Craft Talk, by Richard Dokey

THE EMPTY PAGE

 

A Japanese writer, whose name I cannot recall, killed himself. He left a note. The note said, “I did this because I could no longer stand the sight of the empty page.” I had no idea that writer’s block could be so destructive.

Maybe that’s not what it was. Why would someone kill himself because he couldn’t figure out what to write? Death because of an absence of language?

Every writer has trouble writing, now and again. It’s natural. That’s what friends are for, particularly if they are writer friends. That’s why there are blogs and websites, why we tweet, gram, chat, phone, text, e-mail, 24/7. We might gather, even—we writers—compare notes, problem solve, sip literary latte and work things out, at a Starbucks somewhere, under the trees. After all, writing is a craft, like making furniture. Would you kill yourself for something as silly as a blank piece of paper?

That Japanese writer? He’s not the only one. Ernest Hemingway, before he took his own life, said simply, “It won’t come anymore.”

What won’t come? Words for an empty page? Words are everywhere. Hemingway spoke thousands of words every day. A plot, maybe, a setting. Maybe a story idea that won’t come. Jack London paid Sinclair Lewis good money to send him plot ideas. Problem solved. Make mine a double-shot.

We’re not talking about writer’s block here. We’re not talking about hooking the reader in the first paragraph, about using clever language, original characters, unique settings. We’re not talking about, “I don’t have anything to write about.”

It’s Hemingway. Hemingway won’t come anymore, his voice, the words of him, the language of him that he has struggled for all his life to possess. Hemingway killed himself because the empty page was Hemingway, and, if he can’t write, everything is empty. The Japanese writer? It is the absence of himself he saw. He looked into a mirror and wasn’t there.

The story of Faust best dramatizes the inward journey to fill the empty page of meaning. His is the iconic failure of intelligence, looking within, to find a reason for itself. Without that reason, Faust knew that when he thought, he was already in the hands of Satan. Faust had the devil. Hemingway had the empty page. Either way, it’s hell.

This is not writer’s block. It is the power of creating, the willing of what is not into what is. It is the writer, living when he writes.

The vessel for making the way is the shudder of words, the flow and positioning of words, how words rhythm and sound to the ear, how, with grace and patience, they bring forth harmonies of meaning in a world that is meaningless.

There is morality in writing. Many writers do not know this. For them writing is about something, and how well writing fulfills the verities of craft that writers learn in school, since so many who write are writers because they have taken classes in writing.

The empty page is a portal to the writer’s soul. It is the way out of him, where he comes forth. He knows that he is at stake in everything he writes, that it takes courage to be present in this manner, that the instrument of that presence is words. If he is not there, his language is for purchase, like milk and bread, at the checkout counters of grocery stores.

There is an innocence from which everything begins, in life and writing. At the beginning there is the empty page. It waits for the finger of God. The creator is manifested in what he creates. He knows this. He accepts the empty page because it is the condition of his beginning, and he must begin. The tragedy is that he wants to come, and cannot.

The scribbler of words has writer’s block. His pain is the pain of not writing. The writer as writer is empty at the start and will be empty at the end. He knows this and embraces it. He has to begin because of what he has chosen to do, and he must do it, again and again. It has no end but his own. Emptiness is the price he pays at the beginning to have the joy of what he may become. Why would anyone willingly put himself in so much jeopardy?

A decision must be made.

Here is the only advice: go to your room, close the door, pull down the shade, sit at your desk, take out a pencil and a blank piece of paper, and find yourself.

 

RICHARD DOKEY’S collection Pale Morning Dun was nominated for the American Book Award. The Loneliness Cafe, his last collection, was published in 2017. Fly Fishing the River Styx, his new collection of stories, will be released by Adelaide Books in December.

Dokey’s story “The Nazi” appeared in Volume 36.1. His story “Raymond’s Window” will be in the forthcoming Lost & Found issue.