The Tyranny of the Blank Page*
For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to be a writer. While other kids fantasized about careers of fortune and fame—little boys playing little league, with visions of themselves, years later, knocking the ball out of Yankee Stadium, or little girls playing dress-up, posing for imaginary cameras that were snapping pictures of them to appear on the cover of Glamour or Vogue—my dream was to be an author. Not just any author, but an author who wrote the kind of novels people tell their friends about. The kind of novels that people trapped in jobs they don’t love, look forward to reading on the bus or the subway, on the way home. Or, better yet, look forward to reading as part of an evening ritual through which they reward themselves, for making it through another day: a cup of hot coffee, a comfy chair, and my book. Many, many times, I have taken refuge in relaxing moments with a favorite book, and my dream is to give that gift back to other people.
The other, much more concrete, part of my dream, is having a book signing someday, and have a long line of people waiting to meet me, to tell me how much they enjoy my work, and how much it means to them. (Okay, so, maybe my dream isn’t so far from those childhood visions of fortune and fame…) I would have aspiring young writers approach me, and ask for advice. I would have busy working moms, or doctors, or students, with the most unbelievably hectic schedules, tell me they’ve always wanted to write, but just can’t seem to find the time. They’ll ask me how I managed, and I’ll tell them what I have heard from successful authors: If you want to be a writer, you have to write. It’s that simple, and that irrefutable. As the old saying goes, “Use it or lose it.”
One of my favorite authors, a novelist whose work I so greatly admire, tells aspiring writers, “I’ll believe you’re serious about being a writer when you sit down and write.” A friend of mine once told me Stephen King’s philosophy is the same. Mr. King says you have to write every day, without fail. No matter what. No matter how busy you are, or how angry, or how tired, or how “not in the mood” you are. You. Must. Write.
Maybe you’ll come up with five hundred words of quality, usable material. Or, maybe you’ll end up with five thousand words whose destiny lies in a crumpled heap in the garbage can.
The point, Mr. King emphasizes, is that, good or bad, you’re writing. The writing skill in particular, and the creative process in general, is like a muscle, that must be exercised constantly in order to strengthen and improve it. To neglect those skills is akin to a marathon runner who stops training. In no time at all, his endurance gets shorter, his muscles slowly atrophy, and worst of all, his mindset begins to change. He starts to wonder if he can really finish a marathon. He finds himself questioning the strength of his dedication. He wonders what the heck ever possessed him to even imagine he could run 26.2 miles. So many people are faster than he is, or in better shape, or have trained harder. He knows he has no chance of winning this marathon: he’s slow, he gets shin splints easily, and, the most telling sign of all, he’s not from Kenya. So, instead of sticking with it, stepping up to the starting line, and doing what he can do, he decides to quit. He’s never going to be the best, so why do it at all?
This, my friends, is what has happened to me, with writing. I want to be a novelist so badly that I even went so far as to major in creative writing in college. (A specialty that, while admirable in an artsy, “human family” kind of way, does not exactly ensure a steady paycheck. It also does not ensure that your parents will not disown you, and disavow themselves of all signs that they ever even knew you. Fortunately, my parents accepted that their daughter’s only goal in life was to write books and, if they had doubts and misgivings, they hid them very well, bless their hearts. And bless their good health, too, because I think finding out your daughter wants to study creative writing at a school that charges over $30,000 a year, and is known the world over not for its humanities programs, but for electrical, computer, and mechanical engineering, is about the most legitimate justification for a stroke I can imagine.)
I want to write. I have the desire. Fortunately, I even have a job that affords me tons of free time to do nothing but sit down and write. So, naturally, the big question now is, WHY HAVEN’T I BEEN WRITING?
The answer is at once very simple, and very complicated: FEAR. I haven’t been writing because I’m scared. I’m just like that marathon runner, who’s not sure he’ll make it to the finish line. I’m letting my fear of failure stop me from ever even getting started. It’s easy to recognize that this is what’s happening inside me. It is a Herculean task, however, to do something about it.
I wonder if people who don’t write have any idea how scary it is to stare at a blank page, or a blank screen, knowing all the while, it’s waiting for you to fill it with something. (I would even go so far as to say it’s “terrifying,” but, as a writer, or at least, an aspiring one, I try to choose my words carefully. Using “terror” in everyday speech robs it of the gravity it deserves – like people who swear all the time – how will you know when they’re really pissed off, if they say the F-word all the time, constantly dropping it into casual speech, as in, “Pass the ****ing salt.” But I digress…)
I chose the title for this essay/blog entry because I think it effectively describes how writers feel when they sit down to start something new. The blank page is a tyrant, staring back at you just as hard as you stare at it. It dares you to show it what you’re made of. Dares you to try to be half as good as all the thousands of writers who’ve gone before you, and to whom, there is no doubt in your mind, you don’t stand the slightest chance of measuring up.
What on earth makes me think I can do it? Who am I, to think that I can describe 1920s Brooklyn better than Betty Smith? (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn; Joy in the Morning.) Or the lives of ordinary women in small towns all across America better than Debbie Macomber? (The Shop on Blossom Street; Thursdays at Eight.) Or how intrigue, espionage, and super-cool military toys play out in international affairs better than Tom Clancy? (The Hunt for Red October; The Cardinal of the Kremlin.) Or how mysticism, mythology, and history shape the lives of Chinese immigrants in the U.S. better than Amy Tan? (The Joy Luck Club; The Kitchen God’s Wife.)
Talk about standing in the shadows of giants...
