The tyranny of a blank page

Notes on process, and a recap of yesterday's Substack Writer Workshop

Yesterday, I had the privilege of participating in the very first edition of Substack’s Writer Workshop Series of online seminars. Well over 1,000 people joined, from all over the world — and judging by my email signup numbers, there’s a good chance you’re one of them. Thank you, and thanks to Substack for providing this opportunity.

It was a pleasure to get to talk about how I’ve built this newsletter from the ground up over the last 11 months and 134 letters. If you missed it, but would still like to hear what I had to say while gazing upon my not-quite-looking-directly-at-the-camera face, you can watch a recording of the whole thing here.

As a brief synopsis of what I spoke on in this seminar, I focused on five key points for how I’ve been able to find success in online writing:

  • Presence: be confident in what you’re writing, and present it like it’s a finished, professional product. Write like you’re writing for 10,000 people even if it’s only 10 today; one lucky post might mean that you are.

  • Consistency: determine a schedule that you think you can commit to, and then commit to it. Whether you can write one day a week or five, publish your writing at the same day and time each week. Set expectations and then deliver on them; become a part of your readers’ mental picture of the week. Become something readers anticipate.

  • Incentive: give readers a reason to think about your writing when they’re not in front of a screen, and give them a reason to feel a personal engagement with you. Be responsive and create a dialogue rather than a one-way lecture.

  • Yell About It: promote, promote, promote. You may think that starting a publication and telling people about it once will be enough; it probably won’t be. It might take someone who’s a natural fit for your writing a half-dozen times or more of hearing about it before they decide to click through. You’re going to feel like you’re annoying people by talking about it, but if you don’t believe in it, they won’t either.

  • Write Your Own Story: recognize the opportunity Substack presents to write free of editorial or advertising-based mandates. Write what you believe in; something too small, too personal or too esoteric for an editor to be able to accept on an ad-supported site might be the thing that builds a lasting connection for a reader here. Embrace that, and use it to create something special.

There’s another aspect to that last point that I didn’t fully elaborate on in yesterday’s seminar, and I’d like to expand on it now.

You just have to put something on the page.

It might sound silly or simplistic to state it this way, but it’s absolutely true: the biggest enemy to your creative success is a blank page.

I mention this occasionally in my writing, but I’m an architect by trade, which means I went to architecture school. If you attended the kind of large state university that has an architecture program, you probably know that architecture students have a well-earned reputation: they’re slightly off, and they spend all of their time in their studio. If you’re not in their major, you’ll see them at freshman orientation and then at graduation, and probably not in between. It’s true, in my experience; I spent countless late nights in holed up in our bleak mid-century studio building. I learned the physical limits of the human body’s ability to avoid sleep. I worked until birds chirping told me it was morning and time to head home for an hour’s nap before class/

So what was I doing there? Was I actually working harder than everyone else? 

I thought I was. Most of the time, though, I was just staring at a blank page. I was waiting for a revelation, a moment of divine inspiration wherein I’d put pen to paper and change the face of architecture — nay, change the world — forever. I’d be lauded for my genius, celebrated for seeing the things others couldn’t and giving them shape, form, and order.

So, uh, I wasted a lot of time, is what I’m saying.

I once designed a day spa with a retractable roof, as though you’d go to get a massage and a peel at SkyDome. I designed a library that looked like the Borg from Star Trek. I designed an internet cafe. (That one’s not on me. It was 2002 and it’s what they assigned me. It was a different time.) I designed an abstracted Buddhist retreat center whose incoherent interpretation of Buddhism was only eclipsed by its sheer lack of constructability. 

I designed a lot of bad and weird things, but I don’t regret them — this was around the same time that I experimented with buzzing all my hair off, and found out that I have a weirdly-shaped head. College is a time of learning from your mistakes. What do I regret is all the time I spent staring at that blank page, hoping for something better to come along. 

For a long time this was true about my writing, too. I’d keep a log of ideas for things that I wanted to write, but they’d never get past the outline stage. I’d fuss and fret over getting the structure exactly right. I’d preoccupy myself with a need to know exactly what I intended to write instead of occupying myself by actually writing it. I had to know where I was headed, and as a result I didn’t ever get anywhere.

Something changed for me a few years back. I just started writing. I wrote every day, often unsure of where I was going to go. I’d start with a fragment of an idea — sometimes little more than a title or a sentence that sounded promising in my head — and see what kind of story I could spin around it. And it started to work. I would surprise myself with my own output, landing on end products I’d never have expected if I’d tried to outline them from the beginning. I was sticking a cardboard tube into a cotton candy machine and ending up shocked when I’d pull out something substantial.

I didn’t actually know what I was doing when I launched this newsletter. I knew that I wanted to write; I’d gotten into the habit of writing consistently a few times a week in a steady freelance gig. When that ended I felt like I had still had something more to say. I needed somewhere to put it, so I started a newsletter. I thought I was writing about sports at the beginning; that was what I was used to, and that was the plan. The more I wrote, though, the more I ended up going in other directions. I wanted to talk about the challenges and joys of being a parent of small children. I wanted to talk about cooking, my other primary creative outlet. I decided to talk about architecture occasionally, because it’s technically something I supposedly know about. 

I went in ten different directions, and if there wasn’t a theme, there was a through-line. I wasn’t trying to write what I thought an editor or a reader would want to see; I was writing my own story. If you’re writing your own newsletter, or book, or taking on any other kind of creative project, I encourage you to do the same. Don’t wait for something perfect to appear fully-formed. Find a fragment of an idea and commit to it. Nurture it. Run with it, and see where you end up. Chances are you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the result.

Scott Hines (@actioncookbook)

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