Writers often behave like smart people. When they’re not reading a lot of books, they’re sitting alone somewhere staring at a blank piece of paper or a computer screen or a wall. It is a very active kind of staring, meaning it looks like thinking, which is what smart people supposedly like to do most of all. Except writers really aren’t thinking – at least they shouldn’t be. If a writer is doing their job, when they aren’t typing or scribbling, they are listening.
The difference between thinking and creative listening can feel subtle, but in reality is as significant as the difference between sleeping and waking. I know I’m thinking when I’m rearranging, negotiating, or strategizing with what already exists. Whether I’m balancing my checkbook, learning how a new software application works, or planning a trip, I’m using my mind to assemble a puzzle whose pieces were created before I set to work on it.
Writing, on the other hand, always begins with a blank page. I mustn’t be fooled into believing I am thinking, simply because the words I use can all be found in dictionaries or that the hero’s journey provides the architecture for most stories. All the writing that has come before the story I would like to tell, all the writing books and writing classes, merely serve as a reminder that it is possible to create something out of nothing.
It’s easy to forget. You face that blank page and maybe you think how much simpler it would be if you just had some chess pieces to move about or a road map to follow. After all, when you leave your desk, the world you’ll roam is filled with stuff that’s already been made – television shows, and restaurants, and houses, and story upon story about all the things people have done and said. That’s reality! You’re a grown person. It’s your job to deal with reality. Kids can live easily enough in their fantasy worlds – even encourage it – but we adults must negotiate the world, and learn how things work, and make good decisions, and study the issues, and learn our history lest we repeat it.
But the blank page doesn’t care about any of that stuff that’s already been made. The blank page doesn’t want you to study or do the right thing or try to be a grown up. All the blank page wants to know is what you’re most interested in right now. What question is knocking loudest at the door to your imagination? Your job is to open the door for that question, and then ask it and ask it until you begin to hear some answers.
It’s only logical, after all. If I’m one the one asking a question like, “What should happen next in this story?” I can’t also be the one answering it. If I had the answer, why ask the question? I can’t concern myself with physical reality. I know I’m the only one in the room, but I’m listening all the same. I’m listening to what comes through the door I opened, listening so that what existed only in my desire and curiosity can join the reality we all share.
“A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.
You can find William at: williamkenower.com