The blank page, and the feeling that such an expanse of potent emptiness can exhibit, are familiar to almost everyone. Writers, of course, poeticise it, as writers tend to do, but work is work. Unfinished tasks must be finished. Along the route from starting to finishing anything is self-doubt, fear of rejection and failure, and the wearying tedium of repetition.
The blank page is perfect. Nothing we write on it will make it more complete. In our clumsiness, anything we strike at it with will inevitably involve leaving imperfections where before there was only the unrelenting standard of a clean white space. It is easy to forget that before, there was nothing at all. Now there is something, some of which glimmers with life and potential, and some of which does not, but we so easily forget the miraculous alchemy of making something exist in the world merely by the force of our will.
When Seamus Heaney wrote "Between my finger and my thumb/ The squat pen rests./ I'll dig with it", he was in part declaring writing to be his version of the physical labour his father and grandfather threw themselves into each day. There inheres in every act of creation a common skill – that of getting down to it. Boil things down deeper a level still, and we find the real skill and magic in the most monotonous and pedestrian aspect of the creative act – overcoming resistance.
Steven Pressfield uses this term in his book The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles, a small self-help volume which is not inane or proselytising, neither drab truth dressed up as revelation, nor a lazy, misdirected dilution of someone else's more complete ideas, which often such books can be. It is a book about doing the thing you desire to do, even if the idea of doing that thing paralyses and nauseates you.
For years, resistance made an iron barrier in my belly (and still does), but I could not put a name to it. We all know the feeling – the sense of disgust and stultification that keeps us from beginning, or from finishing, whatever it is we have decided to do. It translates easily to writing, because the blank page pushes it up from your diaphragm until it compresses your throat. It is not quite fear of failure or judgement, though there is that to it. It is not quite laziness. Nor does disinterest cover it, for it can paralyse us in the face of something we know consciously that we want to do.
Resistance is the best word for it – a force which flourishes counter to our will. Resistance is that force which blocks our progress, or our beginning. It is not something we can blame or use to excuse inaction, for we ourselves generate and feed resistance. We can either nurture our work, or nurture our resistance. Most of us choose the latter without even realising. It comes in the form of an intense, primordial miscellany of emotions. Instead of questioning them, we take them as indicators of some secret truth and pacify them by submitting. Nothing changes.
My former academic supervisor, now retired, has been getting up each day and heading into a variety of offices on the campus of Trinity College since the early 1960s. He has written a vast quantity of works over that time. Now in his 70s, he continues to go to his office each day and work until whatever he is working on is finished. When it is done, he goes in the next day and starts on something new. Sick with familiarity and struggling with resistance over the work I was trying to finish, I asked him how he does this. In his polite, quiet way, he looked into the middle distance and thought for a moment, as though heeding resistance had never occurred to him. It probably hasn't. "Well . . . when I reach what might be the ninth draft of something, I start to feel quite nauseated each morning thinking about looking at it again. Then, I just do it anyway, and when I finish the day's work, I feel peaceful within myself".