Guarding an Empty Room

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“It’s so fine and yet so terrible to stand in front of a blank canvas.” ~Paul Cezanne

Before they begin their writing assignments, I have my third grade WITS students say aloud, together, “I am a fearless writer!” Because if nothing else, I would like to help them—early, before self-consciousness and angst settle in—confront a blank page without that feeling of panicked helplessness that is the bane of so many writers. Including me. It doesn’t matter how many books or articles or stories I’ve written; sometimes a blank page following hundreds of filled ones makes me existentially claustrophobic.

What is it about emptiness that fills us with such fear?

Maybe because we associate emptiness with lack. An empty stomach means hunger. An empty bank account means poverty. An empty bed can mean loneliness.

When I complained to my friend Amy recently about the unwritten pages left in my novel-in-progress, she said, “Your body language changed when you said that. Listen, sometimes you need to just stop and look at that blank space. Pretend it’s an empty room, and it’s your job to protect it. Don’t worry about what you’re going to do with all that blank space, just take care of it until you’re ready to fill it.”

Just sit in the empty room and contemplate the blank space?


The late poet Denise Levertov wrote in her essay, “Some Notes on Organic Form”:

To contemplate comes from “templum, temple, a place, a space for observation, marked out by the augur.” It means, not simply to observe, to regard, but to do these things in the presence of a god. And to meditate is “to keep the mind in a state of contemplation”; its synonym is “to muse,” and to muse comes from a word mean­ing “to stand with open mouth”—not so comical if we think of “inspiration”—to breathe in.

With this in mind, an empty page can mean a lack of creativity and productivity—or it can mean something else: possibility.

Empty space is a necessary part of writing; it represents the inspiration of an idea that precedes the manifestation of that idea. The potential before the actual. The text itself relies on the space behind it in order to be seen. The paragraph and page breaks suggest rhythm and movement; there’s magic in arriving at the beginning of an empty space, then leaping across it to land on a new idea. It is the breath taken between lines of dialogue, the rest taken after a burst of action.

So today, I’m sitting still in the temple of my imagination, taking care of the space with curiosity and respect, and without fear. With an open mouth, an open mind. When I’m ready—when the words are ready—I’ll fill the remaining pages.


P.S. How do you confront a blank page? (Write a comment here; that’s a good place to start.)