The Blank Page
The blank page stares at me. I grin back. I am ready. I am energized. I am fully fueled to turn that empty screen into the first word, the first sentence, and the first page of my new novel. This is one of my most favorite adventures in all of life: writing a novel. I love the thrill and challenge of creating characters, building a story, layering a narrative for complexity, and weaving in themes about what it is to be human. To write a novel is to spend years with one story, one cast of characters, one set of ideas. I love the long slow journey from page one to The End. For me, the process of turning a blank page into a book—making something out of nothing—is a human miracle.
Many writers feel differently. They dread the blank page. They fear the beginning of a new project. I understand. It is daunting and at times scary. The making of a novel is an enormous undertaking. Self-doubt lurks in the shadows of my writing room and taunts me to abandon the absurd notion that I know how to write and instead spend my time on a more valuable, lucrative, or useful endeavor. At times, self-doubt asks me to defend my perseverance after mountains of rejection: Why write another novel, Tatko? Who’s going to read the damn thing anyway? Nobody asked you to write another novel.
Pish, I tell all forms of self-doubt. This is who I am and what I do. Leave me to it!
The characters arrive first, and they never announce their arrival. I may be running on the dirt roads near my house or brushing my teeth when all of a sudden—VOILA!—a character appears in my mind. She stands right in the center of my head and blocks my view of everything else. She is in the midst of something, and it’s typically something big: a crisis, a decision, a secret, a tragedy, a life-changing event. She moves around, she contemplates and ponders, she speaks to other people who crowd into my brain and demand my attention, too.
Characters are arriving all the time. The ones that stick around get my full attention. Appearance after appearance, through many months, they take on a life of their own. Usually at some point I notice that there are two channels playing in my head at the same time: The first shows the character in action, as I observe. The second features the character and me discussing and debating who he is, what he really wants, and how I can best pull him out of my mind and put him onto the page. There is a lot of exploring and negotiation involved.
“I think maybe your parents died,” I once told a newly forming character. “You’ve been an orphan since age ten.”
“Oh, no. Do NOT do that to me,” the character begged.
“Why not?” I demanded. Novels are full of dead people. Death and the fear of it raise the stakes, get the reader invested, and keep the tension running high.
“There are way too many dead people in your books,” my character argued. He may be right. “And you can see that I have a hunched back. How many horrible experiences am I supposed to endure?”
“Good point,” I said. “You do have a huge hump on your back. Wait. Or maybe you have terrible burns all over your body. Or maybe both.”
“Definitely not both,” the character said. “Pick one.”
And then I heard Charles Dickens: “He’s right. Pick one.”
And on it goes. If you happen upon a writer who appears to be staring off at nothing, be assured that she is probably hard at work.
Yes, the blank page delights me. The sense of possibility and wonder thrills me. Lately, I have been thinking about the notion of “The Blank Page” as a metaphor. How often do we get a Blank Page in life? A fresh start? A new chance? Something totally unexpected and absolutely unknown tossed in our path? I think as we get older we get fewer Blank Pages. We have our routines, and for many of us, the routines involve a job, a partner, family, errands, bills, schedules (it’s all so glamorous!), and a big juggling act to keep everything moving and everyone thriving. When was the last time you changed your job? Or started a new hobby? Took a class? Studied a language or learned to play an instrument?
When was the last time that you opened to a Blank Page?
I have some ideas for new blank pages in areas of my life outside of my writing room. There are a couple biggies, and when I think about them, I feel a surge in adrenaline and a growing sense of hope and excitement. Far too often, though, the pragmatic voice in my head gets loud, and I wind up troubleshooting every potential obstacle until I have killed the spirit of The Blank Page.
I’ve always wanted to play the cello, and, by gods and goddesses, I think it’s time to do it. I’ll rent a cello and find a teacher. I’ll take a lesson once a week during my lunch hour. I don’t need to practice every day, and I don’t need to set lofty goals. I’ll just learn to play and give it what I can. It’ll be great! The cello, my life-long love and wish! But wait: We already have a piano, and I already know how to play it. Yet, I don’t play it. I’m too busy with other demands and pursuits. I should get back into playing the piano again.
And I do, sometimes. Now and then, every couple of years, when I get excited about the cello, I wind up instead playing the piano for a while.
The Blank Page calls. Those new characters that arrived in my mind last winter, and that I’ve been talking to and living with all these months, will soon come to life on the page. I’ve started to move them from my head to my new planning notebook. I’m outlining and brainstorming. I’m plotting the storyline and sketching the main characters. I’m jotting down lines of dialog. I’m getting very close to that exciting, terrifying, daunting, miraculous day when I will open a new document and write the first word of my next novel on a blank screen
Maybe it’s time to get a cello, too. After all, each of us has but one precious life to live. I’d like to open mine to as many blank pages as possible.