Monday, April 30, 2012

The Page

"Intention draws a bold, black line across an otherwise white field."
Ben Lerner

When we sit down to write we face, if not a literally blank page, then at least the blank spaces on the page, the part of the text that has yet to be written. If we are disciplined, we knew already the night before what we were going to be writing about. We even knew what we were going to say. And yet somehow an open space, a white field, lies before us.

The anxiety that we face here comes, primarily, from two sources. First, we are aware that our writing will stand in some relation to the world, second, that it will be directed at a reader. The reader will determine whether or not what we say makes sense; the world will determine whether or not it is true. If the problem were to fill a completely open space, a completely white field, a totally blank page, with words that mean something and are true, then we would not know where to begin. Fortunately, the page is structured for us in advance. Not only does it occupy a position between the world and the reader: the world and the reader themselves are structured.

Across the blank page, then, we can draw a line. We can isolate the paragraph we are working on and ask ourselves whether it belongs to the background section, the theory section, the methods section, or the analysis section. Will we tell the reader what we knew in advance, what we expected to find, how we went about our study, or what we learned there? This directs our efforts at a particular area of the reader's mind (a particular nexus of the reader's knowledge and the reader's ignorance) and simplifies the problem. It gives our words particular goals to accomplish. And once we have isolated the relevant paragraph, once we have defined the particular problem of our writing at the moment, we can remind ourselves that solving it means writing about six sentences, one of which will make our claim and the rest of which will support it.

The page then is not blank after all. It is a structured task. It occupies a place in the world and it is directed at others, but it is not just any random place, and it does not address just any random reader. The page brings together a "there" and a "them", and this may occasion a bit of anxiety. Writing is just the act of facing that anxiety resolutely.

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