A BLANK PAGE

Copyright 1994
Sam Elmore


(This article is intended as a light-hearted look at how some writers write; how some thinkers think; and how a blank page, to some scribblers, can be the most intimidating thing they have ever faced).

Let's take a peek into the lives of some well-known writers, who had their own ideas about writing:

Henry Adams, American historian: "The fascination of the silent midnight, the veiled lamp, the smouldering fire, the white paper asking to be covered with elusive words....." (emphasis added by author).

Peter De Vries, American author: "I love being a writer. What I can't stand is the paperwork".

William Faulkner, American author: "If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the "Ode on a Grecian Urn" is worth any number of old ladies."

Certain well-known writers apparently had a few "stimulating" habits: Shakespeare is said to have preferred hock (also known as sherry); he cites it in his plays more than all other beverages combined. Balzac obviously enjoyed strong coffee....one cause of his death was attributed to caffeine poisoning. Byron preferred gin and water, while Thomas Hobbes drank only cold water.

The American poet, Amy Lowell, enjoyed cigars. In 1915, fearing a wartime shortage, she allegedly bought 15,000 of her favorite Manila brand. Another female writer who liked to puff on a good stogie was George Sand (Amadine Aurore Lucie Dupin, Baroness Dudevant).

The writing habits of authors are as varied as the people themselves. Ernest Hemingway's first rule for writers: "Apply the seat of the pants to the seat of a chair". English poet, Samuel Boyse, was so poor that he pawned all of his clothes for food; he had to write in bed for six weeks until friends came to his assistance. For some strange reason, D. H. Lawrence, English novelist, liked to climb mulberry trees....in the nude; however, he is not known to have written anything while he was up there.

Victor Hugo, French author, probably went to the most extreme length: he gave all of his clothes to his servant, admonishing him NOT to return them until he (Hugo) had completed his days work.

Casanova, Italian adventurer and author, supposedly never did much writing (or bathing, for that matter) in his bathtub built for two; but other noted authors frequently wrote in the nude; among them Ben Franklin, who owned the first bathtub in America and liked to write while soaking in it.

French playright Edmond Rostand, author of Cyrano de Bergerac, worked in his bathtub so he wouldn't be interrupted by his many friends. James Whitcomb Riley, American poet, deliberately had himself locked inside his hotel room, naked, so that he could write without being tempted to drink.

Robin Moore, author of The Green Berets, states that he writes while standing up....naked. On the other hand, Hans Christian Andersen, Danish author, probably never wrote anything while "in his birthday suit"; he was said to be so ashamed of his body that he stuffed his shirt with newspapers to make himself look more muscular.

Inspiration for writers comes in many guises. In his book Mood Control, Gene Bylinsky reported that an anonymous biochemist had developed a "creativity pill". According to the scientist, controlled tests demonstrated that those who took the pills wrote better, or at least more creatively, than those who didn't.

Truman Capote, American author, had this advice for young writers: "Socialize. Don't just go up to a pine cabin all alone and brood. You will reach that stage soon enough anyway."

Author James Hilton (Goodbye, Mr. Chips, Lost Horizon, et al), achieved great success and notoriety from his marvelous first book, 'Mr. Chips.' On the heels of that success, he was busily writing another manuscript. When he reached page fifty, he said the words "SO WHAT?" seemed to appear in the middle of the page. He said he didn't have words adequate to describe the disappointment which followed. (A "white paper asking to be covered with elusive words...." indeed!).

In the matter of "tools of the trade", some writers may wish to consider the purchase of certain writing aids. If one wishes to be perceived as a "stylish" writer, a desk made by Thomas Chippendale (c.1718-1779) might be appropriate; not long ago, it was sold in London for $195,000. It is reputed to be the most expensive writing desk ever sold.

If that doesn't tickle your fancy, consider an imposing writing desk made by Scottish architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh in 1902; it recently went under the gavel for $177,456. Mackintosh made two such desks; one for himself and one for a client. According to the recorded description the desks were:

"....made of dark stained wood, with the writing cabinet supported on a semi-open base enlivened with stylized mauve glass flowers. Twin doors cover the upper section, which open to reveal vertical dividers, a glittering panel of leaded green, white, and mirror glass set in zinc, and mother-of-pearl squares inset in the doors and under the arched framing".

However, before you go rushing out to purchase one of these inspirational literary devices, you should be aware that, five years after Macintosh died in poverty in 1928, his ornate desk was sold for forty-two dollars and ten cents.

