The blocked writer’s notebook lays open before him. He has read, been told, been warned there is no such thing as a blocked writer. This is a myth.
‘Your block is simply fear and the only way to assuage that fear is to sit and write,’ he once read in a how-to book.
Regardless, here he sits at his desk staring out the window; devoid of ideas, blank as dreamless sleep. A living vacancy sign waiting to be occupied. Just one idea, that’s all he wants. Just one and he will go from there. He promises himself. Makes silent deals with the muse (which he feels is a terrible cliché). And since there is no one in his life to share any of this with (not that he would have wanted to) it stays inside his head.
Should he take a class. Talk to someone about it. Would that help? Most likely not is what he thinks because in reality, he is a solitary figure walking the gray streets of midtown; the narrows, looking for traces of other lives. Taking soundings. It has always been difficult for him to connect. The slightest interaction with other humans can render him impotent. Work equals calm equals focus and this is something he cannot live without. But now the block has become so huge a mountain to climb that he must go on a mission, in search of inspiration.
It is his first visit to an installation and he wants to feel moved. Here is a windowless hallway in an abandoned house lined with large glass, liquid-filled cylinders. Inside, a slow motion substance crawls its way up and down, like a lava lamp, except all he can think of are giant sickly colored slugs. This thought is unhelpful; he tries to shift focus to another part of the room but there is nothing to see. The light from the cylinders creeps nauseating yellow and green along the stark white walls; a spreading virus. Solemn processional music plays. Ten minutes pass. He leaves, feeling nothing but the wind blowing overgrown hair across his face.
Life goes on this way. The blank notebook. An exhibition. A few stray words. A film. Another installation. Books piled high by his single bed. Freelance projects for small local businesses requiring little creativity. This seems to further the torpor, leaving him feeling like a waiting room without furniture; no magazines or brochures, not a potted plant in any corner.
The months move dully forward and it is much later when in a room in a house over the turnpike, four cross streets from where he lives, a new installation opens. He arrives and a petite woman with short neat hair hands him a small spiral notepad and pencil. He feels an unexplained sense of calm in her presence.
‘Enjoy the work,’ she says with a warm smile. ‘You’ll find the instructions inside.’ She gestures in the direction of an open door.
The title of the installation is ‘Empty Space to Fill’ and the room is for the most part, empty. In the center a round table draped in white cloth on which sits a red box. There are no windows. The floor has been white-washed. The lighting is flashbulb bright making the room too hot. He takes off his jacket, flings it over his shoulder.
He stands taking in the nothingness. There is no one else in the room. The artist is not present. He thinks about leaving. He is not interested in finding another blank canvas to match the internal one he is already dealing with. And then he sees the beginning of the work. Black words written onto white walls. The first set of instructions tell him, ‘feel free to respond to any of the ads in the notebook provided. Respond to as many as you like then place them in the red box on the table. Please keep in mind that this is optional’.
Scrawled above the instructions are larger than life personal ads. The kind he has read before in newspapers, in magazines, on the walls of phone booths. A testament to loneliness and singledom.
I Love Jaws.
“DWF, tall, engaging, athletic and cultured trapped within the body of a short somewhat bored performance artist who hasn’t had any meaningful work in over a year. Now a cinema cleaner who dreams of performing the final scene of Jaws while it plays on screen. Hoping to find super-achieving vivid dreamer S/DWM similarly trapped in the wrong body to help work out this mess.” Write TG 4891.
An optional interactive installation. It seems undefined to him, as if the artist was unable to make up their mind. He likes things defined. Secure. Reliability and routine have always been important to him. As he walks the walls stepping out to the center of the room to see more clearly he feels an urge to edit everything he reads. An unfortunate by-product of his work.
Plan 12 from Planet Earth.
“Sarcastically human, science fiction aficionado, at times stubborn, PTSD survivor, admirer of all artistic endeavors (but not a snob), wannabe painter, seeks male of the human race for collaborations and taking over Planet Earth.” Write TG 3572.
His eyes move from these to other words not expecting much, occasionally finding a typo, wondering what the real purpose of all this is, seeing nothing that excites him enough to use the notebook and pencil except to jot down what he needs to buy on the way home. He writes an additional note to himself and closes the book.
People stream in, form small groups, stop to read the instructions and gaze around the room. He decides that they are curious but not invested.
He looks at his watch. Twenty minutes have passed never to be seen again. Is this really the way he wants to spend his days, his life, this search for meaning in the work of others? He rewords a few more of the ads in his head and thinks he should heed the worn advice in his how-to books; go back home, sit at his desk and write until he passes out from exhaustion and there, on the opposite wall, an ad he hadn’t noticed grabs his wandering attention.
Does it Ever End?
