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The Terror of the White Page

Colum McCann > Letters to Young Writers > The Terror of the White Page

The terror of the white page. The idea that you have writer’s block is far too easy. You have to sit on your arse and fight the blankness. Don’t stand up. Don’t leave your desk. Don’t pay the bills. Don’t wash the dishes. Don’t check the sports pages. Don’t open the mail. Don’t stray in any way until you feel you have fought and tried. If, at the end of the day, the page is still blank it does not mean that you have failed. You have to put in the time. If you are not there, the words will not appear. Simple as that. In order to write you have to be present. The words will come. They might not arrive as burning bushes or pillars of light, but no matter. Fight again. Then again. If you fight long enough the right word will most likely arrive and if it doesn’t at least you tried. A writer is not someone who thinks about writing, or talks about it, or plans it, or dissects it, or even reveres it: a writer is the one who puts his arse in the chair when the last thing he wants to do is have his arse in the chair. A writer is someone who knows that even no words on the page is better than no time at the page. Good writing will knock the living daylights out of you. Very few people talk about it, but writers have to have the stamina of world-class athletes. The exhaustion of sitting in the one place. The errors. The retrieval. The mental taxation. The dropping of the bucket down into the well over and over again. Moving a word around a page. Moving it back again. Questioning it. Doubting it. Railing against the attractively defeatist. Not conceding victory to the negative. Getting up off the ground when you’ve punched yourself to the floor. Dusting yourself off. Readjusting your mouth shield. Sustaining what you have inherited from previous days of work. Remembering. Don’t worry so much about your word count. Your word cut is more important. Often the more words you cut the better. Never forget that a good day might be a hundred words less than you had yesterday. Then you try the same word again. Attempt it in bold. Look at it in italic. Increasing the font size. Arse in chair. Ass in chair. Shifting it around again and again. Arse in the chair. Deciding a word shouldn’t appear at all. It is all about time, time, time. Arse in chair. Arse in the chair.