by Jim Denney
“Almighty God, bestow upon us the meaning of words, the light of understanding, the nobility of diction, and the faith of the true nature. And grant that what we believe, we may also speak.” —Hilary of Poitiers (A.D. 315-368)
“Blank pages inspire me with terror,” novelist Margaret Atwood once confessed. And John Steinbeck, the Pulitzer- and Nobel-winning author of The Grapes of Wrath, once confessed in his journal, “I suffer as always from the fear of putting down the first line. It is amazing the terrors, the magics, the prayers, the straightening shyness that assails one.”
Terror of the blank page is as old as literature itself. In 1295, Dante Alighieri wrote in Vita Nuova (The New Life), “It seemed to me that I had undertaken a theme too lofty for myself, so that I did not dare to begin writing, and I remained for several days with the desire to write and the fear of beginning.”
Anne Lamott, in Bird by Bird, reveals her solution to the fear of the blank page: Prayer. She writes, “I sit for a moment and then say a small prayer — ‘please help me get out of the way so I can write what wants to be written.’”
G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936) was famed for his literary criticism, theological essays, and mystery tales featuring the priest-detective Father Brown. Like Anne Lamott, Chesterton approached every writing project with an attitude of prayer. He once wrote:
You say grace before meals.
But I say grace before the concert and the opera,
And grace before the play and pantomime,
And grace before I open a book,
And grace before sketching, painting,
Swimming, fencing, boxing, walking, playing, dancing
And grace before I dip the pen in the ink.
What should an author pray for? Inspiration. Wisdom to write truthfully. Courage to write boldly. Grace to write freely. A mind that is open and receptive to new ideas — and to the urgings of the Spirit. A heart that is open and sensitive to the hurts, hopes, and dreams of readers.
(I prayed for you, reader, as I wrote these words.)
After praying, the writer must then write.
A story is told about Winston Churchill, who was not only England’s greatest prime minister, but also an author and artist. I can’t vouch for the authenticity of the anecdote, but the point it makes is absolutely true.
Churchill was in his garden, confronting an easel and a blank canvas — and he found himself blocked and unable to begin. He was afraid to put the first brush-stroke on the canvas. He would daub his brush with paint and raise it — pause — then lower it without leaving a mark.
A neighbor lady watched Churchill go through these motions several times. Finally, in exasperation, she strode into his garden, took the brush from his hand, and flung a splotch of paint onto the canvas.
“Now, paint!” she said.
And Churchill began to paint.
If you wish to accomplish anything in life, whether it is building a business, starting a Bible study, or writing a novel, you must begin at the beginning, you must confront the blank page, you must write the first sentence (either literally or metaphorically) of your work.
Don’t be intimidated. Don’t be afraid to make your mark. Breathe a prayer to the Author of the Universe, the Source of Creativity. Ask for inspiration. Ask for boldness.
Then fling something new and creative onto the blank page of this moment.
Once you’ve begun, don’t stop. Let the work you do become God’s answer to your own prayer.
And if you’d like to learn more about how to write faster, more freely, and more brilliantly than you ever thought possible, read my book Writing In Overdrive, available in paperback and ebook editions at Amazon.com. —J.D.