Thursday, March 1, 2012

Beginning Writers: The Great White Tunnel by Mandy Houk

            If you stare at it long enough—and who hasn’t?—a blank page can begin to look like a long, vacant tunnel. More ominous, I believe, than a deep, dark, black one. In a black tunnel, there is the promise, or the delicious threat, that something is hiding in there—something you have only to stumble upon and discover. A bright white tunnel, though, seems to have no secrets. No hidden treasures to find, explore, experience.

            That Great White Tunnel is literally nothing without you. Terrifying, isn’t it?

            Learning to face the blank white page is hardly a problem exclusive to beginning writers. No matter how many years someone has been plugging away at this craft we call writing, the blank pages don’t get any less blank. The difference between a beginning writer and an experienced one is simply this: the experienced writer has been here before. The feelings of inadequacy, impending doom, and who-do-I-think-I-am-ness are familiar. The experienced writer still feels all of those feelings, but he or she has learned to push past them. Eventually.

            There are likely as many solutions to the problem of the White Tunnel as there are struggling writers out there. I can only share what works for me. (By “works for me,” I mean, “keeps me from dissolving in a gigantic puddle of tears.”)

            First, I keep in mind a quote from Nora Roberts: “You can’t edit a blank page.” Every writer knows that first drafts are awful (Ernest Hemingway famously said, “All my first drafts are s***.”). The real art of writing doesn’t happen until you’re revising. So my first goal when stepping into the Great White Tunnel is to litter it with lots of little black letters, like tossing cracked black pepper in front of me as I go. On particularly fear-inducing occasions, when my mind feels as empty as the tunnel appears, I might even start out with whining. In my character’s voice, of course. She might complain that I’m waking her up. He might rant about another character’s annoying habits. Whatever gets them talking.

            After the first few sentences, I have a finger-wrestling match, trying to keep my right pinky away from the delete button. About 99% of the time, whatever I’ve got on the page is truly, horrifyingly awful, and the despair I was feeling before I started tossing all that pepper only intensifies. When the page was blank, at least the idea that I was a hack was merely theoretical. With the first few sentences, though, that theory is in the process of proving itself, and I desperately want to go in reverse and feel fear again rather than disgust.

            In order to win the finger-wrestling match and tame that stubborn pinky, I often have to speak out loud. I start with that trusty Nora Roberts quote I mentioned earlier. In particularly stressful situations, I’ve been known to revert to elementary school favorites: “Shut up, Stupid-head. Just shut up!”

The goal here is to remind and promise myself (and my pinky) that I have no intention of letting another human’s eyes fall on the awfulness I’ve thus far produced. I will just keep working to fill up that page, decorating the tunnel with cracked black pepper. In the meantime, I’m praying fervently that my character will say something useful, something inspired, even something shockingly obnoxious. Anything that will get my mind and imagination on the track that was hidden under that snowy whiteness all along. Something that my pinky finger wouldn’t dare touch. It won’t be brilliant; it won’t be polished and immune to revision. But it will be enough to get me rolling. It’s as if the tunnel’s opening were a steep, uphill climb, and if I can muster enough courage and strength to push on, I’ll not only find the track, but I’ll find the crest of the hill!

After that? Hold on. It’s quite a ride.

About the Writer:  Mandy Houk teaches high school writing and freelances as an editor and author. She's sold several nonfiction articles and stories, and placed in a couple of short fiction contests, but she has yet to break into book-length fiction. Her first novel is safely and appropriately in a deep, dark drawer. Her second is seeking a home with a literary agent.