What to Do

There are few things more annoying than a blank page. It sits there, minute after minute, hour after hour, staring back at you, laughing.

It was a cool night, and a gentle breeze was blowing, riffling the blank pages of the notebook that lay open on my lap. I was sitting out on my balcony, trying to write a short story. A large candle flickered on the window ledge beside me. I was staring off into the night sky, waiting for inspiration to strike. As usual, inspiration seemed to be off striking elsewhere.

My pen hovered, ready, over a blank page in my notebook, waiting to record my next idea. It had been hovering for a while.

“Some writer you are. Can’t even finish a single paragraph.”

“Shut up,” I growled back at the page. “You’ve got the easy part. You just have to sit there and absorb ink. I have to do all the work.”

“Work!” spat the page, incredulous. “You call that work? You write a line, then you cross it out. You write a line, then you cross it out. That’s not work, that’s aerobics! I’m the one who has to endure that sharp Uniball you so like. The marks that thing leaves are permanent, you know! And, Hell, your handwriting is bad enough without the bloody mess that thing leaves.”

“Fuck off! So I’ve been having trouble getting started.”

“Trouble getting started? The Wright Brothers had trouble getting started; Columbus had trouble getting started. You’re about as likely to finish a story as the sun is likely to rise in the west tomorrow!”

Unfortunately for me, the page was right. I’d been trying to get a story started for a week, and hadn’t yet made it to the end of a paragraph. In fact, I had spent more ink on strike-through than on text. Page after page, my notebook held the evidence of my crimes: dozens of paragraph corpses, each cut down in its infancy by one or more cruel strokes from my pen. My guilt in their murders was undeniable.

“Writing isn’t easy. If it was, everyone would be doing it.”

“Oh, in that case, let me apologize for my unfeeling remarks! I had no idea that writing was hard. Please excuse my ignorance. Why don’t you go do something easy.”

I can’t say I much care for sarcastic pages. I jabbed it with my pen, hard. It didn’t even give me the satisfaction of a grunt. Instead, it laughed at me, again, this time with maniacal glee. It was winning, and we both knew it.

I had done a fair bit of writing in high school. Most of it was competent. Some of it was even good. But I hadn’t written anything since: 12 long years of writer’s block. Not that I had been trying very hard for most of that time—I had had other priorities. But not writing left a bit of a hole in my life, a hole nothing else seemed able to fill.

A sentence formed in my mind, and I put my pen to the page, “Some days, you know within two minutes of waking that you’re going to wish you hadn’t.” I paused, thinking, then added, “Today was one of those days.”

“Not bad,” the page said, “although I think the second sentence uses the wrong verb tense. Overall, it’s kind of catchy, but where are you going to go with it?”

“I don’t know. Maybe I’ll just see where it takes me.”

“Oh, there’s a good idea! Last time you did that, you were a dozen pages in before you realized your short story was a novella!”

I can’t say I much care for pages that ridicule me, either. Even when they are right. “Yeah, but the writing wasn’t bad. And who’s to say that this one won’t end up being shorter?”

“‘The writing wasn’t bad!’ Not bad if you don’t mind melodramatic crap! I mean, seriously, the entire thing was one big manipulation! You weren’t telling a story, you were poking the reader and hoping his reaction would distract him from the fact that your characters were two-dimensional stereotypes. And the plot! Never have I had the misfortune to be covered in such a steaming mound!”

“It wasn’t all that bad.” I paused, suddenly unsure of myself. “Was it?”

The page sneered at me again. “Talentless hack! Go do something you’re good at, and stop wasting my time!”

I stared at the sentences I had written on the page. It occurred to me that today was one of those days.

But the page was probably right—I really couldn’t afford to find myself a dozen pages into a novella again. I had to produce something, and soon. And I wasn’t going to just give up.

“Oh well. I’ll try something else. But I think I’ll let this paragraph stand. Might come in handy sometime. And besides, I’m tired of all this killing.” I turned the page . . . 

