The undiscovered country

I don’t know how blankness as a literary trope escaped me for so long. Every writer has heard of the ‘blank page’; it is the curse of the unfulfilled: either the lack of any inspiration, or the wordless expression of an idea which cannot be described. Of course, the reverse may be true of a blank page: the start of a journey brimming with expectation although yet to be written. Some even fastened upon the concept as a literary device -as in the poet and artist Michael Gibbs’ anthology of blank books All or Nothing (2005), which ‘includes extracts from 23 partly or totally blank publications, although the lengthy introduction mentions many more besides. All the excerpts are identically void of text, save for the title, publication date and author’s name tucked away discreetly at the foot of each verso.’ [i] I had no idea there was a market for that kind of absence.

A blank page, for me at any rate, always warned of a need to fill it, or abandon whatever idea I couldn’t adequately describe. But the absence of written words seemed merely an excuse, not a literary device; it indicated either that I had nothing to say about something, or that the idea was not sufficiently developed in whatever part of my brain these things were supposed to germinate. True, a blank page may be read as potential -a version of hope; it can also be seen as premature: a tree approached too early in the season to bear fruit. Still, there is Jorge Luis Borges’ suggestion that ‘for a book to exist, it is sufficient that it be possible’.[ii]

And yet, perhaps the page is seldom actually blank. Whoever writes upon it is merely using a palimpsest of someone else’s thoughts; ideas, after all, are seldom seminal: we draw upon those that have gone before us -or at least maybe I do. Perhaps that is part of the problem, though: the blank page is actually cacophonous, ‘full of sound and fury, yet signifying nothing’ as Macbeth observed in an admittedly different context. And with all of that going on it’s hard to concentrate. So of all those ideas, of all those words, which ones should we ignore and which ones should we, well, plagiarize? Sorry, I mean borrow, of course…

I find it’s a rather narrow road to follow however; if there are no really seminal thoughts, then success probably stems from reorganizing used ideas in seminal ways -or failing that, changing the wording a little… You see what I mean? A blank page -or a blank screen- actually presents some unique and unexpected challenges, not the least of which is pretending to be truly clever and creative and not a just a scrivener.

Over the years, I’ve written a lot of essays that I’ve sometimes posted on my website as blogs. There’s a link that transfers the blogs to a popular social media platform that my friends, who may be otherwise bored with their lives, occasionally stumble across. I suppose I should know better, because whenever they see me, some feel compelled to defend their inevitably contradictory views. Like the other day in Starbucks.

I was scribbling some thoughts into a little notebook I carry; there’s just enough light to see the page when I sit in the corner table by the inside wall, but usually not enough for people to recognize me. At any rate, preoccupied as I was, I didn’t notice anybody approaching me until a shadow suddenly blocked the already meagre light.

“Working on another blog, G?” I could only see the outline of a generic large person, but I immediately recognized Geoffrey’s voice; he’s the garrulous friend of a friend I sometimes meet for coffee.

I looked up and nodded with what I hoped would be taken as a smile in the dim light.

“I read your last one…” he continued, with a tentative tone of voice.

I wasn’t sure I remembered which one I’d last submitted, but I pretended to be pleased. “Did you like it?”

He hesitated for a moment, and then sat on the empty chair across from me. “Actually, I had some questions about it…”

I tried to shrug politely; some of my essays are aimed at a different audience. “Sorry about that,” I said, although what I really meant was, why would you continue reading it if you didn’t understand it?

“Yeah,” he continued, probably encouraged by my apology. “You were talking about the Japanese concept of Ma -the space between things…” He always uses ellipses; I hate that.

I thought for a moment. “Oh yes, ‘A sorry sight’ I think I called it, didn’t I?”[iii] I sighed inwardly, if that’s actually possible. “What  were your questions about it?”

He scraped his chair closer to the table. “Well, when you first start to write, the screen is empty, right?”

I nodded, hoping he wasn’t going to bring up the ‘blank page’ thing.

“But that’s just an empty space…”

“Well, I was not really talking about the space on an unused piece of paper, or a blank computer screen. In fact, what I was suggesting was that if you look around, there is usually a space between things; a space that has shape. It is something -not just an empty area,” I said, hoping to mimic his italics.

He looked at me with doe-like eyes. “But there’s nothing in it…” Then he blinked. “How can it be something?”

It was clearly my turn to blink. “If it is not some-thing,” I answered, “then what is it? It can’t be a ‘no-thing’ otherwise it wouldn’t be where it is.” His eyes continued to stare at me, no doubt praying that I would elaborate.

“Sort of like a place waiting to be filled, or something?” he asked, like a child in Sunday school with his hand up. “A wanna-be thing?”

I tried not to roll my eyes, but the more I thought about it, the more interesting his question became. “You mean that the space is actually only a temporary place?”

He nodded enthusiastically. “It’s a thing-in-waiting… It wants to absorb its boundaries, sort of.”

I smiled at his eagerness.

“If it is a space between leaves, say,” he continued, “it knows it will eventually absorb the leaves… and then become something else entirely -not just leaves but something richer: the sunlight that had been streaming through it, the green of the leaves, the ripple of the wind: neither space nor leaves… but some-thing else. That’s much more, don’t you think? As a space it was like a pupating butterfly, in the early part of its metamorphosis…”

I shook my head in admiration. He should be writing my stuff, I think…


[i] https://aeon.co/essays/the-place-of-empty-space-in-the-literary-imagination

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] https://musingsonwomenshealth.com/2022/01/19/a-sorry-sight/

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