Looking white in the face

“Fear of the White Page”
(Oil on canvas)
by Erik Pevernagie

I went to boarding school for three traumatic years between the age of eleven and thirteen. Although essentially a comprehensive school with a tagged-on boarding house in the car park, it held onto many of the old grammar school traditions, uppermost in my mind was a culture in which prefects would mete out preposterously time-consuming punishments for minor misdemeanours. For example, for drawing comics when I should have been doing homework, I was charged with the crushing responsibility of describing in not less than 1,000 words: “WHITE“, thus preventing me from finishing my comic or completing my homework. It is not without some surprise that I find myself, half a lifetime later, sitting down to write the 2013 version. The title may be a little more interesting, but it is essentially the same subject. “WHITE“, or to be more specific, the fear of it.

Do you ever feel afraid of the white page, the blank canvas or the empty Photoshop™ document? A lot of people do. There’s even a word for it; Vacansopapurosophobia. It’s a common complaint among creatives, similar to writers’ block. It is the inability to get the ball rolling, a crippling lack of confidence at the outset of a project or a sense that anything you try, will fail. Where do I start? How do I start? Should I bother starting at all?

All of us struggle with a sense of worth. Is it the fear of failure that makes us feel uneasy or, as Franklin D Roosevelt said, fear itself? Perhaps those who manifest these feelings into a pathological fear of the colour white may be extreme cases, but ultimately their fear is no more irrational than the fear of failure.

The psychologist Abraham Maslow in his 1943 paper “A Theory of Human Motivation” proposed that human desire can be divided into a hierarchy of needs. Maslow argued that once we have achieved the baser needs and desires of life, we strive to achieve a state of self-actualisation; the psychical manifestation of all our potential. Effectively the metamorphosis from what is possible, to what is. Contentiously, Maslow placed “self-actualisation” at the pinnacle of his pyramid. His critics point out that the penniless painter, slapping paint onto canvas, may be pre-occupied with self-actualisation above all else. The tortured artist may forgo food and drink to buy the paint he needs or more blank canvases.

“Just slap anything on when you see a blank canvas staring you in the face like some imbecile. You don’t know how paralyzing that is, that stare of a blank canvas, which says to the painter, ‘You can’t do a thing’. The canvas has an idiotic stare and mesmerizes some painters so much that they turn into idiots themselves.”
Vincent Van Gogh

Van Gogh’s coping strategy appears to have been immediate eradication of the offending blank canvas. Anyone who has watched children play will recognise this technique. The first thing a child does when settling down to play is to empty their toy box all over the floor. The child revels in choice. They instinctively recognise the importance of inspirational resources. A pile of toys is like a pile of ideas. Unrelated and disparate thoughts, building blocks to be assembled into a meaningful pattern. They do not start with nothing, they organise the chaos.

“The blankness of a new page never fails to intrigue and terrify me. Sometimes, in fact, I think my habit of writing on long yellow sheets comes from an atavistic fear of the writer’s stereotypic “blank white page.” At least when I begin writing, my page isn’t utterly blank; at least it has a wash of color on it, even if the absence of words must finally be faced on a yellow sheet as truly as on a blank white one. Well, we all have our own ways of whistling in the dark.”
Memoirist Patricia Hampl, in an essay called “Memory and Imagination.”

Although many artists and writers combat this fear of the blank page by spoiling or filling the page as quickly as possible, there are a considerable number of artists who practice the exact opposite. Instead of adding to the canvas, they subtract.

Tintin in Tibet
by Hergés

Hergés, the celebrated creator of Tintin, was plagued by recurring nightmares, filled with whiteness. He consulted a Swiss psychoanalyst, who advised him to give up working on Tintin. Instead, he finished Tintin in Tibet, started the year before. Hergés, actually transformed the white from his nightmares into snow, literally revealing the potential of the fear itself. Converting it into minimalist scenes, of tremendous power, with economy and clarity. We are transported to another world, a world of Hergés’ creation; something that may never have existed if the author had not struggled and ultimately triumphed over his fear. Hergés made a choice to continue and in doing so exorcised his phobia forever.

