02 January 2023

The Blank Page

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that many mystery writers were once reporters.  It surprises me that more weren’t advertising copywriters, since we faced the same daily dilemma:  how to fill up that blank screen on demand, usually with precious little time to do so.  This is the ultimate cure for writer’s block.  If you don’t do that thing they pay you for, within the deadline, you’re fired. 

This is motivating.  Especially if you’d been on the job long enough to have acquired a mortgage, a few kids, car payments and a spouse who expects you to hold up your share of the financial bargain. 

My approach was to pull up the empty document, then go to the bathroom.  I found the walk down the hall to be energizing, and often standing at the urinal, something would come to me.  An opening line, perhaps, or recalling a popular song that might provide some inspiration.  Sometimes I’d think of a great headline, and the following copy, then realize it was an existing ad.  Maybe even one I’d written myself.  At this point, I was forced to go back to my office.  

I’m old enough to have started in this work before there were computers.

In those days the blank page was bright white marker paper favored by the art directors.  This provided the opportunity to start filling up that first page with doodles.  I had various themes, but finally settled on drawing lizards, with captions.  This did nothing to prompt creative inklings, though it did compress the timeline until the ideas needed to appear almost immediately or I’d be switching to writing compelling resumes.

Another approach was to just start writing down anything that came to mind, whether it related to the purpose at hand or not.  Hence the first words of an ad could be, “An army travels on its stomach”, or “These are the times that try men’s souls.”, or “It is a far, far better thing I do than I have ever done.”  Though the resulting copy was usually far, far worse. 

Procrastinating in the hope that something useful would come to me was great for my inner-office social life.  I’d jump back up out of my chair and start meandering around the halls, popping in on my fellow writers and art directors and striking up an inane conversation.  Since they were also in the throes of an impending deadline, they were more than happy to interrupt their work to exchange thoughts on the British Royal Succession, Saturday Night Live or the comparative merits of tile versus hardwood flooring. 

Our traffic manager, the woman in charge of agency workflow, would usually break up these tête-à-têtes with a glower and a sigh, and a look at her watch. 

The thing is, the idea always did appear.  I can’t explain why, though I suspect it had something to do with getting myself into the proper frame of mind.  I knew a writer who could only start her workday by driving her car to a lake, emptying the car’s ashtray into a paper bag, and cry for a few minutes.  One writer, I forget his name, would spend all day in front of his typewriter, and often only begin something as the sun started to descend.  He did this day after day, every day of the week.  Hemingway wrote standing up much of the time, which I suspect forced him to start writing so he could sit down again.

If I’ve conquered the problem of getting the writing started, I’ve yet to overcome it’s counterpart.  Not being able to stop. 



  1. Oh Chris! I was an ad copywriter too! My husband and I ran our own mini-ad agency up in the Tennessee mountains, and I well remember sitting at my desk, pitching ideas to him, to myself, and later to clients, because we had to come up with something, and come up with it FAST. I think the biggest challenge - and if you'll think about it, I'll bet you'll agree with me - was writing the copy for a catalog of flagpoles... Hard to keep it "straight" in more ways than one.

  2. The lizard artwork suggests "art director" could have been a career alternative had writer's block persisted.

  3. I can offer lots of anoles, alligators, and a couple of iguanas. Send $29.95 plus $35.15 shipping to Post Office Box…
    A friend would launch into obsessive house cleaning whenever she had a deadline. I thought we should marry.
    Happy New Year, Chris.

  4. I cannot help but feel a kinship with anyone who starts their workday with a short cry at a lake.
    Very funny and so real! We’re all grateful you haven’t figured out a way to stop writing, Chris.

  5. Cannot help but feel a kinship with anyone who starts their workday with a short cry at a lake. Very funny and so real— We’re all grateful you haven’t figured out a way to stop writing, Chris.


Welcome. Please feel free to comment.

Our corporate secretary is notoriously lax when it comes to comments trapped in the spam folder. It may take Velma a few days to notice, usually after digging in a bottom drawer for a packet of seamed hose, a .38, her flask, or a cigarette.

She’s also sarcastically flip-lipped, but where else can a P.I. find a gal who can wield a candlestick phone, a typewriter, and a gat all at the same time? So bear with us, we value your comment. Once she finishes her Fatima Long Gold.

You can format HTML codes of <b>bold</b>, <i>italics</i>, and links: <a href="https://about.me/SleuthSayers">SleuthSayers</a>