Tell me, what is the most terrifying color? You know the answer. It’s white. Any writer knows that. It’s the white you see when it’s time to get started. When you’re staring at a white page or a blank white screen. Staring into nothingness. Nothingness that you—you, you feckless mortal—must fill with words.
That, my friends, is terror.
When you first got that computer, the geek at Best Buy told you the white screen is called an LCD. But late at night—say, 3:17 a.m.—sitting there trying to write your first sentence, you know it for what it is: the maw of death. Only another writer—say, Edgar Allan Poe—would understand. At the end of his only novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, he put his protagonist in a lifeboat in a snowstorm near the South Pole and swept him, terrified, into an LCD. Doubt me? Read the final lines and tell me if haven’t ever felt that something like this was happening to you when you tried to write:
The darkness had materially increased, relieved only by the glare of the water thrown back from the white curtain before us. Many gigantic and pallidly white birds flew continuously now from beyond the veil, and their scream was the eternal Tekeli-li! as they retreated from our vision. . . . And now we rushed into the embraces of the cataract, where a chasm threw itself open to receive us. But there arose in our pathway a shrouded human figure, very far larger in its proportions than any dweller among men. And the hue of the skin of the figure was of the perfect whiteness of the snow.
That’s how the story ends! Poe wrote it 1838. In American literature courses they’re still trying to figure out what it means. But, come on. Poe had to write every day just to eat. He had to stare into the whiteness every day. Staring into the whiteness can drive you nuts—or, at least, to the fridge, or to the phone, or out to the liquor store. The latter is not uncommon.
Now, you know–if you’ve ever written anything–that you’ll be okay if you can just get past those screeching Antarctic birds and that malevolent shrouded figure who’s looking at you out of the white depths of the screen and telling you that your writing is a waste of time and you’re not any good at it and it’s too damn bad but you’re going to have to keep doing it forever anyway.
Here’s how to get past him—him and the damn birds and all the assorted neuroses getting between you and your story: Don’t write your story. Write about your story.
What’s it about? Who’s in it? What are their names? What if their names were different? What if you had to leave somebody out? Is there somebody in the story who’s blind, or going blind, or sells blinds, or owns a blind dog? What if there were? Does anybody like to tell that joke about the time Rene Descartes walked into a bar? Is that a machete on the table? Who dies? Why?
The tactic is really very simple: Just write yourself a letter. Test all those ideas you’ve been hoarding about that story of yours, think up some new ones or steal them from somewhere, turn things upside down—just be sure to do it in writing. Writing about your story—as opposed to just pondering how to write your story—will make the whiteness go away. The screen will have words on it. And after you’ve written three or four pages about your story, you’re going to find something in there that’s worth using in your story—a starting point. You’ll find that the scary stuff that loomed before you—the terror in the white screen—will be behind you.
By the way, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym isn’t really any good. But nobody who’s ever read it forgets those final lines.