Confronting the blank page: fear and transformation in writing and life

How do we face fear, particularly when that fear is about our art and creativity?

In a letter to Vincent Van Gogh, written as part of an exhibition, the novelist Nicole Krauss notes:

You write about fear: Fear of the blank canvas, but also, on a larger scale, of the “infinitely meaningless, discouraging blank side” that life itself always turns toward us, and which can only be countered when a person “steps in and does something,” when he “breaks” or “violates.”

How do we face such fear as writers, as human beings? Krauss writes:

Bravery is always more intelligent than fear, since it is built on the foundation of what one knows about oneself: the knowledge of one’s strength and capacity, of one’s passion.

We all get stuck in patterns that don’t help us to live up to this strength and passion and capacity. Too often, what we feel we know about ourselves is not our strengths but our weaknesses. I’m much more keenly aware that I struggle with mornings than that I write in deep flow late at night. Or we goad ourselves on with willpower — to diet, to exercise, to write 1000 words a day, fail and feel helpless and lacking in both capacity and fervour.

But we can change. Breaking patterns involves not conformity to what it takes to be ‘successful’ (however that is defined) but digging into what motivates, delights and inspires us.

There are times when breaking patterns does not have to be huge shifts fuelled by diminishing reserves of willpower but small, consistent steps that compound into huge transformation. Changing habits can work like this.

But, of course, some changes are enormous and radical. They involve such comprehensive breaks with what has gone before that it would be strange if they did not scare us. The opening of Dante’s Inferno is one of those terrifying moments of paradigm shift:

Midway upon the journey of our life

I found myself within a forest dark,

for the straightforward pathway had been lost

And in Krauss’s letter to Van Gogh she picks up the metaphor of the path, noting that sticking to the well-worn way means

we’ll miss contact with the truth every single time.

As in life, so in writing. We have to be prepared to look at the blank page, the well-worn path and ‘violate’ it. It is terrifying and it’s so much cosier to hide in our excuses, to believe we are incapable or have no alternative or that it’s our ‘nature’ not to be able to change.

This is fear talking and so often fear works by being amorphous. Fear is vague, it’s the material of what ‘might be’, of poorly formed yet ubiquitous imaginings. Fear is not what will happen but the worst thing that could happen. It is dire anticipation as Mark Twain sums up:

There has been much tragedy in my life. At least half of it actually happened.

And yet the blank canvass or the path of life lost in the dark forest also represent the chance to make something new. This is going to take focus and energy. It is likely it will involve some extremes of emotion but it is also the way to create and the way towards a life that is richer and deeper. It will certainly involve confronting whatever terrifies us, whether it’s a blank page or leaving a long-dead marriage; whether it’s a huge creative challenge or moving across the globe. As Krauss says:

Today it may be the fear of failure, but tomorrow it will be the fear of what others will think of us, and at a different time it will be fear of discovering that the worst things we suspect about ourselves are true.

[… ]

And yet even if we could scrape away the many forms our fear takes and get to the underlying source — our mortality, our division from the infinite — we would still discover that our fear is not based on actual knowledge, unlike the part of us that chooses to be free.

Van Gogh certainly understood this. In his own letter, written to his brother, Theo, he wrote:

However meaningless and vain, however dead life appears to be, the man of faith, of energy, of warmth, and who knows something, doesn’t let himself be fobbed off like that. He steps in and does something, and hangs on to that, in short, breaks, “violates.”

So the page or the screen stares back at us. The huge decision sits in the pit of our stomach, waiting. It is both terror and our moment of chance and Krauss uses an extraordinary metaphor from Kabbalah:

In Jewish mysticism, the empty space — the Chalal Panui, in Hebrew — has tremendous importance, because it was the necessary pre-condition for God’s creation of the world. How did the Ein Sof — the being without end, as God is called in Kabbalah — create something finite within what is already infinite? And how can we explain the paradox of God’s simultaneous presence and absence in the world? And the answer to this, according to the Kabbalah, is that when it arose in God’s will to create the world, He first had to withdraw Himself, leaving a void. To create the world, God first had to create an empty space.

And so we might say: The first act of creation is not a mark, it is the nullification of the infinity that exists before the first mark. To make a mark is to remember that we are finite. It is to break, or violate, the illusion that we are nature that goes around in a loop forever. But it is also a confirmation of our knowledge and freedom, which is all we have in this world.

The absence of the presence of God is a notion that carries into other western spiritual traditions and, whatever faith tradition (or none) we may follow, it’s a powerful metaphor. The origin of any act of creation is not the initial mark but a kind of self-forgetting, a withdrawal of ego so there is space for whatever comes next.

After this comes the mark, the act of breaking, changing and transforming that in turn marks us as finite but also free. It’s hardly surprising that we feel fear and yet, as Steven Pressfield points out in The Art of Fear

The more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it … the more fear we feel about specific enterprise, the more certain we can be that the enterprise is important to us and to the growth of our soul.

Whether the fear is of the empty page or living alone or leaving a secure but soul-crushing job, it can be as motivating and stimulating as it is paralysing. But only if we trust ourselves and trust the process. Too often we hide instead.

We might hide behind excuses or increasingly unlikely anticipated scenarios. Or we might put barriers between ourselves and the creative act, the act of marking or changing that feels radical. In The Courage to Create, Rollo May talks about how tools and mechanisms can act as barriers between ourselves and our unconscious world to stave off fear:

This protects us from being grasped by the frightening and threatening aspects of irrational experience … the danger always exists that our technology will serve as a buffer between us and nature, a block between us and the deeper dimensions of our experience.

Whether your hiding place is an iphone or an app; a conviction that you don’t have the skill or can’t learn it; a worry that you don’t have the time, or a thousand and one other voices that rise up in us, keeping us small, the only time to start, the only time to make the mark that breaks into the terrifying blank space, is now.

We can change. What story do you want to write? What story do you want to become?

Becoming a different story

Thank you for reading — sign up to my email list and I’ll send you a free PDF on writing and the writing life. While you’re on the site, take a look at the free courses available and at my forthcoming book, Writing Down Deep. I’ll be using the book as the core text for a community of writers next year and I’d love you to get involved — either through the highly accessible community track, or a mentoring track which will also involve one-to-one sessions and feedback on a writing project plus a residential.

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Editor, author, feminist & part-time nomad. Helping others develop their writing life and practice. Blog @

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