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The Cold Open: Facing the Blank Page

It’s any writer’s greatest fear: Facing the blank page with no ideas to get started. William Kenower shares how to get into the right mindset to begin writing and find your muse.

It’s any writer’s greatest fear: Facing the blank page with no ideas to get started. William Kenower shares how to get into the right mindset to begin writing and find your muse.

This article was originally published in the January/February 2020 issue of Writer's Digest.

Facing the Blank Page

I’ve been writing six days a week for more than 25 years. For the last 10 years my schedule has become so clocklike that I am predictably at my desk by 6:28 a.m. I never miss a day unless I’m traveling or it’s Christmas. I also always write something, whether it’s a complete essay or part of a chapter. Yet every time I sit down at my desk, whether I’m working on a book or a blog, I am never in the mood to write. In fact, I often begin my day’s work with this thought: I’ve got nothing.

It’s true. That’s my starting place nearly every morning. I believe, in fact, it’s where every writer who writes with any regularity begins their day of work. In my experience, it’s absolutely normal, if not inevitable—and while I have worked and am still working to master many aspects of the craft and business of writing, it’s the beginning. Those first minutes at the desk before anything’s happening—before any ideas have come, when I am stone-dead cold without a single ember of interest in my mind—require the most discipline from me, as well as remind me what it means to be human.

Because I am a human first and a writer second. This is always the order of things. I have five senses and I like to use them—indeed, I must use them if I want to get about in the world. I need them to drive my car and walk from one end of the living room to the other. I need them to have a conversation with my wife; I need them to know if my tomato sauce needs more sugar, or if my lawn needs mowing. I can imagine many realities, but I cannot really imagine living in this world without at least some of my senses.

What’s more, I like using those senses. They are a source of pleasure and, maybe most important for a writer, inspiration. I see a photo of a man wearing a beret and I’m reminded of my friend Doug from Providence who made a joke once while we were sitting at a café that since we both wanted to write we should be smoking filterless cigarettes and wearing berets like French intellectuals. That gives me an idea for an essay about appearances and authenticity. I hear car brakes screeching and I remember nearly getting into an accident the other day. I get an idea for a piece about the relationship between attention and trauma.

And on and on … Most of my life, or at least what I’ll call my domestic life, is lived within a relationship between the outside world and my inner world. The outside world is brought to my inner world through my senses, where it triggers and inspires thoughts and memories, fears and dreams. The world feeds me in this way. Every argument I get into, every joke I hear, every show I watch, every book I read, and every meal I eat creates its own momentum of thought and feeling and memory.

Then there’s writing. In order to write, I have to forget about that outside world. I might be writing about it, but all writing comes entirely from my inner world. I cannot depend on my eyes or ears for inspiration. They are only a distraction. After all, when the writing’s going really well, when I’ve fallen down the rabbit hole of the dream that is my story, I forget entirely about the time of day or what’s going on outside my window or my bills or who’s president. All my attention is on that inner reality called a story, and it is as good and clean and life-affirming an experience as there is. There is nothing better than being in that flow, fully in the dream.

There is also nothing worse than feeling like I’ll never be in the flow, that it is as distant and unreachable as Jupiter. Which is why it’s so important to remember that moving from your domestic frame of mind to your writing frame of mind takes time. Even though I wake up and meditate first thing, and make coffee and open a document without reading emails or catching up on the news—even though I do all I can to not engage with that domestic world, I still have to let it go before I can start writing. My attention is not yet where writing happens, is still attuned to the outer world. So, I still start cold, with no awareness of ideas, with nothing yet I want to say, detached from any story I told yesterday. I must take this moment seriously. I must care as much about how I move from the domestic frame of mind to the writing frame of mind as I do about my economy of language and the power of a good ending.

Here, then, are a few tips for getting into the writing frame of mind.

Remember That Starting Cold Is Normal

That you’re starting cold doesn’t mean anything about you. It doesn’t mean you have no talent; it doesn’t mean you’re not a writer; it doesn’t even mean you’ve “got nothing,” as I often think. All it means is that you are not yet connected to the source of all your writing inspiration, that you have not yet moved your attention fully inward.