The blank canvas or document is a portal into another world. Potential manifest. The artist, as the creator of this world, must make choices. Every brush stroke, key press or movement makes the world more solid, for better or worse. A single brush stroke in the wrong place can subvert or transform that world. Every choice is a doorway to another reality but beware, for every door that opens an infinite number of alternate doors close.

It is said that Michelangelo stared at a single 18-foot block of marble for four months. When asked what he was doing he calmly answered “sto lavorando,” (I’m working). Three years later that block of marble was the statue of David. Michelangelo held a belief that a sculpture already exists inside a block of marble. He believed that it was the sculptor’s job to chip away the superfluous, in order to free the “idea” inside. Did Michelangelo ever feel afraid during those long months spent gazing at that virgin block of marble? I’m sure he did.

“A sculptor is chiseling a statue out of a raw stone when he is asked “What are you making? Is it Ganesh? Is it Lakshmi? Is it a man? Is it an elephant?” He replied ”I do not know; there is already a statue inside and I am only removing the extraneous material. It will come out on its own!”

You could describe the coping strategies of Michelangelo and Hergés as ‘subtractive’. Their creative process sets about revealing the idea by subtracting the extraneous white space. Alternatively, Van Gogh adopts an ‘additive” approach by slapping on the paint, as carelessly as possible in order to avoid confronting the blank canvas at all.

Whether we choose to embrace or eradicate the white page, we must avoid becoming consumed by it. The blank page is a Mirror of Erised, reflecting idealised versions of our ideas back at ourselves, ultimately transfixing us into inactivity. Ideas can be blinding and dazzling but they can also consume us. We should view our ideas with caution; as a child peers at an eclipse through a pin-hole in a piece of card.

Do you feel like an impostor?

Professionally, 2012 was an important year for me. Although it started slowly, about mid-way through the year, something changed. I became aware, that for the first time in my career as a Digital Designer, I had stopped feeling like a fake and was beginning to feel like I knew what I was talking about. My stuff began to look better, my clients seemed happier with my work, I was smashing deadlines and my normally manic workload actually seemed manageable. Best of all, I was less dissatisfied with my output, and more forgiving of its faults.

Looking back, I can’t put my finger on exactly what changed or what set of events or circumstances precipitated this shift of attitude but I can say for certain that I feel very differently about my career today, than I did a year ago. I no longer feel like an impostor! I may actually be the real deal!

To back this up, throughout the tail end of 2012, I found myself stumbling upon various articles and interviews featuring a diverse range of influential creatives. They all seemed to back me up with similar epiphanies of their own. It seemed like everyone creative (film directors, architects, broadcasters and musicians) had been through the same process I had gone through.

In his documentary, Sketches of Frank Gehry, Sidney Pollack makes an interesting point during an exchange over Gehry’s dinner table. He claimed that for the first few years of his career he felt like he was pretending to be a director. This feeling disappeared gradually until one day he woke up and shrugged “Hey I’m a director.” Gehry agreed enthusiastically, remembering his own lingering feelings of inadequacy.

So, I’m not alone, I thought. What is it that’s changed? Is it experience?

In the documentary The Promise: The Making of Darkness on The Edge of Town, Bruce Springstein draws a distinction between Creative Instinct and Creative Intelligence. The former you heavily rely on when you’re young. “That doesn’t feel right, try something else.” It’s only in later life that the Creative Intelligence allows you to pull the ace out of your sleeve.

frankbruce

This idea of Creative Instinct and Intelligence seemed to be reiterated by the American broadcaster Ira Glass. I heard a podcast in which he played a radio story he recorded after eight years in the business, as an experienced broadcaster. It was rubbish! Barely comprehensible. He then explained that in his opinion every creative person goes through a period in which there is a disconnect between their taste and their ability. Everything they do is short of the mark, and they don’t know why. That’s when most people quit. He believed that the only solution is to do more more. Paid or not. Keep going.

I was flicking through one of my old notebooks, when I re-descovered some of the notes I had made of a talk given by Joe Sparks, the American Flash animator during a Flash Forward conference I attending in Amsterdam in 2003. He casually remarked that the lead time for one of his Devil Doll and Radiskull animations was two weeks! It was as if I’d been given a unique insight into the process. I asked myself, could I have done the same in two weeks? Was he faster than me? It seemed like I had been given a yardstick with which I could measure my own skills. Why had this snippet of quite useless information been so important to me? I had even underlined the “2 weeks”. I rarely underline anything.

