The Hours Around the Blank Page
Writing takes forever.
At least, it does for me. It’s not just the hours committed to the blank page - which are, in the end, decisively minimal - but all the hours around the blank page. The ones dedicated to reading, wandering, feeling restless. Moving from the bed to the floor to a chair and back to the bed again. Every good page I write is fueled by days of nothing; inhabiting a goalless void of contemplation.
This has made calling myself a writer hard. My creative process is difficult to justify. “What do you do for work, Cassie?” one might ask. If I spend most of my time doing nothing, wouldn’t that be the most significant identifier? “Oh, nothing.” I’d answer.
I didn’t major in writing when I went to college, because I didn’t consider myself a “real writer” then. Sure, I flaked around with words. But I had seen real writers before, starting around age 14, and they were not like me. They were drape-y woman types, always wistful, kind of misty. They surfaced in my life around the same time as social media and I would watch them befriend each other, sighing out streams of late night melancholia: 2:25 a.m. one night; 4:32 a.m. another.
These women were up all night writing, it seemed. In my imagination, they merged into an indomitable army of potential - a monolithic writer destined for book deals and magazine pages. They wore soft sweaters, had manicures, spent nights in alone, surrounded by papers. They wrote like one operated a spigot: turn it on, crank it off. They were Ernest Hemingway at the standing desk, writing for hours.
I thought I had to become like them. And until I did, I was not a writer.
The allegedly “real” writer plagued me for decades. She stood over me at my desk, invaded the conversation when people asked what I did for a living. “Oh, you know, tech stuff,” I’d end up saying. Or, in my early 20s: “Things on the internet.” (This was true, as I worked at a startup.) But I continued to love to write. I never knew when or what I would write - only that I wrote reliably, if self-consciously, usually in the morning, after some coffee, and was often late to work as a result.
Writing, for me, was more autonomic than deliberate. Like blinking or breathing, it just happened on background, and sometimes I got lucky and caught it. Some breezy sentence would ease up into consciousness - “We had nothing real for dinner, just sliced plums and bread crusts” - and I’d snatch it, heft it, feel the weight of it, and realize it was the key to something deeper. The only trick was that I couldn’t force an arrival. I just had to wait around for writing to show up.
I had never met a writer with a process like mine. As the years passed, though, I came to accept it. I began carrying notebooks, flipping them open on airplanes and in meetings, finding phrases and trying them out, seeing where’d they go. I have stacks of them now, pressed into a pile by my bookshelf, badly bruised from their years in my backpack. The phrases in them are mostly abstract: “Fresh grass, orange cat. Peanuts.” “The sun comes through the trees above me.”
A few, though, migrated from jotted musings to more substantial pieces.
Did that make me a writer?
Writers have spent years writing about writing. Some abide by strict routines (Joan Didion, Susan Sontag, E.B. White) others by habits (Hunter S. Thompson). Some love it, some refer to it as a feeling of do or die (James Baldwin), and some quite famously hate it. (Renata Adler has complained about the act in more than one interview.) Ray Bradbury, though, has said: “Just write every day of your life.”
The notebooks didn’t make me write more, but they did have the effect of substantiating the milky nothing around my writing. I tracked movie stubs and books read as observations cohered into worldviews. Trends emerged and ideas sprouted. For the first time, I saw the blank space more clearly, its texture in plain view. There was a continuity to my internal monologue, albeit the thread was nearly imperceptible. Catching hold of it required vigilance, but also generosity. In order to make way for all the small sentences and stray thoughts, I had to give myself the space to drift. Drifting was an active part of the process.
I know I’m not alone in my hesitance to self-identify. We all have our own imaginary, often arbitrary, bar for qualifying ourselves as “official” in whatever we do. For some, it’s our first byline in print. For others, our first book deal. (For others, bless them, it’s the first time they top The New York Times Best Sellers list.) I don’t know where I’ve set my own bar, yet. I haven’t spent enough time with myself as a writer. But I know there’s a balance between self-acceptance and setting goals.
If I write, like Bradbury says, I’m a writer. But I still want to be a great writer. In the meantime, I’ve declared a truce between myself and the mythical “real” writer. I’ve come to realize that there are no clean lines between process and writer, writer and achievement. Every leg up only brings a newer, higher peak into view. That’s the climb, that’s the process.
That’s the life of a writer.