Sunday, April 17, 2011

On the real difficulty of starting with a blank page

I've been digging through different interviews with writers in the last few weeks, inspiration as I near the home stretch of this project.  One area that a number of writers commented on was using overheard conversation in their own projects, things they might have caught in a restaurant or on a subway car or at an airport next to an over-loud businessman on his cell.

I could not figure out why it made me uneasy.  A person talking loudly in a public place should expect no privacy, so it wasn't that.  I wondered if it had to do with the plagiarism aspect of it, appropriating someone else's words and setting them to work for your own purpose, the kind of violation that gets an academic into trouble.  But it was deeper than mere cheating: it seemed to invalidate the entire premise of writing a piece of fiction, at least in that writer's hand with his conception of his project.  If a random person's overheard diatribe fits neatly into a writer's world...if the person sitting in front of a blank page is just a word-thief rather than a writer of words, well, that project isn't worth reading, is it?  Where is the uniqueness, the oddity of the writer in his story if he can crib and tuck in the passing world?  If his characters are just like people on the street, if they aren't condensed from life, enhanced, bigger and better?

It wasn't until I read an interview with Vladimir Nabokov that I had a way of getting to the core of my concern with this practice.  “The real writer, the fellow who sends planets spinning and models a man asleep and eagerly tampers with the sleeper’s rib, that kind of author has no given values at his disposal: he must create them himself.”  A writer must be a kind of petit god starting a world that is vast and empty.  He must fill it with things from his mind, things that don't exist anywhere in the world as we understand it.  Perhaps gravity works differently in this created world; there are places in his invention that don't appear on any physical map; there are modes of speech that sound more real than anything a person in the physical world might say; the moral fiber of the people in the created world is too gentle or too cruel or too consistent or arbitrary or too alien to exist in our physical world.

A blank page must really be blank.  Everything must be brought there, word by word, color by color, moral code and all.  If it is just a sandbox drawn from the life we all live, then let the kitty take it over for her personal needs and start over.

Fiat lux.  Let there be light. 

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