We are the music makers,
And we are the dreamers of dreams,
Wandering by lone sea-breakers,
And sitting by desolate streams;—
World-losers and world-forsakers,
On whom the pale moon gleams:
Yet we are the movers and shakers
Of the world for ever, it seems.
—Arthur O’Shaughnessy, “Ode”
This morning was rough. One of my responsibilities as pater familias is to pull everybody out of bed in the morning. (I could never have imagined this as a kid. I was terrible at getting out of bed until I left home.) Nobody wanted to be awake this morning. Or get dressed. Or get out the door to the bus. While I was trying to coax my kids towards readiness for the school bus, I was also making their lunches and trading text messages with my sister-in-law. She watches the kids when I work, but couldn’t today because her son is sick. I had to cancel a job while shoving toast at my son and suppressing a wince at how tight my daughter’s shoes have gotten. By 7:15 I was grumbling about how bad the day was.
Then…then I got everybody out the door and some caffeine in my system and managed to wrangle my thinking around to “I get to write today. I have a blank page.” My days aren’t blank pages. Very few get that luxury. When I sit down to write, though, I get a blank page. I still think of them as pages even though I’ve done so much of my writing for so very long on a screen. It probably has something to do with composing, where I have always worked in hard copy first. It might also have something to do with poetry which, again, I just can’t manage to make without a pencil in my hand.
But the blank page. On the good days, it is freedom. It is, to borrow a recent pop culture example, the moment Elsa shakes herself free of Arandelle, singing and throwing ice everywhere. She’s flexing power she has had to hold in check for too long. She makes a world from her magic, a castle from thin, icy air:
Today hasn’t necessarily been a good day, but when I thought about the blank page waiting for me, that is the way my thoughts ran. Today (to steal a phrase from Steven Brust, who stole it from Gene Wolfe) I’m going to tell you something really cool. That’s the plan, anyway.
The O’Shaughnessy quoted above is careworn to the edge of being cliché. Clichés get that way, though, because they’re useful. They tell us something important, or true…or at least tell us what we want to hear. The “Ode” quotation is a tidy encapsulation of the Romantic image of the poet. In my interview with Cristian Mihai, I warned (twice!) about buying into such Romantic fantasies of the lone, supremely inspired artist, wandering through the wilderness with a pen in hand and mind feverish with art. I meant it. Whatever their stripe, artists need community at least as much as other people.
When we sit down with a blank page (or screen, or whatever), though, we are alone. That’s part of what makes it cool. We are alone with all this space to create, to conjure dreams. We might hope to concoct something that will connect with others, but that is part of the work, and we do our work with the blank page alone.
That’s why the blank page, on bad days, can be terrifying. We face it alone. It’s the “Here Be Dragons” on an antique map, and we expect those dragons to devour us momentarily. You know, right after they finish picking their teeth with the bones of all our past, terrible work. On the bad days, we pick browsing the internet, doing housework, sleeping…anything that takes us from the blank page’s terra incognita back into familiar places.
We have to go out there, though. There are dragons to slay…or maybe befriend. I’m off to find mine. Best of luck with yours.