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Writing, Believe Me, Is Hard Work
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There is nothing quite so intimidating as an empty computer screen - unless it's an empty mind.

A blank sheet of paper in the typewriter, some false starts, a few nonsensical sentences used to be bad enough. But at least you could rip the sheet out and fling it in the wastepaper basket. And thrust the carriage viciously to the side until the bell rang in protest.

You've seen all those movie scenes of crammed baskets, crumpled papers lying around them and the would-be author staring myopically into space or writhing in agony on the bed.

But an empty computer screen just stares back at you, flickering faintly, waiting to be filled. Like a pet animal that's hungry and just sits there, with its tongue hanging out.

Writing or at least starting a story is hard work. Whoever came up with the idea that the words just start to flow like molasses when somebody sits down to a computer terminal to compose. Ever heard of writer's block? Ever come across the sweat and blood of composition?

Of course, you can go to your e-mail, if you like. But there was nothing new on it five minutes ago and five minutes before that and five minutes before that. You see, I do check my messages frequently, probably too frequently because I'm hoping somebody will do my writing for me, send me a story readymade.

And what was new was of no interest to me from the point of view of stirring an idea for a story. Just info, more info, on everything under the sun and personally irrelevant.

Give up then. Don't even bother to concentrate. Maybe an idea, the glimmering of a start will sneak up out of nowhere if you don't think too hard of anything.

Go to Google. Type in a subject. Any subject. Take off on a ramble through the ionosphere. It's like flipping channels on the television. You don't have to concentrate on anything for more than a few seconds. Yes, your mind is turning to mush ... just keep changing channels. There's got to be something worth watching out of 150 channels or however many they have on televisions nowadays. My programming gives me about eight channels and that's far more than I ever find time or energy to watch.

But I ramble. Back to the written image. For me, it is so much easier to read than to write. Words are like a narcotic; I find myself reading anything and everything from the recipes on the side of my breakfast cereal box to the headlines on the newspaper to all the billboards along the highway - and the words seem to have a hypnotic influence.

I even turn over credit card and insurance offers and read the lawyer's small print on the back. I'm both fascinated by the precision of their language and the number of situations they can manage to exclude from coverage.

Doctors' offices are my delight. You always have to wait. So you always get to read, unless they're trying to insult your intelligence with television. And now you get your choice of topics you don't generally peruse like the private lives of movie stars and magazines about fishing and riding to hounds and interior decoration.

When traveling abroad in my college days, the first thing I looked for in a foreign city was a newspaper kiosk with publications in English. I was impressed how the large cities of Europe carried not only their own newspapers in French or German or Spanish or whatever but also the leading newspapers of England. And, of course, I was glad I spoke the language of half the world and not something difficult to find like Afghan or Punjabi.

My 'drugs' of the printed word were still available.

John Branch is editor of The Riverbank News and a staff reporter for The Oakdale Leader and The Escalon Times. He may be reached at or 847-3021.