and rusty and dirty, don't quit. Clear water is coming soon.


Christin Taylor lives in Bellingham, Washington, with her husband Dwayne, their 3-year-old daughter Noelle, and their new Taylor Tot expected in July of 2011. In addition to being Noelle's personal chef, chauffeur, laundress, and playmate, Christin runs the Blank Page Writing Workshops online. Her work has appeared in Brain World Magazine, Ungrind, as well as other online and print publications. She is currently finishing her first book-length manuscript about the metaphorical shipwreck many young adults face after graduating from college. If you'd like to learn more about The Blank Page online writing workshops as well as Christin's writing, go to


What scares you most about the blank page? Any comments or questions for Christin?

*Notebook photo by nuttakit /
**Paint photo by Idea go /
***Water photo by africa /


Sherrinda Ketchersid said...

Your post is absolutely beautiful! The imagery of the spigot is such a fantastic way of describing putting pen to that blank piece of paper. I often have that fear that I'm just a "wannabe", that I am one of those singers on American Idol who thinks she can sing, but in reality, is just making a fool of themselves. It's a hurdle to overcome, for sure!

Thank you for being a guest today. You really spoke to my heart!

Sarah Forgrave said...

I'm so, so glad Christin could be here with us today! Isn't she inspiring?!

Sherrinda, I love your comparison to American Idol. Objective feedback is good but sometimes painful, isn't it? :)

Beth K. Vogt said...

The word picture of a rusty spigot will stick with me for a long, long time. Next time I'm staring at a blank page, I'll remember that I've got to let the words flow for a while until something worthwhile shows up.
Great post!

Misha Gerrick said...

So very true.

I always fear starting more than I do writing.


Cindy R. Wilson said...

Yes! I love this post because it's been a specific struggle for me lately. That blank page is daunting and even when I fill it words, there's always this nagging in my mind to make them better, to make it perfect (not that that's even possible). But I've been trying hard with my current story to chuck that niggling for perfection and just let the creativity flow. "Beauty follows ashes." That's so perfect for how we create.

Thanks for the post, Christin, and thanks for encouraging her to be here today, Sarah.

Keli Gwyn said...

What an inspiring post, Christin. I've often heard the saying that we can't edit what isn't there. So true. We must give ourselves permission to slap the rough draft on the page, even it means binding and gagging our Internal Editor, shoving the pest out of our writing space, and closing the door.

Mary Vee Storyteller said...

Thank you Christin.
I've noticed the blank page tends to fall not only as the first page of a work, but also the first page of each chapter, and somethimes simply the next page.
Questions muddle my thought process: which way does my character go? What if I pick the boring way that causing the reader to put the book down? What if I send them on a dead end? What if...What if...
Then I sit and think...not type. Result: blank page.
Thank you for the water spigot image. I plan to use it.

Pepper said...

Wow! This is EXACTLY what I needed to day.
I'm receiving 'apples of gold' in this post today, Christin.
A needed reminder that I'm human...and I'm learning - and it's okay to make a mess :-)
I naturally compare myself to the brilliant books I read, but forget to remind myself that these are work-worn, editor scarred, well-washed words in published print. BUT the authors themselves started with a blank page, just like mine :-)
And cleaning up that blank page is a work in progress, just like my spiritual life.

Thank you - this was beautiful

Christin said...

Thanks so much everyone for your wonderful feedback! I know that I have to hold really tight to these words for myself too! I think I wrote this post as much for myself as others. ;-)

Being able to allow myself to not be brilliant right out of the gate has been something I'm learning to apply not just to writing but every part of my life. I think there is a lot of pressure in our culture today to come up with something glossy and genius, and to do it first try.

Pepper, I think you are so RIGHT! It's so easy to look at other writer's finished products and compare it to our beginnings, but the truth is, they all began with messy first drafts too.

I love how you wrote, "I naturally compare myself to the brilliant books I read, but forget to remind myself that these are work-worn, editor scarred, well-washed words." Lovely.

Keli Gwyn - I resonate with you comment about gagging the internal editor and shoving them out of the writing space! It's so helpful for me to recognize that the critical voice is actually outside of my creative process and one that I don't HAVE to listen to every step of the way.

Mary Vee - Your questions are so painfully familiar!! :-)

Cindy R. - Good luck chucking that "niggling for perfection." It's difficult but so worthwhile, isn't it?

Anne Lamott and William Zinsser have both written about this process of letting ourselves work through the mud of writing and they've been a huge encouragement to me. (Lamott - _Bird by Bird_, and Zinsser - _On Writing Well_.)

Casey said...

What a promise to cling to! I have been struggling with that lately, even though this current WIP isn't my first, I've been a bit stymied to just write the mud and keep pumping for the clear (LOVE that analogy.) It's been a rough week or two, but I think God is getting me there.

Thank you for the lovely post and hearfelt and encouraging reminder!! Welcome to the Alley Christin!

Julia M. Reffner said...

I LOVE this!! I am a perfectionist and so struggle with the muddy scribbling process. But it seems the more I allow it, it only helps my writing in the long run.

I love your rusty spigot image, its one I will keep with me. Thanks, Christin.

Christin said...

Casey, thanks so much for welcoming me to the Alley! And thanks Sarah for inviting me to the Alley! ;-) Casey, hopefully next week will be full of rich, vivid, satisfying prose for you!

Julia - yes, I'm a perfectionist too! I'm so afraid of making mistakes, but I know this is why I fell in love with the writing process and why I have given my life to it - it helps me tackle my demons in a positive, healing way!

Gwen Jackson said...

Loved reading about the blank page from my favorite writing coach :).

Yes, the sloppy mess is something I have to continually work on, being diligent to be sloppy until finally a gushingly clear, refreshing burst of creativity comes forth.

Thanks for the image. I may just have to print off that picture and tack it in front of my desk. :)

Sharon Holly said...

I just wrote about my own fear of writing yesterday (hmm, was that irony?). I was pondering why it is that I have a ton of ideas for stories but great difficulty in putting those ideas to paper.

I realized that at least part of the reason for my lack of follow-through is fear of what comes next. Having people read the finished manuscript. Being open to rejection. Trying to have it published.

It's always good to hear that other people also have terribly messy drafts!

Kelly Leiter said...

I loved this post so I recommended it on my blog for new writers.
Thank you for sharing!