The writer's greatest enemy: the blank page. Scarier than you think. For all those who think writing is trivial, think again. It is anything but. It is serious, deep and dangerous. Real writing that excavates the bones of who we really are. It is dark psychological terrain.
No one can explain this better than prolific Canadian writer Margaret Atwood. She is one of my favourite writers for her sense of unflinching truth. Her writing goes straight to the gut, and stays there. She is fearless and fearsome in tackling dark matter. Who can forget the dystopian nightmare of The Handmaid's Tale or the disturbing insights offered in Alias Grace? All of Atwood's fiction indeed, cuts to the bone.
I was especially stunned and haunted after reading her take on the blank page, or the page, as she puts it. This is writing as dangerous, writing as diving into deep matter, writing as a compulsion and a sacrifice.
I just have to copy it here for you to read and become aware of, if you aren't already. And if you haven't happened upon her essays and short fiction, start! This extract, 'The Page' comes from the short collection 'Murder in the Dark' which features other short essays and prose poems.
'The Page' - Margaret Atwood
1. The page waits, pretending to be blank. Is that its appeal, its blankness? What else is this smooth and white, this terrifyingly innocent? A snowfall, a glacier? It's a desert, totally arid, without life. But people venture into such places. Why? To see how much they can endure, how much dry light?
2. I've said the page is white, and it is: white as wedding dresses, rare whales, seagulls, angels, ice, and death. Some say that like sunlight it contains all colours; others, that it's white because it's hot, it will burn out your optic nerves; that those who stare at the page too long go blind.
3. The page itself has no dimensions and no directions. There's no up or down except what you yourself mark, there's no thickness and weight bu those you put there, north and south do not exist unless you're certain of them. The page is without vistas and without sounds, without centres or edges. Because of this you can become lost in it forever. Have you never seen the look of gratitude, the look of joy, on the faces of those who have managed to return from the page? Despite their faintness, their loss of blood, they fall on their knees, they push their hands into the earth, they clasp the bodies of those they love, or, in a pinch, any bodies they can get, with an urgency unknown to those who have never experienced the full horror of a journey into the page.
4. If you decide to enter the page, take a knife and some matches, and something that will float. Take something you can hold onto, and a prism to split the light and a talisman that works, which should be hung on a chain around your neck: that's for getting back. It doesn't matter what kind of shoes, but your hands should be bare. You should never go into the page with gloves on. Such decisions, needless to say, should not be made lightly.
There are those, of course, who enter the page without deciding, without meaning to. Some of these have charmed lives and no difficulty, but most never make it out at all. For them, the page appears as a well, a lovely pool in which they catch sight of a face, their own but better. These unfortunates do not jump: rather they fall and the page closes over their heads without a sound, without a seam, and is immediately as whole and empty, as glassy, as enticing as before.
5. The question about the page is: what is beneath it? It seems to have only two dimensions, you can pick it up and turn it over and the back is the same as the front. Nothing, you say, disappointed.
But you were looking in the wrong place, you were looking on the back instead of beneath. Beneath the page is another story. Beneath the page is a story. Beneath the page is everything that has ever happened, most of which you would rather not hear about.
The page is not a pool but a skin, a skin is there to hold in and it can feel you touching it. Did you really think it would just lie there and do nothing?
Touch the page at your peril: it is you who are blank and innocent, not the page. Nevertheless you want to know, nothing will stop you. You touch the page, it's as if you've drawn a knife across it, the page has been hurt now, a sinuous wound opens, a thin incision. Darkness wells through.
(*From 'Murder in the Dark: Short Fictions and Prose Poems' © Margaret Atwood Virago UK 1994)
Indeed. All of this rings true and through me. How about you?
Dangerous, yes. But exhilarating too. Like climbing your own veritable Everest. All those metaphors of whiteness. The page is definitely somewhere you can lost, but also where you can be found. If you're brave enough of course, to ditch the gloves and the safety measures, and dive in there, whole-heartedly.