How to Fill the Blank Page: Advice from Jonathan Franzen, Margaret Atwood, David Mitchell & 5 Other Authors

A couple months ago we featured a video of eight writers on how to face the blank page produced by Denmark’s Louisiana Museum of Modern Art. (And if you should ever find yourself in Copenhagen with time for a bit of a train ride, I do recommend a visit to the museum itself.) Now, Louisiana has released eight separate videos, each offering one notable writer’s viewpoint on that scariest of all confrontations in their profession. But as The Corrections and Freedom author Jonathan Franzen puts it, “the blank page in the mind has to be filled before you have the courage to face the actual blank page.”

“If you say, ‘I want to write,’ and turn on the computer and look at the blank page, it’s over. It’s not going to happen,” says the man who somehow manages to turn out his weighty, American-zeitgeist-capturing novels faster as the years go by. “It’s when you have had a thought in the shower before, you’ve woken in the middle of the night, and suddenly you have a sentence or two — you have something. You’ve already written it in your mind.” In contrast, the even more experienced and prolific Margaret Atwood, author of The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake, sees “something compelling about the blank page that beckons you in to write something on it. It must be filled,” whether or not you’ve filled your mind already.

She likens this phenomenon to “an invitation, but it’s an invitation to something like going swimming in a very cold lake. So you approach it in a similar fashion: you put your toe in, you change your mind, ‘Maybe I won’t do that,’ you put your foot in, ‘Really, do I want to do that?’ You come back, and finally you just run screaming and you plunge in. Unless you plunge in, you’re never going to begin.” The immensely imaginative number9dream and Cloud Atlas author David Mitchell uses a different metaphor: “A blank page is a door. It contains infinity, like a night sky with a supermoon really close to the Earth, with all the stars and the galaxies you can see — it’s very, very clear, maybe at a high altitude. You know how that just makes your heart beat faster?”

If that image doesn’t get you writing, Mitchell has another: “A slightly overweight, bald boss saying, “It’s time to work. Get to work, come on. You’re supposed to be a writer, aren’t you? You can’t just sit around on your fat arse waiting to be inspired, waiting for creativity. You’re stuck? Fine. Why are you stuck? Why isn’t this working? Why can’t you push on with this scene? What are you trying to hold on to what just isn’t working here? Be more honest.'” Have a look at the series’ entire playlist (embedded above), which also features Joyce Carol Oates, Lydia Davis, and others, and you’ll find as many strategies for battling the blank page as writers who win that battle. Whether you use ideas thought up in the shower, plunge straight into the lake, or stare up at the night sky or a bothersome boss, only one thing matters: that your page ends up with some words on it.

Related Content:

8 Writers on How to Face Writer’s Block and the Blank Page: Margaret Atwood, Jonathan Franzen, Joyce Carol Oates & More

Stephen King Creates a List of 96 Books for Aspiring Writers to Read

The Daily Habits of Famous Writers: Franz Kafka, Haruki Murakami, Stephen King & More

Ray Bradbury Gives 12 Pieces of Writing Advice to Young Authors (2001)

21 Artists Give “Advice to the Young:” Vital Lessons from Laurie Anderson, David Byrne, Umberto Eco, Patti Smith & More

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.


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