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Ania Szado: I'm a Coward When Faced With the Blank Page

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Ania Szado will be appearing at Trinity Bellwoods Park on Saturday, June 22, from 12 - 4 p.m. at A Literary Picnic, part of Luminato Festival 2013. With the theme of "Beginnings" as inspiration, over 60 authors will take to three stages to share selections from their work and offer insight into where a story begins, and how writers confront the blank page. Many of the participating authors will also be setting up their own picnic blankets "backstage" for one-on-one exchanges with the public throughout the day. On each Saturday leading up to the festivities -- as well as on the big day itself -- The Huffington Post will be presenting blog posts from selected authors on how they personally handle writing that daunting first word. Here is Ania's contribution. And check back in next week for Evan Munday's take.

When I first decided to try writing, I borrowed an electric typewriter. I would roll in a blank page, flip the switch to "on," and the machine would start up with an authoritative wail. It sounded like this: "Check it out! She thinks she can be a writer! She's going to start writing now -- ha ha ha ha ha!" I would shut off the typewriter and slink away.

Enter the computer age; exit the blank page. No more mocking drone. Instead, there's the screen: white, relentless, waiting to sneer. But quiet, at least. It's easier to block out sight than sound. If I couldn't see myself trying to write, I could pretend I wasn't doing it. I could pretend I was just thinking, that I was imagining what I might do if I had guts.

To trick myself into writing without knowing I was writing, I would make the font so tiny it was unreadable, shrink the window to its smallest size, crank down the brightness of the screen, and then shut my eyes as I wrote. Sightless, I saw only the characters and settings that sprung up within my mind. There was, essentially, no longer a blank screen to face. There was only blackness, and the stories that felt their way from my mind to my blindly typing fingers.

I didn't attempt to edit; it was hard enough to remember what I'd last typed, never mind counting strokes of the "delete" key to try to replace a phrase. If I sensed that I could improve upon whatever I had unspooled into the dark depths of the computer, I continued on, adding the new version to the mix. The only point was to lay material down and to keep laying it down until it took on enough weight and presence to break the numbing spell of the mocking blank screen.

Yes, when faced with the blank page or screen, I was a coward to the nth degree. Decades later, I still am. I might, in fact, be even more fearful now -- because experience has made me excruciatingly aware that the most intimidating, daunting, and unnerving material is typically the most vital to pursue.

Out of sheer necessity, I've accumulated a slew of ways to get myself going. There are the classics: Set a timer. Start with a writing exercise. Give yourself permission to write really badly. (This last one leaves me feeling as lousy as the prose.) But the most effective blank-breakers are those that arise in direct response to the specific difficulty-slash-terror elicited by a particular project.

When I felt paralyzed by the challenge of writing author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and his renowned The Little Prince into my novel Studio Saint-Ex, the solution turned out to be to step away from the laptop and take up my notebook -- not to work on the manuscript but to ask and answer questions about the character's circumstances and motivations, and my goals. I would work there until the panic subsided and the emerging revelations sent me rushing eagerly back to my keyboard.

When I was stymied by doubts that I'd be able to draft a very different novel, I committed to a one-month deadline -- did NaNoWriMo, in fact -- and found that the blank screen became insignificant when hitting plot points and a crazy word quota were my only priorities.

When, after years of abandoned starts, I recently started working with what is my most personally challenging material of all -- I can hardly bear to mention it here -- I found the blank screen and page had again bested me. In desperation, I have turned to cue cards. I write a sentence, fast, heart in my throat, and throw the card into a box. Then another. Another. One day, somehow, I'll find the courage to move from those cards to unblanking the page or screen.

Ania Szado is the author of the acclaimed national bestseller Studio Saint-Ex. Her first novel, Beginning of Was, was regionally shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers' Prize. Please visit www.aniaszado.com.

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