A graphic designer told recently about how he had once bought a bunch of new notebooks that were crisp and clear, and a joy to own.
Then he sat the books aside and didn’t draw anything in them. He didn’t want to ruin their perfect blank pages.
He shared the story with a group of us who were starting a graphic design course for the first time, to help us understand and confront the fear of the blank page.
It felt like another one of those moments where once you’ve thought about a topic, it becomes a repeating theme.
Up to that point, I had been thinking mainly about the concept of ‘writer’s block,’ which is essentially a barrier to filling the blank page.
Much has been written about the dreaded blank page and for me, it’s a topic which says so much about the creative process.
There’s no denying that the empty page, both literally and as a metaphor for the creative work that is either yet to be started or yet to be finished, can be a source of fear and anxiety at times.
The graphic design teacher read my mind, as I sat there clutching my brand new A3 sketch pad and a pencil case brimming with new pens and pencils, wondering whether I had what it takes to use them.
That moment of self doubt is one of the real issues here. That’s true whether you’re a writer, a graphic designer, a painter or any other creative who starts with a blank page.
Numerous things can drive it, including:
1. The fear of failure. A lack of confidence and belief can be self fulfilling, so it pays to be mindful about your self talk. Listen to any elite athlete and you start to understand how important it is to visualize not just your ultimate success but also the steps that will get you there. That can only be achieved by starting with a mental picture of success, not a fear of failure.
2. The fear of not delivering something perfect. There’s no such thing as perfect. All creativity is subjective and relative. Your ok may be my brilliant. Also, there is always more to learn and potential to improve. Every blank page is another step in your creative development. Just get it done and keep getting it done.
3. The fear of producing something that isn’t as good as someone else’s work. Comparing yourself to others doesn’t work in any aspect of life and it’s death to creativity. It’s better to compare your work to the work you did yesterday or a year ago. All that matters is your relationship with your own creativity. Just on this point, I believe that like love, creativity is unlimited and we can all share it. Someone else’s creative success isn’t a threat to your own creativity, so as creative people we should support and encourage others.
It’s essential to reframe these perspectives into something more positive. A blank page is not a threat, it’s endless opportunity and potential.
We talk about turning over a new page in our lives for a reason. The blank page is a chance to start afresh and it can be anything you want it to be.
Of course, that’s part of the fear as well. When something is limitless, it can be exciting and it can also overwhelm.
Here’s where we can learn a lot from children.
Have you ever watched a small child with a piece of paper and some crayons?
There’s no hesitation. The colour goes straight down on paper and everything they produce is shared with pride.
They don’t question whether it’s perfect. They don’t stop to worry about whether it’s worse than anyone else’s work. They certainly don’t set out fearing failure.
Somewhere along the line we learn to compare and we learn about criticism – from others and for ourselves – and with that comes hesitation and fear.
All of us produce at our best when we’re in a flow state. When our inner critic is quiet and we’re swept along with clarity and confidence.
Like me, you’ve probably also experienced that moment when you review something that flowed out of you and you land with a thud. Now the inner critic has started to question whether it’s all rubbish, whether you’re in fact rubbish at what you do.
Even if there is room to improve, there’s always another blank page and an opportunity to try something different. There’s also the opportunity to edit, redraft and build upon what you’ve already produced.
So the next blank page is something to seek out and fill.
There’s a lot to be said for doing it with abandon. Doing it like no one’s watching.
Even better, write or draw like you’re wielding a crayon and you don’t care who’s watching.
It’s so true what they say. The worst things that you ever wrote or designed or painted, are better than the ones you never produced.
That’s not easy to believe when you’re cringing at something you created years ago. But even those moments are proof of how far you’ve come by filling multiple blank pages.
This is what I plan to keep telling myself as I continue to write and start to experiment more with design.
To make that easier, I should bookmark this once-blank page.