Facing the page

I hate facing the blank page. It scares me. And yet I do it all the time.

This morning, for example, I have been sitting in front of an empty screen now for about 40 minutes. In the shower, I had an idea for a short story – something that could develop into a novel or just end up being shorter – but by the time I came back here to work on it, the words are eluding me.

Every day is the same thing.

The writer is besieged from all sides. We have publishers telling us they “cannot publish at this time.” We have self-help gurus who are endlessly blogging about the near impossibility of being published in today’s competitive world. We have our families and friends around us who constantly say things like: “Writing? Is there any money in that?”

And every day we go back out to the coalface, armed with nothing other than coffee,and face the most pernicious enemy of all: the white space. The white space, the page where nothing has yet been spilled onto it, is by far most horrific of all crucibles.

And every day, we face the page.

The page taunts us. It asks if what we want to write has not been said before, and better, by the legacy of the great writers we admire. Once we begin, it questions our each and every keystroke, inflicts heavy-handed doubts, makes us wonder if we should not have taken a civil service entrance exam or the McDonald’s management training course. And do I still have the application somewhere?

Ironically, as I sit here writing about writing, I am not yet facing the page. This feels like a perambulatory dodge – the real story folder is still unopened; the detective story still seems a little too obvious and needs editing; and the new project is still only a blinking cursor on the screen. Instead of looking down the barrel of actual work, I am spending these few minutes questioning my vocation.

But then I remind myself of something. A writer is just a guy who writes. We use words to paint pictures and tell stories and empty our heads of the random thoughts that are sometimes poignant and sometimes belly flops. We are compelled to extract these words, fumble them into sentences, jostle them into a kind of order, and move on to the next one. So even writing about writing is still part of the game.

But does anyone really want to read about that? This is another part of the dilemma – when you spend days, weeks, months, and even years working on a novel or a book, you never get any idea about how it sounds until you finished. You launch the finished product onto the market and, sometimes, it comes back with a resounding thud. No one wants to read it. It fell flat in the middle. Or the beginning was too dull
and no one carried on reading.

The idea of “lean publishing” tempts me. It is not a brand new idea. Authors have serialized novels for centuries, but up until now there was no interaction with the reader. Lean publishing, or putting my fragile story out there one piece at a time and getting real feedback from the people who read it, represents a chance to see if I am on the right track. As a writer, it is sometimes far too easy to become attached to a
wrongheaded idea just because I like it. Publishing by increment provides a kind of reality check.

I have tried doing this before. I have published chapters of a novella online and had some very positive feedback from it, pushing me to write more. But the total number of readers was under ten. It is not an easy process.

“A writer,” says Thomas Mann, “is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.”

We have all known people who think of themselves as writers but have not written a thing yet. They are waiting for the moment of inspiration, the thunderbolt of great truth, that will allow their song to be sung. These people are always finding reasons not to write. In fairness, they may have it in them to be good or even great writers,but since they are not trying, they might never find out…

This is why I face the page every day. A writer is not qualified because of being clever with turns of phrase or good at dialogue. A writer is a writer because he writes – because he faces that page every morning of every day. And every day he writes, his turns of phase turn better, his dialogues come more alive. Today I have written little other than this rant about the work of writing. But I also entered a few pages in a journal and composed any number of emails. I write long emails to a very close friend in America almost every day. And on a really bad day, I only write shopping lists. But they are good lists, worthy of song.

A writer is just a guy who writes. But he also needs a bunch of other people who read.

Might this short musing about the plight of writers who write about writing become a leitmotiv for novel about a writer? Come back again next month to see if the cursor has advanced at all!

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