What Feelings Arise When You Look at an Empty Page?

I signed up for the 30th Birthday Program through SCBWI Carolinas this year, a 9-month program designed to walk participants through thirty steps together to create work in spring and summer in time for critique and submission by conference time in the fall.

One of the writing prompts/exercises…well, let’s just say…it brought up some stuff for me!

Mind exploration exercise from SCBWI Carolinas Birthday Program 2022:

Let your mind wander for 20 minutes. (Seriously. Schedule this.) Breathe deeply. It’s ok if your Inner Critic arrives. Invite your Critic to wander around, too. Open a blank journal. What feelings arise when you look at an empty page? Write them down. Start with the sentence, “This blank page makes me feel….”

“This blank page makes me feel…I mean, not all that much. I guess it’s not the blank page I’ve ever been afraid of. I’m nothing if not ideas. If there’s anything that haunts me (so dramatic–LOL), page-wise, it’s the thing I’m happy with but is not connecting with others. I mean, writers always say (well, not just writers, creatives in general) that the finished piece is its own reward. But when is something truly finished? For picture book writers, an unillustrated (even if otherwise delicious) picture book manuscript is, by its own name/admission, unfinished. What is a picture book, without pictures? Many things, of course–but none of them are in any way what you’d call “complete” or even “satisfying”-not entirely. Look (haha) even at B.J. Novak’s “The Book With No Pictures.” Sure, it’s funny–and clever–but an anti-picture-book is not what most of us are going for. In some ways, writing as-yet-illustrated picture books is like writing a symphony. If you write it, you can enjoy–LOVE–it! But is it finished if you never hear a symphony play it? Yet, here we are, writing these bits of our hearts onto paper, and hoping they, someday are chosen by an editor/conductor for their chance to shine before an audience. I mean, that is the dream. There’s a reason why people pay good money to see a symphony that they would never pay to read or play the sheet music themselves. It’s the collective virtuosity–the sum that’s much bigger than the parts–that is transformative. That brings people to tears–happy or otherwise. That creates an experience. A picture book–without the art–without the reader–I quake. Show me a person scared of this, and I will show my community of kindreds. Yet…we toil. We march on. We write, revise and submit. If we had a choice, we would’ve quit…forever ago. Back when the page was truly blank. So, no, I’m not scared of a blank page. It should be scared of me.”

I’m sharing the result here because I feel like this doesn’t get talked about enough in the picture book community, and if any of you are feeling this, you aren’t alone. In addition to the usual publishing/writer angst, the acute sense of creative incompleteness that pre-published picture book writers may feel–because our stories rely on a second partner we do not yet have before they are truly “share-able”–can be rough. But it’s also okay to acknowledge that weird limbo, even as we strive to overcome it.

Anyhow, highly recommend the exercise. Try it yourself and see what comes of it. You might just be surprised, as I was.