It strikes fear into my heart. I’m quivering under the parapet, knowing I’m readying to go ‘over the top’. I’m picturing myself stumbling across no man’s land, bullets of judgement zipping past my ears. Will they, the gatekeepers, pin me with white feathers? Why haven’t I packed up these childish things and marched off to war? Oh, how awful it is!
My flat is very tidy. Nothing stays long in the linen basket. I spring clean when it’s not spring. I wash my windows though the view is dull, depressing even. No matter, these all serve the magnificent purpose of avoidance. Housework is a salve, the most obvious thing to do when I’m confronted. Admin is another great source of comfort. My tax returns are bang up to date. My credit card debts are all on 0% offers. I’ve washed my car. I’ve poured bleach into the kitchen sink. Away from home, I’ve been over-conscientious at work. Mindless and time-consuming tasks are the ones I like the best. I actively wish to do everything I can to avoid the screaming chaos of the blank page and the silly egoistic notion that I may possess the talent to populate it.
But we can’t put things off forever. I grit my teeth, face up to my foe, and write a sentence. I read it again and again. Then I celebrate the single stupid sentence by quickly getting too drunk to find the right keys, never mind experiencing further cogent thought. I listen to music. I say it will help me concentrate. Soon, it is 5am and I’m lying on my back on the living room carpet. Music I don’t know plays. The sky is glowing in the east. I don’t know anything. I watch a spider crawl across the ceiling. I remember the single sentence, and cringe.
I’m a writer. Did I mention that? I tell everyone on Twitter. I tell no one at work, because they’ll either tell me they want to write a book, or ask if I’m rich like J K Rowling, or be embarrassed and/or plain disinterested because they don’t read books; books are for schoolkids, and so on.
Why do I hate writing so much? Why does it rock me to the core? I don’t think the following is a controversial statement; that no task, however small, can be successfully pursued without the doer possessing an element of self-belief, even if it is just a trace. We must by necessity take ourselves a little bit seriously, to bother getting out of bed. To make it to mature adulthood, and survive the knocks along the way, we must cultivate protective layers and techniques of survival. We can look back over the years of our lives, the pains and hopes of youth, the compound settling-in of middle age, and see that we did indeed survive. The proof is that we wake up each morning. We can still laugh at a joke. Still solve a problem. We might even have worked up a little practical wisdom. Why then, when it comes to facing the blank page, are we so perennially dogged by self-doubt? Why are the years of crafting in our wake worth so little? Why do we feel as if we cannot write?
This essay is a case in point. I have had several attempts at it, looking for a way in. The entrance I eventually found (I think) is meta – I’m anchoring it by being self-referencing. That’s today’s security blanket. In making a new map of the world, I’ve identified home. I’ve planted a large pin. I’m sober now, but in my first attempts to write it, to find a way, I was pissed. What I wrote was garbage, but this is a way we try to summon self-belief. Show me an artist who doesn’t have one or another relationship with addictive substances, even if they’ve been sober for decades…
An artist is foremost a daydreamer, whose flights of fancy emerge in energetic outbursts, as naturally as a volcano relieves the underworld. It’s all in the control. Filling a blank page, with effectiveness, with any style, any voice, is a high wire walk, a balancing of words and meanings, against an ever threat of the chasm below. They must walk it. Artists are driven to performative expression regardless of whether there’s a market for it, and this is key; why much commercial ‘art’, commoditised ‘art’, is quite artless.
But, come on, what do I know? What I just said might be quite wrong. It might be poppycock. Or worse, dull. Here’s a problem; I don’t think I know much. Oddly enough, I know that. I’m sort of proud of it. ‘I’m a natural Buddhist’ I find myself telling people; something about being humble before the universe. I don’t really know what it means – a vicious circle – I haven’t the self-discipline or methodical nature to find out. Artists supply answers to a universe that never asks. We live in a perfectly silent place, a nowhere. Here we are, constantly gabbing, going in circles, chasing our tails, and the universe, the framing of it all, doesn’t care. Of course, we – you, me, our daft attempts – are as much a part of the universe as anything else. We are it. And there is a spot in the middle of your brain that is the very centre of it, arguably. Or your knee.
The blank page is also the centre of the universe. As kids we like to play adults – doctors, nurses, shopkeepers. These are little screenplays, written constantly all over the world, all the time. Children don’t worry about being inauthentic because they aren’t, and they don’t commoditise their thinking (their output is priceless). Adults, on the other hand, are highly self-conscious. Grown-ups are self-referencing cameos. They lose sense of it all. The possibilities become frightening, and death looms. They’re on the clock. One day they won’t be able to write, and they won’t be able to avoid writing. To fill the blank page, we must meet death head-on. No wonder we booze.
It’s not all about death; I’m not claiming that. It’s about birth too. We know birth is difficult. When we approach a blank page, we are making the world all over again. We’re birthing it, reengineering it, conjuring up yet another blueprint. The process of reimagining the world never ends. It’s the sort of thinking that came up with Gods; those we said made the world, the waters, mountains, and everything else. I think we did, really.
Of course, a blank page is not really blank either. It is already written in invisible ink with all the books and articles and conversations we’ve ever stumbled across. It is prepopulated with the mental architecture of humanity, that entirely familiar yet utterly mysterious structure that enables us to relate to any other person’s experience. There is no singularity here. Even the biggest misanthrope is part of a family. When we start to fill a blank page, whether we know it or not, we are reiterating everything ever said. It should feel warm, communing like this. Yet to the one decoding the blank page it feels lonely. It feels frightening. We’re born naked. We’re one of nearly eight billion human beings, who are all, essentially, doing the same things; but life still feels lonesome. Writing shares the basic problems of living itself. The human condition is the writing condition.
The Page is No Longer Blank.
(c) Chris Walsh
About The Dig Street Festival:
‘Dreams are only beautiful when viewed from a distance – get too close and you’ll see they have troublesome cogs’
It’s 2006 in the fictional East London borough of Leytonstow. The UK’s pub smoking ban is about to happen, and thirty-eight-and-a-half year old John Torrington, a mopper and trolley collector at his local DIY store, is secretly in love with the stylish, beautiful, and middle-class barmaid Lois. John and his hapless, strange, and down-on-their-luck friends, Gabby Longfeather and Glyn Hopkins, live in Clements Markham House – a semi-derelict Edwardian villa divided into unsanitary bedsits, and (mis)managed by the shrewd Dickensian business man, Mr Kapoor.
When Mr Kapoor, in a bizarre and criminal fluke, makes him fabulously credit-worthy, John surprises his friends and colleagues alike by announcing he will organise an amazing ‘urban love revolution’, aka the Dig Street Festival. But when he discovers dark secrets at the DIY store, and Mr Kapoor’s ruthless gentrification scheme for Clements Markham House, John’s plans take several unexpected and worrisome turns…
Funny, original, philosophical, and unexpectedly moving, The Dig Street Festival takes a long, hard, satirical look at modern British life, and asks of us all, how can we be better people?
Order your copy online here.