 . . . back to square one, in effect. The blank page sneered up at me, daring me to try something, confident that my pen would never reach its bottom.

I had decided to take a creative writing course (short fiction, specifically) because it occurred to me that I would probably get something done if someone else was expecting results. Standard operating procedure for me, unfortunately: I’m great at getting things done for anyone else, but terrible at getting anywhere on my own projects. I know, I know, I really should do something about that.

I looked down at my pen, hovering expectantly over the page, endlessly patient. “Well, at least someone has some faith in me,” I thought, and smiled sadly. There was no need to vocalize that one—I didn’t need to hear the nasty response I’m sure the page would have been quick to formulate.

If only I were as quick with words as my blank pages had proven they could be.

I looked back into the night sky and waited.

“Okay,” I said to myself, as much as to the page, “a short story needs to be short—about one to eight scenes. And that is my problem. All the ideas I have for stories are longer than that.”

“Oh, that’s a convenient excuse. Why don’t you just admit it—you haven’t written anything because you suck at writing.”

Accentuating each word, I replied, “Fuck off! If you aren’t going to help, then shut up!”

“But why should I help when watching your miserable attempts at writing is so much fun!”

“I’d like to see you do better, you worthless piece of shit! You can’t even hold a pen!”

My stinging retort fell flat. The page howled with laughter. I felt the cold hand of despair curl its icy fingers around my heart. I had to do something, soon, or all would be lost.

I stared down at the page, determined to come up with something. The page hadn’t believed me, but it was true: I had several reasonable ideas for stories, but none of them would have fit in such a small space. And that in itself was strange—the longest thing I had written in high school was about fifteen pages. I was really at a loss as to what to do about it.

“Think, think, think, damn it! You need something that is fairly light on plot: one or two major points, and character fill for the rest. And you don’t have to resolve everything. It can’t be this hard!”

Unfortunately, I wasn’t convincing anyone, including myself . . . .

I looked into the night sky, and sank back into thought.

Things were looking bleak. It was getting late. Actually, that’s not quite true—it was late—it was getting early. And I had nothing. The blank page grinned up at me, sure its final victory was imminent. My pen hovered, waiting for some brilliant thought that would justify its faith in me.

Seems we were both waiting for the same thing.

“Maybe you are right. Maybe I should just quit.” I stared off into the pre-dawn sky, my eyes moist with the frustration of defeat. Slowly, weakly, I removed the pen’s cap from its end, bringing it around to the point. I looked down at the blank page, a surrender on my lips. I hated that page, and the joy it took in my failure.

And that’s when I heard it: a little voice, almost too quiet to hear, in the back of my mind. It offered a simple sentence, a summary of my feelings about the evening.

I set my pen out again, on a brief pilgrimage across the page, that mere slip of an idea driving it along. “There are few things more annoying than a blank page.” I stared at the words, pondering their fate. The page stared back, waiting with expectant glee for the sharp stroke that would slay yet another innocent sentence, and finish my will to continue. I hesitated, momentarily unable to grasp any of the thoughts scurrying through my mind. I relaxed, leaving the noise in my head to sort itself out. Slowly, something began to form, there in the chaos. A smile of realization spread across my face.

Finally, I knew exactly what to do.

3 Responses to “What to Do”

  1. Drew Daniels says:

    I like this. I really do. I know the exact feelings that are portrayed in this.

  2. It’s funny — I wrote this in 2002, and the last this time I read it, it still felt very much like my writing.  But just now, skimming through it, it’s amazing how much my writing has changed recently.  I mean, comparing this to the what I’ve been posting this week — yeah, there’s a lot of similarity, but this just feels clumsy, all of a sudden.  To me anyway.  I suppose, in a way, that’s a good thing — it means maybe that I’ve finally learned something that has changed the way I write.  And that’s definitely a good thing.

    Anyway, thanks for the kind words.  :-)

  3. Nisp says:

    lmao! i’ve been having similar conversations for years. i’m gonna print this and stick it on my wall to remind me . . .