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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