The curse of the blank screen

Staring at a blank screen. Will inspiration ever arrive?

Staring at a blank screen. Will inspiration ever arrive?

“The last thing we discover in composing a work is what to put down first.”

Blaise Pascal, (1623-1662) The Mind on Fire:


“I’m really struggling here, I don’t know how to get started.” This was the opening gambit from a student here in Bangalore yesterday on our MA programme in special and inclusive education. A task had been set to write a brief justification for a research project as part of the preparation for producing a dissertation, as the final and major part of the work on this course.

Immediately the session focus shifted towards addressing “writer’s block,” that dreaded, and all too familiar situation in which the writer assumes a blank expression staring at an even more terrifying blank screen. In years gone by, of course, it would have been a pristine white sheet of paper that instilled such fear, but in general today this has given way to a computer screen. There seemed to be an assumption on the part of some students that their tutors don’t suffer the same malaise, but in reality this is a situation with which we are all too familiar.

George Orwell, whose wonderful essay “Why I write”, has always inspired me to put pen to paper (or finger to keyboard), once compared writing to a form of madness saying, “One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.” For the professional author there may be many motivations to write, in addition to making a living, Orwell suggests that an inflated ego or a creative enthusiasm may be amongst these. I suppose for many students the demon which he invokes may well be a tutor, who appears obsessed with timetables and deadlines.

Writers have differing responses to this pervasive condition that is termed “writer’s block.” The award winning English novelist Hilary Mantel takes an approach that I could never advocate for my students when she suggests:-

“If you get stuck, get away from your desk. Take a walk, take a bath, go to sleep, make a pie, draw, listen to music, meditate, exercise; whatever you do, don’t just stick there scowling at the problem”

I’m sure the advice is well meant Miss Mantel, but please remember, if you are a student, you have hand in dates and deadlines to address. Imagine, if your “writer’s block” is severe and you follow the well-meaning author’s advice you could be walking for days, the water in your bath will go cold and you will become wrinkly, eating too many pies will make you obese, but worst still, your actions will not remove your anxiously waiting tutors from the scene!

So what can practically be done? I am sure there is no simple cure that can be adopted by everyone. I once heard from a colleague who told me that if he could not start writing he composed Limericks, mainly with one or other of his colleagues names somewhere in the rhyme. Apparently he once wrote one about me, but its content was so rude he never showed me! Another friend would write an angry letter to a newspaper about a particular article that had incensed him, though he never did get around to posting them. Both of these well respected writers, had discovered a system that worked for them, the miracle cure for which we are all searching.

Neither of these methods would work for me. Personally, when this dreaded curse arrives, which it does with alarming regularity, I try to think back to a recent event, or something I have read and simply write a brief report about what amused me or fascinated me, or indeed enraged me on the day (sometimes these therapeutic ramblings end up appearing on these blog pages).

Matters are not helped by today’s technology. I picture the scene in any student’s or academic’s home. They sit enthusiastically in front of the screen with every good intention but don’t know where to start, the words fail to flow and the mind goes blank. Despite all best intentions emails are checked and answered, a website that may (but probably won’t), prove helpful is checked. Before long half an hour has passed and the first word has still eluded the essay. The solution is simple, switch the computer off and go for coffee, when you return it is bound to be easier.

Do you really think so? In the half hour spent over coffee ten more emails have arrived and the vicious technological hamster wheel of prevarication continues! The writing gets no easier, so after a further half hour wasted, and knowing that you can’t take on more caffeine, you go and bathe the cat! (actually this is not a tactic to be recommended, cat’s notoriously hate water, and have sharp claws).

I do sincerely have sympathy for those who find themselves in this all too familiar situation. I also have my own pet theories as well as my means of addressing the problem described above. I would suggest that writing is as much a physical activity as it is neurological. Nobody of any intelligence takes up running for the first time today in the belief that they can run a marathon tomorrow. The same applies to writing. So it is that I say to my students, get into training by writing something every day. Start with something short a Haiku or a shopping list, progress to a full page and gradually work up to a sustained effort of maybe a couple of hours.

As with any other exercise, it gets easier with practice and time. The greatest danger is to believe that you can’t write, when the fact of the matter is that you don’t write.

Ok, I’m off for coffee – as soon as I’ve checked my emails!

8 thoughts on “The curse of the blank screen

  1. Richard. Good morning! Writing has become most resistable now even amongst children. Now that typing is considered writing…. I find most of us enjoy talking esp in this part of the globe. Writing us definitely becoming more of a side business and today we have so many iitians doing this so well although a person like me who still prefers would never pick up a chetan bhagat. What I end up doing when I am at a loss while writing for words or thoughts is doodling and that has worked for me:)

    • Hi Savitha,
      I know others who begin by doodling. Again I think this is to some extent a physical activity that gets the system working.
      You have a lot of good ideas that you should sometime commit to paper (or screen). Maybe in the future I will encourage you to write something for me.

  2. I like the way you ended the blog, the difference between the can’t and the won’t. I fall into that category and I thought that i can’t write. But to my pleasant surprise I found that, I could pen my thoughts, maybe not as clearly as I convey them when I talk though… And yes, did face the writer’s block too. What helped was switching off completely and reading a favorite book!

    • Hi Rajani,
      Writer’s block is something we all have to confront. Sadly there is no vaccination. You make an interesting observation about reading. I firmly believe that in order to become a writer it is necessary to read widely. We sometimes separate the two which is not helpful.

  3. And there are parallels with drawing or any kind of making art – I read some advice from an artist who suggested that when you can’t get started go to the place where you make art and do something, as once you are the place ( in my case the spare bedroom) your eye will be caught by something. Someone else suggested to me that you go and start something, anything, for just fifteen minutes and before you know it you are engrossed! From my daily drawing I’ve found that the habit – doing it regularly, has made a difference.
    In relation to writing I read Stephen King’s book ‘On Writing – A Memoir of the Craft’ – a very interesting read.

    • Hi Jean,
      Thanks for this. I must find Stephen King’s book. I was very interested in what you said about drawing. As a daily follower of your blog I am always intrigued by the variety of your subjects, from patterns to landscpre through cats and simple domestic subjects. I can see that you take unspiration from everything around you and often think that you must have a finely tuned power of observation. For instance I noted the pile of washing a few days ago and note that this has now made it to the washing line – do I anticipate an ironing picture tomorrow? I love the way that you capture the everyday in your pictures and make the apparently mundane interesting.

  4. Hello Richard,
    I used to write a lot as a child. I wrote short stories and journals. I have safely kept all the journals. I was the bookworm, the one not playing with dolls and dollhouses with the other kids in the neighbourhood, the one looking forward to library hour at school. I was the one saving my monthly pocket money to buy my favourite Agatha Christie books every month. I would also maintain a record of all books owned by me. I was and still am very possessive when it comes to books! Things changed as I started working but of late I have become a bookworm again and I love it.
    When I face a blank screen, I listen to my favourite singers, I watch a good movie, I dance or I do yoga, and I get back to the screen feeling recharged. It doesn’t work always. But this is what helps me, so I just thought I’d share…

    • Hi Maitreyee,
      Thanks for your input. It seems that we all have our own way of dealing with blank screen syndrome. You are clearly a committed writer.
      When you are in England you must visit my home. I can never part with a book – they are good companions. This once prompted my eldest son to remark “we don’t live in a normal house, we live in a library!” Books have been a liberating influence throughout my life.

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