“Almighty God, bestow upon us the meaning of words, the light of understanding, the nobility of diction, and the faith of the true nature. And grant that what we believe, we may also speak.”
—Hilary of Poitiers (A.D. 315-368)
“Blank pages inspire me with terror,” confessed novelist Margaret Atwood. “The scariest moment,” observed frightmaster Stephen King, “is always just before you start.” And John Steinbeck, the Pulitzer- and Nobel-winning author of The Grapes of Wrath, once admitted in his journal, “I suffer as always from the fear of putting down the first line. It is amazing the terrors, the magics, the prayers, the straightening shyness that assails one.”[i]
Terror of the blank page is as old as literature itself. In 1295, Dante Alighieri wrote in The New Life (Vita Nuova), “It seemed to me that I had undertaken a theme too lofty for myself, so that I did not dare to begin writing, and I remained for several days with the desire to write and the fear of beginning.”[ii]
Anne Lamott, in Bird by Bird, reveals her solution to the fear of the blank page: Prayer. She writes, “I sit for a moment and then say a small prayer — ‘please help me get out of the way so I can write what wants to be written.’ Sometimes ritual quiets the racket. Try it.”[iii]
Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874-1936) was famed for his literary criticism, theological essays, and his mystery tales featuring the priest-detective Father Brown. Like Anne Lamott, Chesterton approached every writing project with an attitude of prayer. He once wrote:
You say grace before meals.
But I say grace before the concert and the opera,
And grace before the play and pantomime,
And grace before I open a book,
And grace before sketching, painting,
Swimming, fencing, boxing, walking, playing, dancing
And grace before I dip the pen in the ink.[iv]
What should you pray for? Pray for inspiration. Pray for a mind that is open and receptive to new ideas. Pray for a heart that is open and sensitive to the hurts, hopes, drives, and dreams of your readers. (I prayed for you—my reader—as I was writing these words.)
Pray for wisdom and courage to write truthfully. Pray for an opening line. Pray for the determination to continue writing, even if the opening line doesn’t come. Pray for the courage to begin. Then, after you have prayed—begin.
A story is told about Sir Winston Churchill, who was not only one of England’s greatest prime ministers, but also an author and a painter. Whether the story is true or not, I don’t know. According to this account, Churchill was in his garden, confronting an easel and a blank canvas—and he found himself blocked and unable to begin painting. He was afraid to put the first brush-stroke on the virgin canvas. He would daub his brush with paint and raise it—pause—then lower it without leaving a mark.
A neighbor lady watched Churchill go through these motions several times until finally, in exasperation, she strode into his garden, took the brush from his hand, and flung a splotch of paint onto the canvas.
“Now, paint!” she said.
And Churchill began to paint.
As you face the blank canvas—the blank page of your story or novel—don’t hesitate, don’t be afraid to leave your mark. Instead, breathe a prayer to the Author of Creation, the Source of Creativity. Ask for inspiration. Then throw some words onto your white screen, your blank page.
Write! Make your mark!
Once you’ve begun, don’t stop. Write on.
Let the words you write, the work you perform, be God’s answer to your own prayer.
Jim Denney is a writer with more than 100 published books to his credit, including the Timebenders science-fantasy series. He is the author of several books on writing, including Writing in Overdrive: Write Faster, Write Freely, Write Brilliantly and Write Fearelessly: Conquer Fear, Eliminate Self-Doubt, Write with Confidence. He has written books with supermodel Kim Alexis, Star Trek actress Grace Lee Whitney, and two Super Bowl champions, quarterback Bob Griese and “The Minister of Defense,” Reggie White. He has co-written many books with Pat Williams (co-founder of the Orlando Magic), including Leadership Excellence and The Difference You Make. Jim is a member of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. Follow Jim on Twitter at @WriterJimDenney and follow his blog at http://jimdenney.tumblr.com/.
[i] John Steinbeck, Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters (New York: Penguin, 1990), Kindle edition, Entry for February 13, 1951.
[ii] Dante Alighieri, Vita Nuova (1295), in The Portable Dante (New York: Penguin, 2003), 610.
[iii] Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (New York: Anchor, 1995), 117.
[iv] G. K. Chesterton, ed. by Aidan Mackey, Collected Works of G. K. Chesterton: Collected Poetry (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1994), 43.