Monday, 27 July 2009

The Blank Sheet of Paper

First off, sorry about the delay. I have a few (hopefully interesting) ideas for upcoming posts in the pipeline, but all of them, unfortunately, require a bit of preparation each and I have not yet had the time and opportunity to get to that yet.

Consequently, I've had a lot on my mind that I wanted to say, yet nothing on my mind that I could say at this time. Or perhaps more accurately, nothing I felt was interesting enough to share here.

Last night, however, I casually quoted a bit from an old favourite song of mine, Marillion's "Bitter Suite" from the Misplaced Childhood album:
It's getting late, for scribbling and scratching on the paper
Something's gonna give under this pressure, and the cracks are already beginning to show
A good friend of mine commented on this by saying that songs about writers were always golden in his book, and I could but agree.

And not only songs either. It is really, at least for my own part, about texts and stories about writers and writing. There is something almost perversely pleasurable to read or listen to tales about writers and writing. Perhaps because it becomes so self-referential. After all, this type of writing does represent one of various forms of metafiction, that is fiction that calls attention to itself as fiction or to its own narrativity and fictionality as it were. In other words, it speaks a little bit extra to those who themselves wrestle with ink and blank pages, keyboards and empty screens. To those of us who enjoy breathing in ideas and letters and then exhaling words.

The comment, in fact, made me think about one of my favourite issues of Neil Gaiman's Sandman. It's a single issue story called "Calliope" (found in the Dream Country TPB) and it's all about a writer by the name of Richard Madoc. Madoc is a desperate man, because he's the author of the successful debut novel The Cabaret of Dr. Caligari with a sequel due (if not overdue) at the publisher's and a severe case of writer's block. This causes him to seek out the help of an older, reclusive writer called Erasmus Fry (who actually has a rather unconventional remedy to Madoc's problem).

When Madoc first meets Fry, the old man goes into a speech on bezoars (something which Madoc has brought along as payment for Fry's remedy) and the pressed Madoc rudely interrupts him desperately screaming, "Will you shut up? I haven't written a word in a year -- Nothing I haven't thrown away! Do you know what that's like? When it's just you, and a blank sheet of paper?" Everything that follows, the mystical remedy and the eventual cost for it, stem from this desperation.

In fact, this phrase has stayed with me ever since I first encountered it at some point in the early 1990s. Even without the context of the story, there is something haunting about the phrase. At least it is to someone who can just imagine what that's like; i.e. someone who's life is strongly tied to texts and their production. Within the context of the story, the phrase is not merely haunting but properly horrific. It is, as stated, what brings everything that follows (and without revealing too much and spoiling the story for those of you who haven't read it, what follows is, as always, the price we pay for the success we claim). It is, in effect, the fuel that drives the action, but it is also the horror itself.

While novels like Stephen King's The Dark Half cleverly play on other fears a writer may encounter, in a manner of speaking, in Gaiman's comic (visually brought to life by Kelley Jones and Malcolm Jones III), which is equally based in a fictional dark fantasy/horror reality (allowing more than a little for intrusions of the supernatural), the horror itself is not of a supernatural agency. Sure, there are dimensions to how the story unfolds that is clearly both horrific and supernatural in a combined fashion, but the basic horror is something rather more tangible. It is something that can happen to any writer and underneath the surface of that horror lies an empty despair.

In short (to put these ramblings to an end), "Calliope" as a story, besides being a really good story generally speaking and a mighty fine piece of dark fantasy in the medium of comics, is horror for writers.

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