09 February 2018

The Blank Page: Anxiety or Opportunity?

By Art Taylor

Three weeks ago, I helped lead a Fiction Intensive workshop with high school students at Broad Run High School in Ashburn, VA—young writers released from their regular schedules for the day to concentrate on creative writing. We worked through a number of exercises on building character, plot, and setting, stopping at several points for the students to share their exercises aloud. The work they were doing was imaginative and exciting, even in those quick timed exercises (which I'm never good at myself). Last Friday, I returned to Broad Run for a reading in front of a large assembly—me reading some of my work and several students volunteering to read too. In advance of that reading, I offered a critique of those students' drafts—and continued to be impressed by their work and then also by their readings in front of their peers too. Braver than I might have been at their age, I have to tell you!

But several things stood out to me along the way—things that... well, troubled is too strong a word, and puzzled too, I guess, but maybe intrigued?

A couple of things struck me, let's say that, and my thinking about them has continued to gain momentum over the past week.

The first observation: Out of the 30 or so students who volunteered for the workshop, only five were male. They all took a table together, no women with them, and one of the guys sat there throughout the exercises literally staring at the blank page in front of him, writing nothing that I could see, and looking a little pained about it.

The second: The freshmen in the group were overall far more likely to share their work—enthusiastically so—than the juniors and seniors, who kept more quiet. As the students worked on one of the exercises, I chatted with one of Broad Run's creative writing teachers , who pointed out several students who were particularly strong writers but who were very clearly guarding their work much more closely than others.

I'm interested in the first of these observations for personal reasons—as the father of a six-year-old boy who (at least now) very much loves reading and storytelling and the arts in general (more on that in a moment). I've heard too often stories from parents of other boys about how their sons used to love reading and then simply lost interest, usually around 10 years old from most accounts. Even a quick Google search on "boys and reading" calls up too many articles on the challenges they face, compared with girls, in terms of reading comprehension and even interest in reading at all. Check out this article from the New York Times in 2011 or this one from The Guardian in 2016  or this study from the Brookings Institution or....

But rather than focus on gender differences here, I want to talk more about age—and this interest is also personal, I'll admit, with more to say on my own six-year-old son, Dashiell.

I asked the teachers at Broad Run about the division between the enthusiasm and openness of those ninth graders and the relative reserve of the older students—because I'll admit, it surprised me. My own expectation might have been that older students would be a position of greater leadership, more comfortable in their place at the school, more confident and assured in their work. But the answer I got was that there was more at stake at that age—more self-consciousness about their work, even if the writing itself might have been more advanced in many ways than the work the younger students produced.

Echoing some of this: Yesterday, a writer friend, Liz Mugavero, posted at the group blog Wicked Cozy writers about creative struggles, specifically struggles, as Liz described it, "with process, with procrastination, with plots. With taking myself seriously enough to expect more for myself and my writing life." You can (and should) read the whole post, "Writing with Spirit," here. At one point, Liz quoted Julia Cameron of The Artist's Way talking about "creative injuries," which Liz herself paraphrased as, in part, "something you learned as a child about creativity being shameful or unrealistic to pursue as your life’s work."

What we learn about creativity as children—that emphasis stood out. What parent or what friend might have dismissed the importance of artistic endeavor? Or what part of the educational system devalues the arts at the expense of other lessons, other skills? These are questions to ponder and  obstacles to overcome—those external influences—but in my response to Liz, I wondered as well whether creative injuries might be self-inflicted at times too. In what ways do we ourselves form some judgements about what's "valuable" work and what's... extraneous? superfluous? negligible?

I'm struggling to find words again, but I know that even I find myself too often putting my "real" work ahead of my writing—which isn't real? or isn't work?— and maybe it's not just the size of the paycheck at the end of that process that determines what work "counts."

To bring this even more back home—literally: On Wednesday of this week, we had (another) winter weather day, school delayed, then cancelled, and our six-year-old son needing activities and attention around the house while we tried to get something accomplished ourselves on what became a sudden work-from-home day for us too. A seemingly easy answer: craft projects! And so we gathered up paper and colored pencils and crayons and scissors for Dash—and set him out on a project of his own choosing, a drawing he was going to do for a friend.

As you might expect, things didn't go as planned—do they ever?

But the reasons those plans fell apart—that's what I wasn't expecting.

Dash is a fine artist—amazing both us and his teachers with his attention to detail, the precision with which he approaches his work, his comprehensiveness, his enthusiasm. In Oregon last year, we took a lunchtime riverboat cruise one day, and at a restaurant that night, waiting for our dinner, Dash decided to draw the boat from memory. I'm not sure what others might see below, but this proud parent thought his artwork was great—and told him so.

