More than a Blank Page (Learning from NaNoWriMo)

A friend and reader asked, "Do you ever have blocked days over the metaphorical, blank white page?" After I received the email, perhaps coincidentally, we watched a great program, featuring graphic designer Christoph Niemann, part of a series on Netflix called, Abstract: The Art of Design, and he faces that blank white page daily as part of his job (he does New Yorker covers, among other great things). His sense of humor is evident, perhaps you have seen his work; it is clever and heart-warming, sly and witty. Just from watching the show, I found my favorite image was very simple: two glasses, with an ice cube in each, longing for each other like love-smitten puppies in a window. His whole point is to get to the essence of an object or situation and work from there. Even bold graphics can have a heart. Heart is the key.

Niemann gives out many of his ideas and processes in the program, and in his numerous books, too, apparently. And I agree with his basic premise of start by moving things around, picking up materials, experimenting and doing something every day. One thing he said stood out to me, "You measure yourself against a lucky moment." That every time you face that page you are comparing yourself to something that you did that worked before, that was successful. Your best work. The only way to go forward is to shake that off, put it aside, stash it away, and start fresh.

Somehow, in November,  I persuaded myself to write two hours every day for four weeks. As I had hoped and suspected, I was able to dig deeply into the writing process and to learn more about writing, about my process and about myself. Here were some things that I can share that seemed to work for me when confronted with the blank page every morning.

It helped to have the setting, a list of potential characters and their backgrounds, and a few ideas for plot points before I even began the project (see this post and the earlier one here). Choosing one character a day and one problem to focus on was helpful, as was thinking about the emotional tone I wanted to take.
Taking a walk allowed me to think better than sitting in front of a screen. It seemed to jostle and coax ideas out of hiding, bring them to the surface. Sometimes I could formulate a first sentence on the walk, which was helpful. A last sentence was good, too, when it was possible. I didn't always know how the story was going to go or end until I started writing.
Writing after eating a meal or snack or after drinking tea worked best. Much easier to concentrate.
Sitting in the chair for two or three sessions, taking breaks, and not trying to write all the words at once was a good idea. But sitting in the chair, facing the page, was how it got done.

If I needed more words I could:
A) Scene. Change the setting in the middle to allow for new responses from the characters or for me to write new descriptions. I could always have the characters go back to where they had been and that would give me three scenes. Here. There. Back again.
B) Interaction. Stay in the same setting but have a new character enter or an old one exit, which provided for a new interaction, or a reassessment of one that had already happened.
C) Sensory. Re-read what I had already written that day and see if I could add something physical, or a smell, taste, touch, or sound. The visual world is the fallback for most writing.
D) Distance. Re-read what I had already written that day and look at how close or far away the point of view appears. Like in a film: are we in a tight closeup or panning the landscape? What does it need to help us feel the situation more closely?
E) Quirky trivia. Glean my notebooks for anecdotes, overheard conversations, dreams, vignettes and see if anything there would fit with the current story. Think about any books I'm reading and what they do. See if there are any plot points I can add based on a film or show I've just seen.
F) Research. Add a list or definition or some interesting facts about something.

Decide. Commit. Focus.* By committing to one project, I learned a tremendous amount. There is no blank page if you have an idea in focus before you sit down to write.

After I completed the project, I donated to the organization, which provides educational programs for all ages. Spending a month writing a novel, and with the encouragement from the website, was as educational for me as Grad School II. Thanks NaNoWriMo!

*2012 blog post with this concept in relation to unfinished projects here.