“This quest to occupy the lives of others. Shrewd, smart, pissed-off female appalled by this; they’re all out there in their fancy jogging clothes, eating at trendy restaurants, blindly following the next instruction. Are you sick of the emptiness? The sameness and lack of transparency? Seeking male with enough inventiveness to live in this world and survive it, for something different.” Write TG 8862.
This ad strikes a chord. While it seems vague, there also seems to be an authenticity to it. He reads it again. Then he leaves the room and sits on the bench near the front door.
‘Enjoy the installation?’ The same woman who handed out notebooks when he first came in is there: same warmth, same calm. Her eyes are clear and blue. He wonders if she owns the house or just manages exhibitions. He doesn’t ask.
‘Just taking a break,’ he says and smiles.
‘Yeah. It’s a lot to take in.’ She holds his gaze for a second then arranges notebooks on the desk, drops a few extra pencils into the jar. He notices her hands. They are small and smooth.
‘Seems like a lot of ads for one person to write,’ he says.
‘People think she wrote them all, but in reality there is only one that is actually hers. The rest have been complied over a number of years.’
‘Huh,’ he is somewhat surprised. ‘I wondered about that.’
A few more people arrive and she excuses herself, picks up the notebooks and hands them out. He opens his notebook, flips a page and on the back of it writes: “I am sick of it all. Everything you’ve said. I think it leads to complacency and an uninspiring life. Where has individuality gone? Where are the thinkers? I am intrigued to know what you think.” He neatly writes out the PO Box he uses and back inside the room tears out the sheet of paper, folds it twice and drops it through the slot in the top of the box.
He doesn’t think anything will happen. If she only wrote a single ad chances are the one he answered isn’t hers anyway. Besides, it feels like enough that he wrote the words for someone else to read. That might have been the point.
Three days pass. At daybreak he sits at the desk, opens the notebook, stares at the horizontal blue lines. Outside, the sun pours its hopeful morning light over the streets and houses and trees as the world begins to wake. And as it does, slowly, he begins to write.
Five days. Cautiously. As if he doesn’t trust himself. But soon words form sentences form paragraphs and pages.
Ten days. Ten thousand words. After months, here is the movement he feared would never return.
And then, one week later, unexpectedly, a response to his response from the installation. He hadn’t realized, didn’t stop to think that placing the paper in the box would trigger the arrival of a letter inviting him to meet for coffee at Ramps on Saturday afternoon. Today is Wednesday. He thought it was part of the installation, an act of art. This feels like an invasion of privacy. He hadn’t thought past the inspiration he was searching for. He acted without calculating and here sits a letter from a complete stranger. Inviting him for coffee. Inviting him for conversation. And possibly something more.
Saturday morning finds him gripped with fear. If he goes, he is to look for a woman wearing black. She will be seated at a table inside by the window. His old anxiety has returned. He has spent many years alone and that aloneness fooled him into believing it had moved on. But it was only dormant. Waiting and watching for a time when someone would attempt to enter his life again. And then, it would rise, a hulking burden, a sunken ship dredged to the surface.
He sits back at his desk, looks down at the letter again. The notebook he was given at the installation is there, on top of a stack of books. He hasn’t opened it since that day. But he remembers there was a note, something he wrote to himself about having the courage to do your best work regardless of outside influence. There was something else too, something about love and empty spaces to fill and how possibly his block had more to do with restrictions he placed on himself, than anything else. He flips through the notebook but aside from the list of groceries, the pages are empty. He thinks about the ad response he placed in the red box. He recalls tearing it out and realizes that he must have written it on the back of that note.
He showers. Dresses. Jeans. T-shirt. Jacket. Combs his hair. The artist has probably read the note and this unsettles him. Is this why she answered? Does she feel the same way? In any event, he believes that she deserves to at least know that her work has been inspirational to him. That he had been blocked and now he’s not and although he isn’t sure how long this will last, still, she has helped in some invisible way. He breathes in out, in out, trying to calm his unsteady nerves. He tells himself if it gets too uncomfortable, he can leave.
Outside, a brisk wind pushes the clouds with purpose across the dim sky. It feels like rain when he reaches Ramps. There she is, at a table near the front window. He can see her from across the street. Internally, a thousand little impulses fire; too many to separate and sort through but en masse they feel like an explosion inside his brain. What if his sleeping heart, stagnant and empty for so long begins to stir. What if, in her presence, it wakes and looks directly into her heart and the two recognize each other. He breathes in out, in out, pauses, worries that his legs won’t move, worries that they will, before crossing over and into the cafe.
‘Empty Space To Fill’ first published in ‘At Love’s Altar’ Labello Press (c) 2020
Revised version (c) 2022 Deborah McMenamy
All rights reserved