Remember that it’s impossible to have nothing. I have never had nothing. In fact, sometimes my greatest source of exhaustion and anxiety is that I can’t stop thinking, can’t stop having ideas—in particular, ideas like how a book will never get published or that the world is cold and unjust. That’s the kind of thinking that makes me wish I could take my brain out of my skull and put it in a coffee can. I meditate, in part, so I can practice not thinking. It’s not easy. The flow of thoughts just keeps coming and coming and coming, from the moment I wake up until the moment I drift to sleep, and even then they keep coming in the form of dreams. We humans are thinking and creating machines. It never stops.

The question is whether we will receive the kind of thoughts we want. I can’t write a book about how everyone is talented if I’m thinking about the New England Patriots. Having grown up a football fan in Rhode Island, I like thinking about the Patriots, but that won’t help me write my book. Nor will thinking about my cat Olive, or how the lawn needs mowing, or that story my sister told me. No, my mind is like a movie screen and I can only have one movie playing on it at a time. But there is no switch I can throw to begin seeing the story I want to tell; I have to find that story every time I sit down to write.

For many writers, particularly beginning writers, this first moment keeps them from the desk altogether. No matter how good it feels to be in the flow, beginning can be so uncomfortable, so disheartening, that many of the clients I work with do all they can to avoid writing. Better to not write than to sit down and feel like they have nothing to say. Better to walk around feeling mildly like a failure for having spent the day vacuuming the drapes than to feel that dull, dead-inside hollowness of facing a blank page with nothing in your mind, no inspiration, no ideas, no nothing.

Except you have to start with nothing. You have to let the movie you were watching and the thoughts you were thinking end before you can begin seeing your story.

Give Yourself Time

The stillness between the domestic frame of mind and the writing frame of mind is just a natural transition phase, but a transition that takes time, if only a couple quiet minutes. You must allow your mind to become blank so that you can tell your story on it. You can’t write a book on the pages of your favorite romance novel. Those pages are already full. You need a blank page. It’s the perfect and only starting place.

Re-read What You Wrote the Day Before

If you’re writing a book-length project, this is an easy, mechanical way to get into the writing frame of mind. However, it’s not foolproof. Sometimes we start picking at our stuff when we re-read it; sometimes we get to the end of what we wrote and we have no new ideas. Some writers don’t like to re-read any part of the first draft until they’ve completed it. But I have found that returning to yesterday’s pages usually brings me back to my story. Just the act of reading itself helps shift my attention inward, whether I’m reading my own work or a magazine I just bought. It’s why so many people love to read. Also, re-reading my stuff helps me catch the momentum of the story, helps me feel what wants to come next, the way you can play half a melody over and over until you hear how it wants to end.

[Read more from William Kenower.]

On the other hand, if you are like me and also write essays or short stories, then you might often find yourself sitting down with nothing to re-read. I write about three or four essays a week, and I usually start with no ideas whatsoever. Sometimes I’m lucky and I’ve made a list of possible ideas, but just as often, even my notebook is blank. When this is the case, I employ the next technique.

Keep the Door to Your Attention Closed Until a New Idea Comes Knocking

I can’t pay attention to what’s been on my mind. Usually there are only one or two questions I haven’t answered or plans I’d like to make. Yet just as when I lay down to sleep, whatever’s on my mind often comes knocking. I can’t answer the door. I want to answer it because if something’s knocking maybe it’ll be interesting, and right then I’m looking at a blank page and that’s not very interesting. But I can’t answer it. It’ll just come in and keep me busy. I have to ignore the knocking, and before too long, it stops knocking. This, to me, is the true discipline of writing: the patience of purposeful attention.

Once that knocking has ceased, I ask myself, “What’s interesting to me today?” Yes, I have assignments sometimes, but that doesn’t matter. Even though I had been contracted to write this very essay, when I sat down to begin it, I asked, “What’s interesting about this topic today? Why am I interested in it today?” Without my own interest, I can’t write. Until I remember why I’m interested in the book I’m writing, I can’t write it. And until I find a topic I’m interested in, or find out why I’m interested in a topic I’ve been assigned, I can’t write.

And this is the final technique and the heart of the writing frame of mind: interest. Interest for interest’s sake. Not being interested in something because you’ll be paid to write it, not interested in it so you can feel productive and useful and leave your mark on the world. No, being interested simply because being interested feels good.

This is why I love writing. As I wander around the world, I’m always looking for something that interests me. People who interest me, shows and books that interest me, sounds and sights that interest me. For this, my senses are quite useful. But when I write, all my interest is within me. When I write, I remember that I don’t need anything to be interested. I am interested. Our minds are like divining rods for interest, bending within the well of imaginations toward that secret spring from which all stories flow.

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