At times, my wife and I have laughed as Dash repeated some of the praise we've given him—him declaring at one point, "I really am a great artist!" as he dove into a new project. It's a confidence that might come across as cocky from someone older, but it seems charming now, as if he's somehow surprised himself.

....which is why on Wednesday, I myself was surprised to hear nothing but frustration coming from him as he tried to draw an airplane.

This doesn't look right. I messed this up. I did this wrong. I made a mistake. 

I wish I could find and link to an article I read recently about how kids right around Dash's age suddenly see their creative work with different eyes. Where younger kids more often draw or paint free from any self-consciousness, somewhere around six they begin to feel more self-critical—for two reasons. One is comparison with others: so-and-so draws better than me. The other is comparison with the real world: what I drew doesn't look like the thing I was trying to draw.

...or to shift media: So-and-so writes better, and then, what I was trying to write, what I saw in my mind, isn't what came out on the page. We've all been there, I'm sure.

It was a frustrating moment for him—and frustrating too for me as a parent, for bigger reasons. What he was drawing—that plane—it looked fine, and the "mistake" he'd made—a small slip of the pencil along one line, a tiny curve—seemed negligible. But it left him fretful, unsatisfied—and left me wondering bigger questions about how he would handle this new self-consciousness, self-criticism, not just in that moment but in many similar moments still to come, across a lifetime maybe.

Would tearing up the page and throwing it away be a step toward drawing (or writing) better the next time? Surely that can be a good thing—steps toward improving your craft, right?

Or would tearing up that page be just the first step toward walking away from all of it?  leaving all the blank pages behind?

"Remember Ish," I told him, a kids book about a boy struggling with self-consciousness about his own drawings. "Remember The Book of Mistakes," I said, another one that talks about turning mistakes into triumphs. (Good books, I should add, for all of us.) "We'll read those again tonight, OK? It's all going to work out." 

I'm not sure where I'm going with this, I have to admit. I felt like some answer might come to me as I was writing this post, but instead I just find myself thinking about my own frustrations with procrastination and process, those frustrations Liz wrote about, and then about the students at Broad Run High School who were writing fine stories but hesitant to share them, and then about the guy who just stared at the empty notebook and didn't seem to be writing anything at all.

In order not to end this post on a worrisome note, I want to go back further into Dash's childhood and to a couple of lessons that he's taught me about creativity and about getting where you want to go—lessons that I've brought up on panels and presentations myself.

The first is about determination. When Dash was first learning to walk, he was nearly single-minded in his resolution. If he fell after one step, he got up and did it again, until he could take two. And once he had two down, he went for three. It took him a long time to get where he wanted to go, but step by step he got there, and I remind myself of this each time I feel like I'm not making enough progress on my writing—page by page, sentence by sentences, word by work, as long as I'm moving forward, I'll get there.

The other lesson is about revision—and about Lego, something I've already talked about here before. When I'm working on revision, it's often painful to take apart something I've written and try to rework it or worse to scrap paragraphs or pages that simply aren't working. But when Dash is working with Lego, he doesn't mind at all dismantling things—there's a glee in it, in fact!—to follow through on some new idea, some new vision.

There's a courage there and a freedom that I wish I had when tearing down and rebuilding my own work. And it's a courage and a freedom that I was hoping Dash himself would have earlier this week with his own "mistakes."

The good news? He didn't throw the page away. He fretted, but he finished, and the end product looks great.

Those lessons I learned from Dash—I just hope he can continue to hang on to them himself.


I'm thrilled that my story "A Necessary Ingredient" has been named a finalist for this year's Agatha Award, alongside my good friend and fellow SleuthSayers Barb Goffman for her story "Whose Wine Is It Anyway?" Hooray! You can read both stories at the Malice Domestic website, along with stories by the other three finalists too—all for free.

"A Necessary Ingredient" was published in the anthology Coast to Coast: Private Eyes from Sea to Shining Sea, co-edited by our fellow SleuthSayers Paul D. Marks and published by Down & Out Books, and in related news, two other stories from the collection have been selected by Louise Penny for this year's forthcoming Best American Mystery Stories anthology—both stories by fellow SleuthSayers as well: "Windward" by Paul D. Marks himself and "Gun Work" by John Floyd.

Two other SleuthSayers also got tapped for BAMS honors: Michael Bracken for his story "Smoked" in Noir at the Salad Bar and David Edgerley Gates for "Cabin Fever" from Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.

Not hardly a bad showing for our little group, yeah? Congrats to all!


  1. Art, I feel almost out of breath after reading your column. You bring up so many good points, with so many thoughts about our insecurities as writers, or pretty much in terms of everything and how and where they might start. But I think you hit it on the head when you say one just has to take it word by word. Sometimes it’s hard facing that blank page – oh hell, it’s always hard, like that boy in the workshop staring at the blank page. Hopefully he started, or will start, filling that page…word by word.

