Peter Whent

May 8, 2024

One blank screen from failure

Every now and then I see a piece of copy so perfect everything stops.

The reader in me purrs. The writer in me gets a hard on.

I pick it up carefully and put it in a match box until I get home, where I transfer it to a tin on my mantelpiece.

There it lives, cluttered with hundreds of other fragments of perfect copy, all preserved for when I need them one day.

One day may be tomorrow, it may be two years from now, or it may be never.

Writing isn’t an exact science. Ask anyone who writes.

My tin is one of the many sources of help I draw on to kick start the creative process.

Instead it might be a breathless short run.

Perhaps an hour of reading, or a luxuriously heavy handed Negroni (or two (or three)), or both.

But even then, it’s perfectly possible to be sitting in Starbucks, three flat whites in, staring at a blinking cursor, feeling as though I’ve written my last interesting sentence.

I’m terrified the blank screen will never see words again.

That’s what's raging in my tiny mind.

All the outside world sees is the guy in the half-zip tip tapping aimlessly on his lap top, off his tits on caffeine.

If I’m lucky, right about now my muse whispers in my ear.

What brings her to me will always be a mystery. But it happens.

The Whisper

She never gives me the all the words. She makes me work.

She’ll hand me a half formed idea, and send me to my copy tin, remembering something I haven’t.

I’ll tip everything on the floor and rifle through it hopefully, until I find a couple of phrases with promise. I’ll push them around looking for a connection.

Sometimes I’ll create the connection by sitting cross legged and sewing phrases together with some new words, like a tapestry.

Other times they’ll just come together. Like pieces of a jigsaw I see the shape, and they fall into place spooning perfectly alongside each other.

And just like that I have a sentence. A sentence becomes a paragraph, and I have lift off.

I have about a thousand puzzle pieces of copy in my copy tin (it’s a spreadsheet really). I couldn’t write without it.

There are no short cuts with writing.

You can’t go to Curry’s (or ChatGPT) and buy a key board loaded with creative ideas, and stop and stare copy that will march you straight to the top of the rankings.

You have to put the work in.

It’s an “always on” business.

The best writers are curious. They’re constantly looking, wondering, noticing, stealing, imagining, and reading.

And they don’t read passively. They analyse, agonise, think, and draw inspiration.

And if they’re smart, they’re hoarders, squirrelling their findings in their own little copy tin (or an Excel spreadsheet), in case of the blank screen moments.

Let’s call my tin what it is. It's a swipe file. It's about five years old and has over 1,000 snippets of copy, hundreds of headlines, and countless great print ads.

They’re not mine to copy, but they are mine to join up, or bend into a new shape, or forge together with other ideas to make even greater ideas.

It’s a collection of head starts, and I don’t think you can write without one.

If you want a giant Oak tree in your front garden, the best time to plant it is 40 years ago.

It’s the same with swipe files. You can’t conjure up 1,000 snippets with a click of the fingers. But you can start collecting today, to help tomorrow.

And you should.

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