Tabula rasa

Tabula rasa — a blank slate — offers freedom and potential

When suffering from writer’s block, do as the Romans do and utilize tabula rasa.

Latin for “blank slate,” tabula rasa is a literary term that stretches back to the days of ancient Rome. In those days, people wrote upon wax tablets or tabula. When they wanted a new “page,” they created it by heating the wax and smoothing it out. Though we modern-day writers aren’t penning future best-sellers on wax tablets, we can take a page from those days of hallowed antiquity by utilizing the freedom offered by a blank slate to get the creative juices flowing.

While I pride myself on knowing where my story begins and ends before I write it, the art of finishing my novels isn’t so cut and dry. Things change, ideas change, and I need to keep up with the ever-evolving nature of my own stories. This means having to go back and reword certain chapters – or create additional chapters from scratch – to make the end product meet up to my exacting Virgo standards. Doing this, however, causes me to feel crowded by both ends of the massive mountains of words already on the page. My face becomes flush, my palms sweaty, and my brain shuts down from all that word clutter. I call it “literary claustrophobia” along with a few other choice words I won’t share here.

If this happens to you, there’s no need to panic… not when there’s an easy solution literally at your fingertips.

Harkening back to the Romans use of tabula rasa, I create my own “blank slate” by opening up a new Word document that’s separate of my existing novel. The sense of freedom that comes from looking upon a clean, blank page is exhilarating. So empty yet full of promise and potential, that perfect white screen is an invitation to adventure that beckons me to write without limitation or constraint. There is no hemming and no hawing, only the Zen that comes from doing what is necessary to propel my story forward in ways that are as unique as they are intriguing. At its most simplistic, tabula rasa frees my mind from its own clutter, offering me a much-needed fresh perspective.

Some of my most vivid chapters – and the ones I’m most proud of – were inspired by tabula rasa. The simple act of opening a new page allowed me to tap into the mystical and amorphous language needed to describe a shamanistic vision in Legacy of the Bear. Same goes for the final battle scene in its sequel, Prophecy of the Bear. No longer distracted by a glut of words on a page, I was able to describe this pivotal conflict in all its blood-drenched glory, making it the ultimate climax to a tale best described as an orgy of violence. (So I like my blank pages drenched in blood; it’s a Viking novel, for Odin’s sake!)

What needs to be done after the blank slate is filled should be self-explanatory. Once your new paragraph/section/chapter is written to your satisfaction, simply insert it into your existing document. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the importance of ensuring that your new material matches your current story in terms of is font type and size as well as spacing and margins. If not, you’re going to have a bit of a problem the moment after you click “paste.” While I personally prefer Garamond at 10.5-point size, with spacing set at exactly 12.25-points, I understand that individual mileage may vary.

Bruce Lee once said, “Out of chaos, find simplicity; from discord, find harmony,” and this applies to writing as much as is does the martial arts. I can’t think of a tip more simple and/or direct than opening a blank page and writing upon it; just putting it that way makes it almost sound almost trite… almost. Yet the idea of using tabula rasa to work through a case of writer’s block can elude some of us who are mired in the quicksand of that mindset. In any event, now that you know other people are making the most of this tried-and-true method, maybe you can too.

“When in Rome,” after all!

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