    There’s so much more I could say, but I want to go back and re-read the post and let it digest. Good piece. And I think Dash’s boat definitely looks seaworthy!

    And thanks for the shoutouts for Coast to Coast and my story, Windward -- a huge, but very welcome surprise. And Big Congratulations to you on your Agatha nom! -- And truly, what a great showing SleuthSayers is making – congratulations to everyone!

  2. Congratulations ot all the Sleuthsayers!

    It seems a sad truth that the wonderful work children can do fades as they advance in school and especially as they reach adolescence. Picasso said he spent half his life trying to relearn to paint like a child, so I suspect there are no exceptions!

  3. Hi, Paul and Janice — Thanks for the comments here, and the anecdote about Picasso, Janice, which I think is fascinating.

    Paul, I felt a little out of breath writing it. The whole thing seems like a mess of observations and ideas without much usable recommendations. I feel like I was fumbling through the post, maybe in the same way I'm sometimes fumbling through the idea of instilling confidence about creativity in my son and my students. But maybe we'll get there, all of us, one step at a time. (And yes, just need that guy in the workshop to take some first, more confident, steps.)

  4. This is the topic of an essay in one of Robert Fulghum's books. How when you ask a group of kindergartners if they can do something or be something, the answer is an enthusiastic "Yes!"

    As we age, the answers get more guarded. "Yes, but I don't sing very well" or "I can draw, but not people" or whatever.

    I'm not sure that change can be avoided, but teachers and parents can certainly develop strategies to answer it - and we can grow into adults who recognize and combat those tendencies in ourselves.


  5. Hi, Mary ——
    Thanks for the comment!
    I haven't read Robert Fulghum, I'll admit; I need to look this up. I do think it's likely unavoidable, for many reasons, but like you said, I hope awareness of these tendencies can lead to ways to avoid them, push past/through them. Thanks much for chiming in!

  6. Great post, Art! I'm going to go back and read those links about boys and reading, and I'll try to remember to tell you the long story that has been fourth grade reading with my son next time I see you, because you might need the information someday. Liz's post yesterday hit home for me, too, though I can't ever seen to get my computer to let me comment on their posts, but thanks for the reminder that I should let her know.

    I will add that I think sometimes a lack of confidence in one's art can tie back to a general lack of self-confidence, for people who closely relate their art and their selves. I sometimes have to purposefully step back and remind myself that my writing is something I created, but it's not actually me, and criticism or rejection of it isn't criticism or rejection of me, either. By the same note, I sometimes have to remind myself (and am thankful that I have good friends who can step in to remind me when I can't manage it) that I am pretty good at writing, and it's okay for me to believe that.

    Thanks for sharing—and yes, Dash's Riverboat is really good! I would've known what that was even if you hadn't told us. :)

  7. "Creative injuries" - this term is going into my vocabulary, Art. I've had a few students -adult students - who have come to my class after taking a U of Toronto writing course (I don't know which one) and they've obviously been shell-shocked. They are reluctant to share their work in class, until they see others do so and not be "shot down" by the teacher (their words.) So it's not only school-age kids who suffer creative injuries, I've found, to my astonishment.
    I've always figured my role as a writing instructor is to encourage students to write more and help them write better. Not to serve as a gatekeeper to publication. We have enough of those.

  8. I drew a portrait of my father when I was five years old. When I showed it to him, he said it looked like something he'd seen on a horror show the night before. I burst into tears.

    But I didn't stop drawing. I drew his face over and over and over again. I just quit showing them to him. Now, 50+ years later, I've taken drawing classes and painting classes. Writing's distracted me from painting the last year but I still am working on my skills.

    I didn't become an oil painter, not because of what my father said, but because I thought it was impractical. So I went to law school and now I can buy all the paints I want and I don't care who does or doesn't like it.

    In summation, the human spirit is indomitable. Relax. Dash will be fine.

  9. Dash's riverboat is VERY good.
    I think we all wrestle with insecurities; when the judgment starts - and that interior critic is often the worst one - I'm not sure. But I think we all have it. I think Dash is very, very fortunate to have the parents he has, who encourage and foster and love him in everything.

    And a big, great congratulations to you, Barb Goffman, Paul Marks, John Floyd, Michael Bracken, and David Edgerly Gates! Wow!

