Painting in the Blanks

Finger PaintingCaption: Finger Painting photo courtesy of Mosaic Rob

Therese here. Please welcome the amazing Brunonia Barry–New York Times and internationally bestselling author–to Writer Unboxed. This is her first post.

It isn’t the blank page that I find terrifying. It’s the idea of beginning. I can easily put words on a page, that’s not the problem. I often begin a new novel by doing something I’ve heard described as “clearing your throat.” I usually write fifty to a hundred pages that I will never use, but within those pages I often discover the entire back story of each character and the journey those characters will take together.

So putting words on the screen or the page is not the problem. The problem is this: once I’ve written those first words, I’ve actually begun.  For better or worse, my story now has a hold on me, and, in the case of a novel (or at least in the case of my novels), it’s not going to release that hold for at least two years and maybe a great deal longer than that. As long as I leave that first page blank, I can tell myself that I am still free, that my new characters won’t be waking me in the middle of the night to tell me their life stories or argue about the details they think I got wrong. As long as I linger on the brink and keep those pages blank,  I’m not responsible for anyone but myself.  Deadlines notwithstanding, I am capable of lingering for quite a while.

My favorite place to linger is in research. My novels are contemporary, but they always seem to involve quite a bit of history, and it is there that I prefer to lose myself, sometimes for weeks at a time. For The Lace Reader, I let myself get lost first in Salem’s infamous witch history and eventually in the history of Ipswich’s bobbin lace industry. In The Map of True Places, it was celestial navigation that captured my imagination. Since one of my characters was an expert in this ancient art, I felt that I had to be at least somewhat proficient. I had to know the stars well enough to be able to find my way home from the Mediterranean (I was fortunate enough to be in Italy during this pre-book phase). If I couldn’t make my way from the Amalfi Coast to New England, what business did I have writing about a character who could? Of course I never had to test my skills, thank goodness, but at least I learned how to use a sextant and chart the stars at dawn and dusk.

Because this dedication to the research phase has happened to me a few times now, I have come to recognize a great deal of it as procrastination. As a writer, you have to know your subject matter, you darned well better know it, because, if you don’t, there will be a lot of readers who can’t wait to point out your mistakes. But to insist that you learn every lesson before you put pen to paper can be just another way to keep from getting started.  While it’s true that you can’t make a mistake until you begin, the reality is that no matter how much you prepare, lots of mistakes will be made before that final draft is finished.  When you make them, you’re going to have to fix them by ripping things out, changing dialogue, inventing new plot points, and doing more research. Writing a novel is an uncertain and messy process full of false starts, dead ends, and wrong turns. With lots of hard work, it can sometimes be turned into art.

Which is why I’m going to suggest something to you as a first step: finger painting. It’s messy. It’s imprecise. It will give you the three things that I believe you need to have before beginning a new story: wild abandon, total immersion, and the willingness to get your hands dirty.

Most of us remember finger painting, it was one of childhood’s fun artsy things to do on a rainy day. My mother used to make her own finger paints using food coloring and corn starch. We painted on shiny butcher’s paper, and she always hung our titled works of art somewhere in the kitchen.  I recommend mixing only primary colors, but that’s just me. The minute you get your fingers into the paint, you’ll be transported. By all means, paint with more than just your fingers. I insist. Smear the paint with both hands, use your arms all the way up to the elbows. Roll in it if you are really daring. I guarantee it will take you back to a time when creativity didn’t have to be summoned.  It will put you in touch with the realization that there is no right way to be creative, no structure that contains the method. And best of all, you don’t have to stay between any lines.

When you are finished, hang your painting on your wall. Make sure to look at it every so often as you work. It will serve as a reminder to stay in the place that is messy until the story emerges and you find the threads of art in the chaos.

Tomorrow morning I am speaking about my latest novel to a group of tourists who are coming to Salem on a cruise line. I have reserved the afternoon for finger painting. The next day I will start my new novel. I’ll keep my finger-paint-art pinned to my wall until I finish the first draft.  I’ll let you know how it goes.

Meanwhile, I’m curious to know what all you writers out there do when you start a new project. What are your rituals and creativity secrets?


About Brunonia Barry

Brunonia Barry studied literature and creative writing at Green Mountain college in Vermont and at the University of New Hampshire, and was one of the founding members of the Portland Stage Company. She's the first American Writer to win the Woman’s International Fiction Festival’s Baccante Award. Her first novel, The Lace Reader, a New York Times and international bestseller, was translated into more than 30 languages. Her second novel, The Map of True Places released in May, 2010.


  1. says

    I can totally relate to the fear of being captured by stories and characters! It is something I really have to work at overcoming.

    Thank you for this brilliant tip! I have no idea where I could manage to fingerpaint in my place, but I’m sure going to give it some thought. :)

  2. says

    Welcome to WU!

    Love this post. I’m currently going through that first 50-100 page discovery period in my fourth novel. It can be frustrating if I don’t remind myself that the perfecting and polishing comes later, not now.

    I like your idea of allowing yourself to make a creative mess with finger painting. Music works for me. If I hammer piano keys for a while instead of laptop keys, ideas start appearing out of nowhere. It’s a form of magic, really. Gives me the chills every time.

