DebraMilligan.com

 

Books for Everyone!

January 2013

The Blank Page


The blank page: it looms before you. For some writers, it is a wave of emptiness that must be dodged quickly, thereby snuffing out the ability to write. For others, it is a canvas that urgently demands to be filled, thereby blocking creativity.


I have been told about and have read about the fear of the blank page. It stares at the writer; it threatens the formation of sentences before they even have a chance to form. There is an automatic short-circuiting of the synapses that transform images into words into thoughts and then into written expression.


I have never felt this fear. The blank page looks at me and I look back at it, staring it into submission.


I do not know why I’ve not encountered a fear of the blank page. Perhaps it is because I do not approach the blank page until I am fully ready to confront it. I often procrastinate in a systematic way before setting down to write: puttering about the house, performing routine domestic tasks, cooking, exercising, singing, gardening, even shopping. This intentional waiting serves as a methodical form of “warm-up” for my writing. I was also fortunate to have been trained by professors who encouraged me to put anything and everything down on the page, just to get the words flowing. “You can always edit later,” I was told. And edit later I do, and do, and do . . .


If I do not like what I have written upon the blank page, I throw it away. First I tear the page up, so there is no chance, zero, zip, nada, of retrieving it and using it. I’ve often deleted major portions of writing on the blank page, sometimes re-writing another version of the text that has been shredded and tossed. My theory is that if it’s good enough and of sufficient importance, I’ll remember it. I thus allow my memory to serve as the initial filter and decisive sieve for my writing.


The most important thing is to get your thoughts down on the blank page, but do not hug those thoughts. They are but part of the work in progress or process. They represent the first step in who-knows-how-many steps to arrive at the precise thought, the exact image, the telling detail, the correct tone, the balanced scene.


Many times I’ve written a scene pretty much as it remains; it goes from my mind to the blank page effortlessly. And just as many times I have revised a piece of writing more times than I care to think about (five, six, perhaps seven revisions). Oftentimes a crucial scene has been rendered too far in one direction in terms of emotional and psychological development; I then revise the scene and move it too far in the opposite direction. Aware that the proper balance has not yet been achieved, I take a break from the writing for however long “feels” necessary. I return to the scene only when I sense that I can calibrate the development, the dialogue, and the narration to the needs of the characters and the plot. I am pleased to say that my sense of when to strike this balance is nearly always spot-on.

I typically compose narration after having studied the research materials exhaustively and have analyzed and synthesized, and then synthesized and analyzed the factual and historic information for the purposes of my fiction. I consider narration to be an art form that has sadly become convoluted in construction and asinine in its usage and purpose. (The word, narrative, is an adjective, as in narrative writing or narrative voice; it is not a noun.)


The purpose of narration is not to merely “link” together the other parts of the story; it is to engage the reader ever more deeply in the story. It has a dual purpose of presenting facts and information, but also of weaving a world wherein the magic and the mundane intertwine and mesh. One must fashion a sensibility that the Fates are at work. The objective is the feeling of dramatic inevitability, not the spewing of attitude and supposedly artistic turns of phrase.


When revising narration I check for redundancy and strive for flow. There is also the command decision to make as to “when to tell.” This crucial decision involves the timing of revealing pivotal, pertinent, and critical character and plot details. The presentation of any information is always done for the purposes of character and plot. Whether one is telling a joke or expounding an epic, timing is everything. The decision to make known any aspects of the story is done for the reader, and not for the needs or the delight of the author. The timing of “revelation” is more instinctive than learned, but once the writer understands the discipline required in creating suspenseful drama, the lesson becomes a reflex.

I’ve often read dialogue to my beagles to ensure rhythm and trueness for the voice of each character. Reading narration aloud is another tool, although I have not included hounds in the auditory exercise. One might say that I write, and not ride, to hounds.


Of course, the fundamental distinction between dramatization and narration is that the first scenario demands that the writer “show” the action, and not tell it, although there must always be subtle exposition within any dialogue. For instance, if a character is asked, “Do you mean that you arrived in this town twelve years ago and murdered someone and got away with it?” – This inquiry is not exposition but is the clubbing of the reader over the head with background that begs to be told later, much later. In fact, the background begs to be shown, not told.


Narration is the art of telling, and of speaking in such a way that the voice convinces the reader that the story is moving forward through action, not mere recitation and delineating of facts and information. 


I believe that it was Gustave Flaubert who said that talent is a long patience. Another French writer, Blaise Pascal, stated in his Les Provinciales, “I have made this letter longer than usual because I lacked the time to make it short.”


It is literary food for thought, that one. Brevity, known to Shakespeare as the soul of wit, is far more time-consuming to create than is a massive wall of text on the formerly blank page. Perhaps one needs to appreciate the white spaces between the lines and letters even more than the letters and lines themselves. Never forget that at times the power of what is left unsaid has far more compelling force than the spoken, or written, word, especially ones that say too much.