I think the final contribution to my enlightenment came thanks to a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs programme. I didn’t catch their name, but given that they were talking to Kirsty Young, they must have been fairly successful in their chosen field. The guest confessed to sometimes suffering from “Impostor Syndrome”. What? Impostor Syndrome?

Impostor syndrome, sometimes called impostor phenomenon or fraud syndrome, is a psychological phenomenon in which people are unable to internalize their accomplishments. Despite external evidence of their competence, those with the syndrome remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve the success they have achieved. Proof of success is dismissed as luck, timing, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent and competent than they believe themselves to be.
Wikipedia

Finally my condition has some legitimacy!

My blog, has always carried the strap-line “A Blagger’s Guide to Multimedia” because that’s how I felt when I first got into the business. I was winging it and flying by the seat of my pants. My self-confidence was far outstripped by my ambition. This ambition was enough to keep the momentum going, if I worked hard enough I didn’t need to worry about my self-confidence. So maybe I’m not a blagger after all. Maybe it’s time to design a new WordPress theme? Although, as I was copying and pasting the block-quote above, I stumbled upon another psychological condition that may prove more difficult to grow out of. The Dunning-Kruger effect.

The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which unskilled individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly rating their ability much higher than average. This bias is attributed to a metacognitive inability of the unskilled to recognize their mistakes.
Wikipedia

Did this new found self-confidence come as a result of noticing these interviews and articles? Did the confidence itself, once acquired, somehow lift a veil that enabled me to recognise their importance? I don’t know. Either way, I don’t feel like an impostor any more and neither should you. If you’ve read this far, I’m sure you are going through a similar journey. Good luck.

We’re a funny bunch aren’t we? You, me, Sidney Pollack, Frank Gehry and the Boss. Take heart we are in good company!

Coding in your sleep.

Pithy words of wisdom, often appear mundane. So I’m going to be quick. The secret of successful coding is sleep.

I recently found myself in the hazardous situation of having too much work booked at the same time. My post-summer holiday bank balance allowed me to become seduced by the dark side. I counted that twilight world after 1:00AM as a friend. In reality the hours between 1:00 AM and 5:30 AM are cruel and the full of mischief. Time becomes distorted, decisions become unreliable. The walls between illusion and reality become a thin and fragile membrane through which errors of judgment can seep. When coding this can be dangerous. Sometimes it results in the odd harmless typo, here and there; easy enough to correct. Sometimes, it can lead to a full fledged haemorrhage.

It strikes me that our culture doesn’t much like sleep. I spent a few minutes trying to find pro-sleep quotations on Google and yet from the greatest minds and thinkers throughout history, it seems that sleep is rarely given the credit it deserves. Most references appear to offer the opinion that the fool / peasant sleeps while the genius works through the night. I remember hearing a labour politician talking admiringly about Tony Blair’s work ethic, indicating how impressed we should all be in the meagre two hours sleep Tony allowed himself when he was Prime Minister. Is this a good thing? Oh the irony, of John Prescott sleeping like a baby during a health debate at the Labour Party conference in 2005.

We all accept that healthy minds and bodies depend on a good night’s sleep and yet how often we feel compelled to push ourselves beyond comfort into late nights and fatigue.

Whether it be a result of capitalism or some kind of “propaganda without portfolio”, the reality is obvious. We cannot think clearly without sleep. Not only does our productivity and efficiency drop to very low levels as the night wears on but we are often robbed of the following day as well.

I almost lost a good client, not because I couldn’t do the work or deliver it on time, but because I was too knackered to programme properly.

So the next time you find yourself burning the midnight oil remember that a lot more than a deadline may be at stake. One all-nighter can ruin a week and if you are unlucky enough like me to have spent a week from hell vainly trying to repair the damage caused by decisions made during such a session, be warned, you may loose a lot more than sleep if you persist in burning the candle at both ends.