I could go on and on listing authors whose work has set the bar so high, that people like me, who are just starting out, wonder why they should even bother. But, the thing is, I can’t not bother. I love to write, and, at the risk of tooting my own horn, I think I’m pretty good at it. In fact, it’s one of the only things I’ve ever given credit to myself for being good at. And it’s what I love to do most in the whole world.
I feel most in tune with the world while I’m writing. My heart beats faster, my senses are more acute, and I feel a sense of peace and contentment that nothing else has ever brought me. Even when I’m ripping my hair out, or pacing the room, because I’m stuck on a particular block of dialogue, I’m still at my happiest, because I’m writing. There is a very short list of things I believe I’m good at. Writing has always been at the top. I’ve come to believe that God gives us all talent. I think He’s made me good at writing, because He wants me to be a writer. (Whereas, for example, he made Mario Lemieux good at hockey, because he wanted him to play hockey.)
This has to be true. It has to be, because nothing has ever made me feel the way I feel when I write. It’s as if everything falls into place, and I’m doing what Fate, or Destiny, or whatever controls the universe, had intended me to be doing from the moment I was born.
I’ve had a very easy life. My family wasn’t wealthy, but I never wanted for anything. Whatever I needed, it somehow came. Most of the time, I wonder what I did to deserve this free pass through life. I’ve never felt worthy of how blessed I am, never felt like I worked hard enough to earn all the good things that surround me. I’ve come to realize that writing is how I earn my keep. It’s how I can put back into the world some of the positive energy that has been bestowed upon me. If something I write someday makes somebody else smile, or nod in recognition, or maybe just makes them forget their problems for a little bit, while they sit and read, I will finally feel myself worthy of sliding through life the way I have been.
I will finally enjoy a vacation, because I will have earned it. I will have worked hard to write something meaningful. It won’t have been physically demanding, but emotionally, it will have drained me. I will finally put forth an effort that is deserving of all the clothing in my closet, and all the books on my shelf, and all the trinkets on tables here and there that were purchased with income from my current job, which does not make me feel worthy, and if anything, makes me feel like I should go return all this junk, until such time as I’ve done enough writing to feel like I’m fulfilling my purpose on this planet.
Someday, when I’m doing what I know I’m meant to do, I will stop telling myself I haven’t earned it. I will savor every bite of a piece of cheesecake. I will go to Spain. I will buy myself an expensive perfume. These are all things I’ve done before, but the difference will be that I’ll finally feel like I earned them. I’ll put my feet up, close my eyes, and revel in the sense of accomplishment.
I have a ritual when I write: I light a candle, I put on soft classical music, and I get into what can only be described as “the zone.” It’s that otherworldly, non-temporal place, where nothing exists but me and the words and images in my mind. It’s the stage where the show takes place—that beautiful, choreographed ballet that takes ideas and turns them into stories. That takes abstract, amorphous images and transforms them into words, the words into sentences, and the sentences into paragraphs that will go on to fill page after page. It’s the place where the firing of synapses move ideas from my mind to my fingers, from my fingers to the keyboard, and from the keyboard to the page, in a hypnotic dance that, in a perfect world, would be second nature to anyone who thinks he or she has a story to tell.
This is, of course, easier said than done. I created this blog in April 2005. It is now November 2006, and this is the first real post. Since April 2005, I’ve had nothing but gobs and gobs of free time to write. And, I’ve had gobs and gobs of time during which I let the fear take over, and prevent me from getting started. I let that go on long enough that, like the marathon runner, I’ve begun to doubt making it to the finish line.
Marathons, however, are a piece of cake compared to writing. Are they easy? No. But, the strategy is laid out for you. Put one foot in front of the other. Do it long enough, and you’ll eventually cover 26.2 miles. Will it be painless? Of course not. Will it be pretty? Maybe, if you’ve spent your entire life training, and living, eating, and breathing running. Most likely, though, you’ll get there kicking and screaming, maybe even literally crawling over that finish line. But you will get there.
Not so with writing. Yes, you can put one word after another. Do it long enough, and you’ll have a novel-length work of…well, what, exactly? You might have just penned the next winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. You might have written your way to the New York Times bestseller list, or, at the very least, you might have written a book destined for modest success (as evidenced, of course, by its contribution to the daily sales figures of the behemoth book chains). Or, as is the stuff of every author’s worst nightmare, you might have two hundred pages of gobbledygook, whose sole redeeming quality is the indisputable proof it provides of the fact that you are not, in fact, meant to be a writer.
Who were you trying to kid? People like Amy Tan, Tom Clancy, and Debbie Macomber, whom I mentioned before, they are meant to be writers. You cannot possibly tell stories like them. They did it before you, and they did it better.
But, you know what? I’m coming to learn that that’s okay. The reason I can’t tell those stories is that they were their stories. The beautiful thing is, maybe I have stories of my own. Everybody has, since the beginning of time. Even before written language. We’ve all heard about mythologies passed down through oral tradition. Almost every culture, every religion, and every region, has some kind of creation story, and endless treasure troves of other stories to explain what was, at that time, the unexplainable: rainbows, earthquakes, eclipses.
Man has always had the instinct to tell stories. And, for all of us struggling to stay true to our dream of telling new stories, may man always have the desire to listen.
Next up: Essays on Superman (and why this blog is called “The Fortress of Solitude”); real-life superheroes; and hitting the jackpot.
*The title of this essay is (I hereby admit) a blatant rip-off of The Obsession: Reflections on the Tyranny of Slenderness, by Kim Chernin.