When the page or screen is empty, anything can be written on it. Looked at in another way, that page/screen represents infinity before you touch it; it represents the universe and the world as science understands them, and it represents all the probable worlds and possible futures and imagined places and circumstance the writer is capable of writing down or dreaming up.
No wonder it’s frightening. It has no boundaries to it.
Fence out what you don’t need.
Psychologists say we need personal boundaries in order to define who we are and who we’re not, what we believe in and what we don’t, and what we’re willing to do or say or think–or not. Sometimes people who don’t have sound emotional boundaries feel worthless.
Perhaps we get a sense of that worthless feeling when we stare at a blank page/screen and can’t seem to get our story, novel, essay or report started. Writing, while usually presented as a creative, mind-expanding activity (as in, “how to you think up stuff like this?”) is also a limiting activity.
If an empty page equals infinity, then a page with several words on it equals infinity narrowed down to what you wrote. One word, or at least, one sentence, cancels out a lot of the things that could have been on that page or screen. Scientists say that the human mind cannot logically or emotionally conceive of infinity. So, we have to start chipping away at the possibilities and probabilities until we have something manageable.
Suppose the first sentence you write is “Bob walked into the sunlit gulf waters at Apalachicola, Florida.” The limits set by that one sentence are huge. Most of what could have been said, is now out of consideration because it doesn’t fit with a real-world story set in the gulf waters off the Florida Panhandle.
Some writing gurus suggest that when you can’t think of the precise way you want to begin your story or essay, it’s better to write something–anything–rather than stare at the page or the screen for hours. For one thing, if you stare for a long time, then maybe you’re trying to think of a first sentence as what it will be in the final draft of the material when you’re just now starting the first draft. Tip: it’s easier to edit a sloppy sentence into a great final draft sentence than to try to think it up from scratch.
In order to chip away at the scary infinity of that empty page or screen, you don’t even have to write a bad opening sentence. You can simply say, “this is going to be an essay about how love conquers all even in a state prison” or “this is the beginning of my short story about Bob going swimming in the Gulf of Mexico and coming eye to eye with a shark.”
See, you’ve suddenly counteracted the “everything is possible” immensity of the blank page or screen. You’ve set some boundaries within which you plan to tell your story or state your philosophy. Any statement about what you think you might do is almost as valuable as a shoddy, first draft sentence. Or, if you love key words, you can type LOVE, POWER, PRISON or BOB, GULF, FLORIDA, SHARK. If you’re a Twitter person, put a # symbol at the beginning of each word and you’re getting to the gist of your intentions with hashtags.
If you have an outline, it might help. If you have a list of key points, it might help. Anything that “ropes off” your intended subject from the rest of the known universe gives you something your mind and the reader’s mind can deal with. Your little acre of infinity might indeed be mind expanding and totally outside the box when you get done with it. All of that’s easier to get down on paper or on your Microsoft Word screen once you set some limits to infinity.
Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of magical realism, fantasy, and paranormal stories and novels. However, the idea of getting something down on the page worked equally well when he wrote news stories, educational materials and computer documentation.