  3. says

    I’m going to try this. I’m still working on the draft of my 2nd novel, and I have found myself worrying about perfection. I could use the make-a-joyful-mess reminder on my wall.

    Welcome to WU, Brunonia! We’re so happy you’re here.

  4. says

    Brunonia, welcome to WU!

    I’m not a painter, but I do write pages and pages (and pages) of mess. Sometimes I get frustrated with myself and wonder if I’m wasting too much time with this, but now I know: I’m just engaged in my own, messy, “verbal finger painting” to get to the heart of the story!

  5. says

    Aw, this totally made me smile.

    I’m just about to jump into a new ms, and though it’s contemporary, it too requires quite a bit of research. While I don’t think I will actually finger paint, I will definitely keep the metaphor in mind as I begin the first, messy draft. Thank you!

  6. says

    I find that different books start differently, too. Sometimes the voice is clear, but the story isn’t, etc. I don’t actually fingerpaint, but I talk to myself like a Kindergaarten teacher encouraging a child. Ooooh, that’s pretty. That’s good! Here, look, here’s another blank page, just keep going….

    …..because if I don’t, I will lose the wild abandon and start to revise….

  7. says

    Good post!

    I’m a die-hard plotter, so a lot of my throat clearing takes place in prewriting: I write up character sheets completely with chronologies, GMC charts, plot outlines. For me, actually starting the draft is daunting. But I’ll keep finger-painting in mind. That, and Dr. Wicked’s wonderful Write or Die program, and I ought to be set! :)

  8. says

    Finger painting–what a great idea!
    For me after years of research as an undergrad and as a History grad student, it took a while to break free from the constraints of facts and theories. My children re-introduced me to color of all shades and outside the lines as well.
    Since then, it has been great to write and sketch on blank paper. My markers are close-by. On the computer, I can compose in all colors of the rainbow!
    Wonderful article!

  9. says

    Hi Brunonia! I just started working on my second YA manuscript in verse. I tend to write some “meaty” poems first- poems which are at the crisis point for my main character where there is a lot of heart exposed. I have no idea exactly where they’ll end up in the manuscript, which is fine, and fun! I imagine I’m an archaeologist dusting off the first finds. Exciting!

  10. says

    I am just about to start a new project, and I think this suggestion hits the spot. I’ve got the paint, I’ve got the paper, I guess it’s time to go for it! Thanks for the post.

  11. says

    Thanks to all of you for the great insights. When I wrote this post, I was wondering if other writers felt the same way. It’s great to know that some of you go through the same process. I’ve covered the kitchen counter with paper, and I’m heading down to work on my painting now. Might try the pudding and food coloring finger paints this time!

  12. says

    Welcome, Brunonia! And what a fantastic post. I have exactly the same process–the throat clearing, the lingering in the research stage. I’m just gearing up to start my next project after finishing a trilogy. And I’m lucky enough to have a 3 year old finger-painting partner who reminds me daily that creativity both can and should come as easily as breathing!

  13. says

    Oh, I love this. I just started a new project the other day (after a couple weeks doing research, plotting, brainstorming, and the like), and I can’t think of a more fitting analogy. The beginning of a new story is always one of my favorite parts in the writing process. There’s just something about how it’s all wide open, with infinite possibilities and so much to learn about the characters, that’s beyond invigorating and inspiring. It’s such fun to watch the characters paint their own pictures, too, right along with mine. Who knows what a journey the canvas will end up offering? :)

  14. Cindy says

    I have a notebook with blank pages, the kind artists use for sketching, along with a fistful of colored pens. I scribble character names, upside down descriptions of their quirks, and pages and pages of stories about their lives before they came to meet inside the novel. And I take it with me everywhere.:)

  15. says

    No rituals for me. I just sit down and start writing. I have no way of knowing what’s going to happen until I re-read all the stuff that has happened. My only sticking point is that first line, and those have a tendency to leap into my head while I’m driving or doing something else. The trick is to be paying just enough attention to catch them but not so much that it drives them off.

    Marc Vun Kannon

  16. Pamela Toler says

    I spend a lot of my time crawling out of research sinkholes. They just open up in front of me and in I go!

  17. Sharon Bially says

    This is fantastic, Brunonia! I’d never thought about why it’s so hard to begin that first, “throat-clearing” phase, and now I realize: the story then takes hold, and won’t release it for years. Just like you said. Thanks for articulating what I’ve been feeling for about three months, as I mull over new characters and new conflicts for a new book that I just can’t bring myself to begin jotting down words for.

    Ok. Tomorrow. Ahem.

  18. Sharon Bially says

    One more thought on this: in my novel Veronica’s Nap, the MC is a painter. There’s a scene where she describes the conceptual process of beginning a new painting the “gray matter” phase, named after the mushy and amorphous gray matter in the bran that channels random stimuli into coherent signals. She talks about “throwing random blobs of paint onto the canvas then sifting through the big blog of confusion to excavate the seed of her inspiration…” Only when the mess is on the canvas can she tease it out into a clear image over time.

    Sound familiar?

    Enjoy the finger painting!

  19. says

    Welcome to WU, Brunonia. :)

    As for creativity, I find anything playful helps. Crazy dancing, eating dessert for breakfast, sand fights… Now that my kids are almost-grown, I have to work consciously to be playful, but the opportunities are there.