This morning, I sat down to write, intending to work on a story I’d started a couple of weeks ago, but I couldn’t find it. I can only guess it’s on the other computer, but that left me with a problem. I was unexpectedly catapulted into ‘White Page Syndrome,’ you probably know what I’m talking about, but in case not, here is some medical detail, because the Internet is a great tool for self-diagnosis after all.
According to many eminent doctors, White Page Syndrome affects 97% of writers at some point in their life. Unless they are fortunate enough to take dictation straight from God, but that brings it’s own problems, as Mohammed would probably agree.
Symptoms include, fidgeting, nose-picking, palpitations, shortness of breath, restlessness and an involuntary compulsion to do low-priority household tasks, like sewing up the holes in tea-towels and fishing goo out of plug holes with a crochet hook. Some resultant behaviours are harmless enough – doing repeated ‘Word Counts’ on works-in-progress and formatting the page to how it would look in a book is admittedly a waste of time, but causes no real damage. But in extreme cases you can develop a full-blown ‘Fraud Mentality’: that you will never write again, you never were a writer in the first place, and why on earth would anyone be interested in what you have to say anyway…
Familiar, at all?
If so, here’s something you should try. This is my ‘In Emergency Break Glass,’ exercise, and I used it this morning after an hour and a half of drawing blanks for ideas and progressing through an accelerated series of symptoms. It may not work for everybody, but I swear by it, and I hope it works for you too.
Write ‘Fifteen First Lines’ at the top of the page.
Do what it says: Your task is to come up with 15 opening lines, be they for pieces of prose fiction, poetry, life-writing or whatever. Try not to think about it too much and set yourself a low enough bar to be able to get some momentum up. You’re going to write 15 of the buggers so it doesn’t matter if most of them are as flat and deluded as a Britain’s Got Talent auditionee. Be playful, let the first influence the next, no matter how randomly, you might for instance end up on a series of first lines that are all based on memories from a certain time of life, or might be you deliberately parodying a writer you love (or hate…)
What to Expect…
When I do this exercise, something strange happens. For a start, I have never got to fifteen, often, I don’t get past five. Because before that, something sparks. The first handful of first lines go nowhere; then one will come that needs me to write maybe two lines for it, and then a bit further on, there’ll be one where I need to add a few words in brackets to remind me of where those two lines could go – because I’m starting to get an idea… And then, before you know it you’re writing a whole paragraph and you have to remind yourself that you haven’t got all day, you’re trying to get to fifteen, after all.
In about an hour, with a bit of luck, you will have that wonderfully smug sense of satisfaction that means you can have a cup of coffee and something involving chocolate.
Say you have just one line that you think you could come back to another day and do something with, then the exercise has been a success. But, you’ll probably find that there are more than that, you may even find you’re on your way with something right now, in which case, why are you reading this? Get on with it!
And the next time you sit down and feel the dreadful prickling of White Page Syndrome, you can revisit the lines you came up with today and see if there’s anything waiting for you, ready to be picked up and run with …
If you’ve ever wondered what two White Pages get up to if left on their own, watch this amazing video of “L’Angoisse de la page blanche” (The Anguish of the White Page) by Ariel Schlesinger.
 Ok, I made this up. But so do the make-up adverts, I’m sure.
 Which is nonetheless unbelievably satisfying.
 My friend had a box of travel sickness pills once and on the side it said ‘If anything unusual happens, consult your doctor,’ which meant my poor friend spent more time in the surgery than out of it. That year we had snow in June, there was a tornado in Birmingham and Jeremy Kyle said something quite sensitive.