In case the literary life offers an undeniable appeal, one should be aware that it comes with certain, perhaps willfully undisclosed, 'hazards'. Consider the cocktail party, which can be traced back as far as ancient Athens, where you could drop by a neighbor's place early in the evening, with your own goatskin of wine, and be treated to a variety of "provocatives to drinking", which included caviar, oysters, shrimp, cheese, and even marinated octopus and roasted grasshoppers.

The 'literary cocktail party' is a creature of more recent times, possibly evolving from the literary dinner parties so popular in the nineteenth century. (Oh, the hazards? Please note): Sherwood Anderson, American author, died of peritonitis (and other complications) after swallowing a toothpick with an hors d'oeuvre at a literary cocktail party.

A novice writer might ask: "but what about "The Great American Novel"? Perhaps it is I who shall write it". Frank Norris, American author, wrote: "The Great American Novel is not extinct like the Dodo, but mythical, like the Hippogriff....the thing to be looked for is not the Great American Novelist, but the Great Novelist who shall also be an American".

Many writers suffer from the predicament that their own words, after they are affixed to a blank page, seem to take on the semblance of 'children'. Editors, requesting cuts to an over-lengthy manuscript, have been accused by writers of leaving them with only one choice: "which of my children must I kill?"

Thomas Wolfe, American novelist, said (concerning his book Look Homeward, Angel): "Although I am able to criticize wordiness and overabundance in others, I am not able practically to criticize it in myself. The business of selection and revision is simply hell for me. My efforts to cut out 50,000 words may sometimes result in my adding 75,000".

Playwright Eugene O'Neill was asked to shorten the script of his play Ah, Wilderness! so that the curtain could fall earlier. O'Neill, always reluctant cut a single word from his plays, grudgingly agreed. The next day, he called the man who had requested the revision and told him, "You'll be happy to know that I have cut fifteen minutes from the play." The man was ecstatic, and said he'd run right over to pick up the modified script. "Oh, I haven't changed the script", O'Neill explained; "but, we've been playing this thing in four acts. I've decided to cut out the third intermission."

The "short story" genre may appeal to some writers. If so, they should know beforehand that certain restrictions apply. A college professor, who lectured in English and short story writing, instructed his students thusly: "The five requisites to a good short story are: brevity, a religious reference, a sexual reference, some association with society, and an illustration of modesty." The next day, a student handed in a story that read (in it's entirety): "My God!", cried the Dutchess; "Take your hand off my knee!"

In the newspaper business, brevity is of primary importance. When James Thurber was a fledgling reporter, his editor advised him to write short, dramatic, leads to all his stories. Shortly afterwards, Thurber turned in a murder story which began: "Dead. That's what the man was when they found him with a knife in his back at 4 p.m. in front of Riley's saloon at the corner of 52nd and 12th streets."

I suppose most everyone is cognizant of the Rorschach test, where abstract designs are displayed, and the person being tested is asked to say what the designs represent. I wonder what the result would be if a BLANK PAGE were displayed to the following people, and they were asked: "What do you see?"

Their response might be something like this:

Sam Clemens: "Ah'll need a few minutes to study this...seems mighty familiar. Are you playing a prank? This 'pears to be a chapter from my Puddin' Head Wilson manuscript."

John Wayne: "Wa'al, Pilgrim; I could make a pretty fair rifle target out'n it. But it looks awful big for that."

Jack Anderson (ever mindful of newspaper deadlines): "I'll have it ready for press in twenty-three minutes."

Whoopi Goldberg: "Hey, fool! I jes' ACT this crap; I don't write it. Get outta mah face!"

Jimmy Stewart: "I have a sm-sm-...a little... problem with that third line. Give that one to-uhhh--to--uhhh Hank Fonda; he's the one th-th-that likes to cuss."

Truman Capote: "I like it, so far; but it needs research. I should think one would fare better if one were to spend a few months in Sing-Sing in preparation for working on the first draft."

Tom Clancy: "No! You've got the entire Nuclear Propulsion Plant laid out all wrong! The condensate pump is connected directly to the main condensor, not the recirculation system. Move the low-pressure turbine from the jacking gear over to the double-acting reciprocating feed pump, hook-up a cross-connection line to the geo-thermal by-pass, and...."

John Grisham: "the BMW should be described as 'British Racing Green; not the taupe green as you have it displayed. When the car turns that corner, at speeds in excess of 150 miles per hour, you want to depict the cellular phone in Tom Cruise's hands to contrast with the color of the car."

This scribbler: "Only one page? This is gonna be the shortest short-short tale I ever writ!"

References:

The Literary Life & Other Curiosities, Robert Hendrickson; Penguin Books Ltd, Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England,1982.