My high school English teacher, who I could probably blame for inspiring me to get a lit degree, is now a fairly successful writer in his own right. When I was stuck in that weird place between high school and college, and he beginning that equally weird transition from paycheck to freelancing with words, he’d complain to me about how much trouble it was to face down the blank piece of paper sticking out from the top of his typewriter. One sweltering summer afternoon, during a break from stacking wood outside his house, we gulped down lemonade as he told me about some advice he’d gotten from James Hayford, a local writer who had admonished my then-teacher to get past the romanticism of such terms as “writer’s block” or “finding inspiration.” “Some days,” James had told him, “it’s about the regular application of the seat to the bench.”
Starting a piece isn’t pretty, and it’s rarely easy. It is, however, work.
Still, to hear them talk about it, writers come off as a fairly mystical bunch when they describe their rituals for overcoming that first blank page. Some swear by the legal pad, others the typewriter or word processor; one especially terrifying poetry teacher at my college suggested “drinking enough martinis throughout the day so that your piss can open locked doors.” Douglas Adams would simply ignore his publishers’ frantic phone calls as he blew past his deadlines, and John Warner would simply have you haul your fat ass to the gym. Sadly, we haven’t yet bottled an elixir that makes the process hurt less than, say, a root canal from Laurence Olivier, so the search for consensus marches on.
Me, I’ve fucked ’round with several methods. College had me tapping out essays and journal entries into Word, producing documents usually set in some arch-pretentious font like Goudy Old Style, and usually written the night before the due date. Once I became one of the rentpaying legion, I toyed around with a pocket-sized 5-star notebook and a mechanical pencil, carried around in whatever passed for my jacket at the time (ah, the days before laptops and Moleskines). But while my medium’s changed a bit—hello, blank TextMate document—the actual mechanics of pushing past that awkward first sentence and into something tolerable, if not actually interesting, hasn’t gotten any easier.
Maybe I should start in on those martinis.