3 Facing the Blank Page “Books – the best antidote against the marsh-gas of boredom and vacuity.” –George Steiner Much of my time is spent teaching students how to write effectively, and I enjoy it. The more I teach writing the more joy I receive. Sometimes, I wonder why I like this challenge and so many others do not. Why is it that a blank sheet of paper compels me to fill it with words? Putting my thoughts on paper cleanses me mentally, like exercise cleanses me physically. Writing is not a competitive sport, but it is a demanding activity. Composition insists on the dedication of time and concentration, but writing is a forgiving endeavor. I eliminate mistakes by starting over with a clean sheet of paper. Most people think writing is work, and when I listen to some students from past classes, it is the most difficult work possible. I admit that some of my own school and college classes were filled with mental anguish and physical boredom. Demons of masochism danced inside my head when I prepared a research paper assignment forced upon me. Only later, when I began writing for myself did it become enjoyable. Now, I hurry to a pen when I hear something that stirs me. John Cheever said, “The pleasure of writing is unequaled.” A few years ago, I would not have shared this opinion, but now I most certainly do. A simple person enjoys simple pleasures. Writing is one of those simple exercises that adds to my life. It allows time and opportunity to share my feelings and passion for living. Writing is one of the most intimate forms of communication. Because of this intimacy, I live my life with the maximum amount of pleasure. The older I get, the more I realize that life should not be measured by its length but by the depth one explores it. Writing increases the intensity of my life.
A clean page becomes a new adventure, a mirror of the mind’s thoughts, and a humble prayer of understanding. In the same way that a prayer cannot be taught, the essence of writing cannot be taught. Placing a collection of symbols on paper is a symbol itself. The fundamentals may be learned but not the abstraction. In the way that praying is looking for God and Divine answers, writing is looking for self and introspective answers. Both are gifts not to be overlooked and ignored. Many revered prophets went into the desert to meditate. They found their answers and desired atonement. Their respective deserts provided a removal of excess nonsense. It was a time to seek the truth. People always search for ways to begin fresh. We want to receive forgiveness and grace. We want a renewal of faith in ourselves. We want a clean start. Saints, heretics, and writers have a lot in common besides the suffering and sacrifice that go with their positions. Similar to prophets finding truth in the desert, writers see ideas and feelings on blank pages. The sheet of paper acts like a catcher’s mitt and traps the different pitches of the heart and mind. The writing triggers the bullets of ideas to shoot out of the writer’s pen, like a gun, and strike the 8 1/2” by 11” targets in rows and paragraphs. I heard some priests talking about the desert. One said, “If one lives there long enough, one risks meeting God.” Writers risk similar discoveries. If they write long enough, they risk finding themselves. A prophet’s desert is found anywhere. It does not have to be in a geographic location, and a writer’s tools come from many sources. To find his salvation, a priest must take a leap of faith and cross the barriers of ignorance and death. A writer takes a leap of faith to transcend the fears of mediocrity and writer’s block. Religious people abandon themselves to their gods. Writers abandon themselves to their work. To stop writing is to stop growing and to stop the process of selfdiscovery. Writing is similar to motherhood with its pain and suffering to bring a child into the world. The agony of creating anything, children or an essay, is an art. The human embryo is in the dark for nine months. How long have some of the world’s writers been “in the dark,” until their “babies” were delivered into the light? Anne Frank? Papillion? Solzhenitsyn? Growth comes in the dark for all living things, whether they are children or writers’ manuscripts. 24
Facing the Blank Page
Writing is like farming. The seeds grow in the soul, and the germination period of despair forces the words upward toward the light of exposure. The sheet of paper becomes a plowed field, prepared and planted. The seeds sown in symmetrical rows soon bloom and become ideas. With a final draft or a published manuscript, the crop is harvested. I am impressed by writers who know it is important to write rough drafts, then revise and rewrite when necessary. Young writers who are afraid to revise their first attempts should remember this saying: “Of course, God created man before he created woman. Any artist knows you have to make the rough draft before you can finish the original masterpiece” (Anonymous). I am surprised by writers who have the foresight to achieve brevity of thought. I like writers who can say what they have to say succinctly. Lengthy writing does not ensure quality or permanency. “Did you know that there are only fifty-six words in The Lord’s Prayer, 266 words in Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, and 297 words in The Ten Commandments? However, in a recent US government release of a federal study on the price of cabbages, the document contained 26,911 words” (Harry Wong). I hope to see students achieve a curiosity of inquiry about the writing process and how it allows them to discover themselves. The process eliminates the games people play in covering up their true natures. Keeping a journal hones mechanical skills, sharpens wits, increases clarity of thinking, and reduces the chances of self-deception. What goes onto the page in front of the writer is part of the creator. We owe it to ourselves never to give up hope that what we write, or attempt to produce, will benefit someone, if not another then ourselves. The following applies most importantly to writers and their process of self-discovery: “It is not so much that I value discourse to others that is right and clear and graceful . . . as that practice in such discourse is the only way of assuring that one says things rightly and courteously and powerfully to oneself” (Jerome Bruner). Is there a better reason for writing? The best audience writers have is themselves. To work, to learn, and to write are privileges many people do not enjoy. The difference between good writing and making anything perfectly is only material. Good writing is an act of simplicity. It is stripped of surroundings and excess trappings, just the pen, the 25