  10. I highly recommend William Pollack's "Real Boys," and you might consider the documentary "Raising Cain," based on Michael Thompson's works. Also, http://www.ourkids.net/blog/boys-are-lagging-feminization-of-schools-6622/ My friend Christina Hoff Sommers has been derided after originally advocating for girls for turning her attention in the past dozen years to boys. Opponents argue it's not sufficient girls now exceed boys in nearly all levels of academic achievement where Title IX has institutionalized discrimination against boys. On university campuses, the gender gap runs 10% overall--20% in state colleges--in favor of girls. Gaps in reading and writing ability range from 10% to 15%, only partly due to syllabi dominated by Sue Monk Kidd, Nella Larsen, Betty Smith, George Elliot, Charlotte Bronte, and Daphne du Maurier. A few years ago, a handful of higher education schools have taken the controversial step of considering a kind of affirmative action to boost boys into college. That did not play well with the public. It's popular to write off performance differences to socialization, but study following study conclude boys' and girls' brains are very different. Girls show greater fine motor skills, social, and language ability, boys excel in athleticism, spatial ability, and in tradition STEM subjects. The dropout rate of boys doubled in less than 25 years following 1980 and continued to expand. Education is considered girlish among students themselves. A gifted boy is considered less of a male on the all-important masculinity scale. Having strong, positive role models helps boys, but fatherless households and druglord heroes harshly impact young males, especially in ghetto neighborhoods where the dropout rate approaches 2 out of 3. In advanced placement classes, girls dominate with 7-8 out of 10 AP students being girls. Schools prefer women teachers: the female-to-male teacher hiring ratio is nearing 3 to 1. In middle schools and elementary schools, only 18 out of 100 teachers are male and in some districts, the ration is 6 out of 100. Although the female principals range 52-62%, some see discrimination here, arguing the shift of men into top administrative jobs isn't commensurate with the proportion of males in the profession. That said, it sounds like you're doing everything right for your child, providing him a 2-parent environment and loving support. Let us hope the odds change so that all children are equally provided support and education.

  11. Parents play a significant role by encouraging or discouraging creativity. For example, both my mother and my wife's mother were artists (oil and acrylic on canvas primarily, though both worked in other media as well). My parents (my mother, especially) encouraged creativity, and writing became my primary outlet. My wife's parents did not encourage creativity, and so she struggles to balance the desire for creativity against the lessons of her youth. Where I throw my art (writing) out to the world, she keeps hers (wonderful drawings and watercolors) mostly hidden.

  12. Thanks, Lyndee, Keenan, Melodie, Eve, Susan, and Michael -- I appreciate both the perspectives and the support!

    Lyndee: Look forward to hearing that story at some point--and to chatting generally. (Keep the faith in the meantime!)

    Melodie: Agreed on the role of writing instructors--I think my main job is at much cheerleading as workshopping many days, and glad to do it.

    Keenan: What a story. So easy for someone to think they're making a little joke (maybe the case?) and not realize the impact it has. I've been there myself.

    Eve: Thanks for the encouragement--we try our best and hope for the best!

    Susan: Thanks for the recommendations here--and the extensive context.

    And Michael: You were lucky indeed! We're trying to be those parents ourselves. :-)

    Thanks again everyone!

  13. What a wonderful post. I have come to believe that resilience is the ultimate trait needed in the arts and in life. I wish I had understood it better when my kids were young, both for my own development and for theirs.

    In our culture, we tend to reward people when things come easily. The kid who could do the math paper in seconds, the artist kid who understood perspective from an early age. The kid who got straight As without ever studying. But it's the hard work, the doing it over and over in successive approximation of the desired result that is the skill that matters in the end, in the arts and in many other endeavors.

    Speaking of other endeavors, I think we often overlook that most meaningful work is creative in the sense that it involves identifying problems or worthwhile challenges, imagining different approaches and trying them out. It's not just the arts that are creative. Science is. Technology is. Building a company from nothing is. In our current economy creativity should be nurtured in everyone.

  14. My BFF graduated from Broad Run High School. She & I have been friends since we both lived in Arlington, Va. in 5th grade. She dropped out of high school to get married & have kids, moved out to the country & finished high school at Broad Run. I'm trying to get her to do some creative writing.

    My parents encouraged creativity but not "my" preferred art form. I studied violin from 3rd to 7th grade & hated it with a passion. When I got to 8th grade I was able to create a schedule conflict so I couldn't take violin any more. I love music but I cannot sing or play any instrument. It is great that you & your wife are so encouraging to your son in all of his activities & interests.

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  16. Art and Tara, I enjoy the loving relationship you foster. Wonderful!

  17. Hi, Barb, Elizabeth, and Leigh — Thanks so much for the comments!

    Great points about creativity, Barb--and about dedication & determination too.

    And such fun the connection to Broad Run, Elizabeth! The students were terrific and the teachers in the English Dept. too. Tell your friend hello!

    And thanks all for the kind words on us as parents. We're doing our best!


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