The Terror Of The Blank Page

By: Michael Fowler

As a writer, I am surely among the bravest people in the world. Others may defend the country on battlefields in foreign climes, rescue folks trapped in collapsed buildings or in roaring fires or swift currents, stare down armed criminals, but I surpass them all: each day, or each day I can summon the fortitude, I stare at a blank page and wait for the words to come.

You scoff? A great writer whose works we still read today, though he wrote months ago and is rather dated by now, put it like this: “I suffer as always from the fear of putting down the first line” (John Steinbeck). But I go Steinbeck one better. Each line terrifies me and makes me suffer as much as the first. So does the punctuation. And so does the spacing. I don’t know which is more terrifying: pages that are single-ruled, or those (pardon my shudder) that are double-ruled. This pertains as much to real, paper pages as to virtual, computerized documents; they are alike horrifying.

As another self-sacrificing writer put it, “Blank pages inspire me with terror” (Margaret Atwood). But it isn’t so much the blankness of the pages that makes sanguine writers like Ms. Atwood bite their lips to shreds and scream at fifteen-minute intervals; it’s what that blankness implies: the need to fill it in with characters and scenes that stand up to the highest artistic principles and will not shame them throughout time. This applies to me as much as anyone. I have felt my knees buckle and fainted at the sight of an unmarked legal pad, and even an envelope to be addressed reduces me to double vision and stomach cramps. After an hour’s writing, I don’t see why someone doesn’t hand me a medal of honor or badge of courage. It’s the least I deserve.

Another hardy author said, “All my life, I’ve been frightened by the moment I sit down to write.” That was the manly, red-blooded Gabriel Garcia Marquez, no sissy by any stretch, as you can see by his mustache. It’s the writing process itself that is horrible, and when you consider the snarling stapler, the sardonic printer, and the pointedly rude pencil that may challenge the writer right along with the mocking blank pages, it’s a wonder anyone ever sets a word down. Writers are justifiably alarmed by the entire horrific business of writing. Even their lunch breaks feel like Code Orange.

In my new play, Ma and Pa and Sissy and Sonny are seated at the dining room table. Sonny — that incorrigible hoss — has just said, “I think I’ll run for President of the United States.” Around the table there is polite applause. Silence follows. Sonny breaks the silence by flashing his trademark bright but not-quite-demented grin and saying, “Under my administration, gays will work openly in restaurants and interior design firms.” But then how should Sissy, his political advisor, respond? The possibilities are uncountable, and yet her words must guide the work on a proper arc and then to a satisfying conclusion. More, they must be in iambic pentameter and not mention Sonny’s habit of bullying freshmen congressmen by spitting in their hot tubs. Quivering at the responsibility, I run from my word processor to the nearest airport, lie on the tarmac so that the planes touch down just over my head, and stay there until my nerves are once again steady enough to proceed with the ordeal of writing.

Marcy, a novelist friend of mine, is also among the bravest of the brave. As I do sometimes to make sure she hasn’t panicked and jumped out the window, I stopped by to see her one morning in the office where she pretends to do data entry while secretly writing her bold works. I found her balled up in her chair before an unmarked Post-it note, tearfully calling an ob-gyn specialist about an epidural to stop the pain and terror. The demands of a 2-inch by 2-and-a-half-inch piece of blank paper, that she intended to stick on her computer screen, were hitting her as hard as labor pangs.

I held her close and said, “Take heart, I’m here to help. What is it you want to convey on this Post-it note? What reminder of character, what deathless phrase, what telling detail?” She regarded me with a mixture of fear and gratitude. Here I was, already spasmodically afraid of my own pages, volunteering to help her with hers. Could there be a greater friend? “Only this,” she managed to gasp, “that I have a hair appointment today at noon.” Alas, I didn’t see any way to transcribe that message that didn’t chill me to the marrow, and left her to her own devices. As I later found out, she was saved when the salon called at eleven to remind her. If only all writing were that easy. I wished I had a hairdresser who phoned me up and dictated my most difficult work to me.

Back at home I stared at my play. I noticed that if I hit the right key, I brought up blank pages in endless succession. Following the blank page that already reduced me to sweating and wobbly knees, there was another and another after that, and so on, until a complete mental breakdown seemed likely. Instead of writing, I patted myself on the back for my bravery and fortified myself with various dark ales until mid-afternoon. What an agony, this writing life!

Before evening I checked in on Marcy again. She was sitting in her writing chair, pale, shaken, a vial of tranquilizers open on her desk, and not as the result of her new hairstyle. She showed me her computer screen, almost entirely blank, but a single line stood out. She had committed words to her processor, a whole line of them, transforming the blank page! No wonder she was a mass of raw, jangling nerves. I read the sole line: “Mark was a man of thirty-five, six foot-two with strawberry hair, who smoked an electronic cigarette.” The brave dear! Now she was committed, for up to a hundred thousand words, a year or more of hard writing, to this man Mark and his excessive height, edible hair color, and peculiar smoking habit. She would be spending days and nights with him, learning his every peculiarity, such as that he was rude to strangers and didn’t return phone calls, that he was faithless and frivolous — unless, of course, she deleted that line and started over with some new character. I was ready to suggest Ted, a shortish man of forty who sucked peppermints ceaselessly but otherwise was nondescript and mostly silent — easy to modify, in other words.

“Are you sure Mark’s the one?” I asked her, unable to keep my voice from quavering. “You can go the distance with him?”

“I think so,” she replied. Then she started to cry. “But Mark can be cruel, and even violent. I feel that coming on in chapter four.”

“You are brave, dear one, brave,” I breathed in admiration. “Just don’t give him any qualities you can’t delete or change later.”

“Yes, “she said. “I must always be able to change him for the better. But how much time will I waste on him before I’m done? How many rejections will I gather?”

“Dozens, without doubt,” I said, thinking of my own experience.

“And how are Sonny and Sissy doing?” she asked. I looked at her. When did I tell her my characters’ names? But I must have told her, since she knew them and, no doubt, was making fun of them in her mind. They were pretty silly sounding, I had to admit, and I decided to delete them later and substitute less ridiculous names. Piggy and Sloopy came to mind. Sounded serious.

I left Marcy and returned home to my play, taking the long route to put off my confrontation with the blank page, limiting myself to left turns only, never exceeding fifteen miles an hour, and extending a twenty-minute drive into an hour and a half. When I got there, I shambled to my PC, hoping the play had written itself. It hadn’t, but I eagerly scrolled through what I had finished earlier, confident that I had completed at least two full scenes. Amazingly, I found only two lines saved on my machine, and they consisted mostly of the words “Sonny” and “Sissy,” which I had decided to delete. I was so depressed I wanted to waterboard myself. For a distraction I turned on the news. Bloodshed and mayhem as usual, but did anyone suffer more than I? Since it was evening, I crawled into bed. I figured that at the rate of two lines a day, I still had ‘er beat. I’d likely live thirty more years — I was only seventy- five and in reasonable health — and that came to, well, the math was clearly on my side. Pulling the cover over my head, I assured myself that I had ample time to complete a masterpiece.

If only I could face the blank page.


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