What’s Write for You

Blank Word Docs vs. Pink Notebooks
If it isn’t perfect, is it worthwhile creating? Nav alum Isabella Ranallo shares her experience entering VIU’s Creative Writing program wide-eyed and hopeful, her subsequent burnout, and how she rediscovered and revived her lifelong love of writing—by writing selfishly.
A stack of pretty notebooks

A blank Word document scares me.

This statement likely resonates with all students at one point or another. It’s a common joke among anyone who has to write an essay, which is almost everyone attending Vancouver Island University.

But my degree is in Creative Writing.

I’ve considered myself a writer for as long as I can remember. At the age of four, I stole a sheet of my mother’s office paper and, wielding a neon green pencil crayon, wrote the first page of a story about 10 kids stranded on a desert island. Fourteen years and countless half-baked story ideas in yellowing notebook pages later, I entered VIU’s Creative Writing (CREW) program fresh out of high school. 

I remember the excitement of being  in a room full of people who loved writing as much as I did for the first time. Perched in my wheel-y chair at the back corner of a classroom in building 345, I listened intently as Robert Wiersema went over the syllabus for Intro to Writing Fiction (CREW 120). 

At first, it was great. 

I felt myself become a better writer with each workshop and lecture, where I was warned against literary evils such as “head-hopping” and extravagant dialogue tags (“ejaculated,” for example, is advised against).

My happiest semester might have been the one where I took five CREW classes at once.

But then….

Then I developed a fear of the blank Word document.

I learned there can be such a thing as too much workshopping. It became so that I wasn’t satisfied with a piece of writing—or any of the individual sentences that made it up—until a professor and roughly 10 classmates had given their stamp of approval on it. Anticipating harsh feedback complete with line edits and comments both on the side and at the end of the cursed Word document, I started ruthlessly editing sentences before I’d even finished writing them. 

I couldn’t write without university-accredited feedback, then I couldn’t write at all. It wouldn’t turn out right, would never be as good as I envisioned, so I never even started.

My professors probably counselled us through these rudimentary imposter syndrome symptoms in every first-year course, yet they persisted. 

I was tired. I started to feel confined by word limits and assignment prompts. I only wrote for university, and I felt like I wasn’t writing anything substantial or with longevity. 

I wasn’t writing because I was too busy getting a Creative Writing degree.

I told everyone I was in the midst of a writer’s block. When asked to share some of my writing, I had nothing to put forward. But I did have ideas.

I’d binge-watched Downton Abbey for the first time during COVID. I’d recently been transfixed by Autumn de Wilde’s 2020 film adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma. I couldn’t stop thinking about character dynamics laced across Taylor Swift’s evermore album. The media I’d been consuming was combining and calcifying into a story idea.

At the end of my second year of university, it seemed clear to me that nothing was going to change. I needed a hard reset.

This was not the first writer’s block I had experienced in my life. My neon-green tinted chronicles penned at age four were similarly halted by the end of the piece of paper. In hindsight, I’m not sure why I didn’t simply acquire more paper, but perhaps I was aware that this hypothetical project would require a lot of it and was feeling environmentally conscious.

At age 10 or 11, I returned to my literary enterprises with the purchase of my first laptop. I started a new approach to the story of the ten kids stranded on a desert island, but by the time I had finished a draft, I had matured beyond the first pages. I identified major plot holes with the wisdom of age (why were these kids stranded on a desert island?) and learned that “jut” is in fact spelled with an “s” (“just”). Dissatisfied after a few months or years of this, I gave up and re-entered my writer’s block era.

Soon after I turned 14, I nervously realized I wanted to write again. I was again inspired by the media I was consuming: this time the movie Frozen (yes, I was and still am a Frozen girl), the ABC TV show Galavant, and history books about the Tudors. 

Not wanting a repeat of my ultimate failure to write a finished “book” at age 11, I sternly made myself refer to my writing as “stories.” Writing a book was too intimidating. Writing stories was doable. 

I also wrote them by hand this time—my sister had gifted me a pink Moleskine notebook for Christmas. That notebook turned into another … and another … and another….

In just over a year, I filled around 10 notebooks of various sizes with some 10 “stories.” It was my most productive and creatively fulfilling period of writing to date.

It so turned out that at the end of my second year at university, I had another blank pink Moleskine lying around. Somewhat desperate, I decided to return to the basics. 

I would write in a notebook—by hand. None of my professors or classmates would read it. No one would read it. It would be exactly what I wanted to write: no guidelines, no feedback. I would be writing for me.

It started slow. Within the first year, I made my way through one and a half notebooks. I packed the half-full second notebook with me when I left for my exchange semester in the UK, thinking it would suffice for the three months I’d be there. 

Shortly after I arrived in Hatfield, I found myself walking to the local Waterstones (British Indigo) to buy a new one. A month later, I was back for another.

I sat up for hours every night in my dorm, furiously writing in these notebooks on top of my flower-patterned duvet cover. I was often overwhelmed about living in a foreign country by myself, yet every night I scrawled some of the writing I’m most proud of.

I thought stress was the issue; perhaps the lack of pink notebooks was the real villain.

The writing continued back home. In the past eight months alone, I’ve almost filled three more notebooks with no end in sight. 

As it was happening, I would have told you I was still experiencing writer’s block. But the stack of full notebooks on my bedside table tells a different story. 

I’m writing again.

Every time I glance at that increasingly tall pile of notebooks, I feel a surge of pride. There is proof of my work—there is almost three years’ worth of my writing. I hadn’t wasted that time.

I do not claim to have everything, or even anything, figured out. I’m still grappling with my fear of that blank Word document. It took me over a month to sit down, create a document, and begin this very piece of writing. But this experience has taught me the importance of doing what you love for yourself.

I graduated from the Creative Writing program last summer. I’m not sure if I’ll pursue writing professionally, or if I even want to be part of the industry. But I do know I’ll keep writing in those little pink notebooks. 

Now, almost three years in, I’m on notebook number seven.

Maybe my writing isn’t good.

That doesn’t matter.

Maybe no one will ever read it.

That doesn’t matter either.

It doesn’t matter if it’s good. It won’t matter if no one ever reads it. It did its job. 

It’s writing for me.

Isabella Ranallo

Recently graduated from VIU with a degree in Creative Writing and History, Isabella Ranallo’s great love has always been storytelling—both fictional and factual. Having previously worked at The Navigator and having edited VIU’s History Style Guide, Isabella has since explored that love as a research assistant at the Canadian Letters & Images Project and the Rossland Museum & Discovery Centre. With both the Barry Broadfoot Award for Journalism and the Pat Bevan Scholarship for Poetry under her belt, Isabella is currently in search of her next story as well as any cats it may involve.

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