On Writing: Filling the Empty Spaces

Sep 12, 2016

Writing Artist Creative Writing
interior floor of room

Photo by robertoaiuto

The need to write comes from the need to make sense of one’s life and discover one’s usefulness.

~John Cheever

There is a reason most writers love coffee shops. It is the perfect place to people watch. And by nature, us writers are people watchers, observers, gazers. We are hoarders of subtlety and nuance. Of movement and emotion. Much of what shows up in our writing we have taken from our environment, from direct experience. It’s an input/output sort of thing. We take in what we see, filter it through our idiosyncratic imagination, and spit out our reinterpretation of it. For absolutely no reason. Except that we love meaning. We will take anything and attempt to extract some meaning out of it. A smile, a stain on the floor, a bruise, shattered glass, a sigh, the color ebony, a lost cause, the smell of mold, a shadow. Anything. It’s the way we make sense of the world. At least that’s how I interpret it.

Take this empty white space for example. Nothing exists here until I type these words, made up of individual letters. Empty space is a fascinatingly mysterious thing. It is completely objective, unattached to outcome, indifferent to the one who is typing. It does not exclude anyone or have favorites. Anyone is welcome. It is at once enveloping and expansive. Restrictive and unbounded. I honor it and fear it at the same time. It holds so much potential for beauty, for transformation, for understanding. And yet, also for misunderstanding, grief, and sorrow. This empty space shapes me as I write just as much as I am shaping it.

The girl with the long burgundy hair sits across from me eating a madeleine cookie. Her blue metal feather bracelet is a nice complement to her black-and-white rose tattoos on her right arm. She is too preoccupied with her phone to notice the lady in a wheelchair passing her by on her way to the restroom. You would think the first thing one would notice about this woman in the wheelchair would be her bright-colored tie dye shirt with the happy face on it. Or the shoulder purse on her lap covered with pictures of cats. But I notice her smile and her short grey hair, both of which you can tell she wears proudly. What challenges will these women both face today, I wonder? Which ones have they already overcome? What are they afraid of?

I think to be a writer means to be full of questions more than answers. We write in response to questions we are asking ourselves, whether consciously or not. The questions teach us more about life and humanity than any answers ever could. Answers are simply what we arrive at; the questions contain the journey, the learning, the metamorphosis. We must continually ask what if, how, why, if we want our writing to serve a purpose larger than this small body we inhabit. I don’t have any answers; I’ve just learned how to ask the essential questions, unapologetically, and write my way to the answer.

And if I don’t arrive, I write anyway. Because that’s what writers do. We keep writing. We keep showing up to the empty space to face the unknown until we make it known, until we are intimately connected. We write in order to forget ourselves and become acquainted with ourselves simultaneously. That is the ultimate paradox of any art and creative work.

And should we find that on this journey we stumble upon any trace of meaning, my hope is that we share it with each other. The joy and responsibility of any artist who puts her work out into the world is to take the tools of her medium and shape them in such a way that fills the empty spaces of this earth we cohabit with some semblance of beauty and hope. Something to hold on to when the darkness is too much to bear.

Write like you’re clinging to the edge of a cliff, white knuckles, on your last breath, and you’ve got just one last thing to say, like you’re a bird flying over us and you can see everything, and please, for God’s sake, tell us something that will save us from ourselves.

~Alan W. Watts

I usually know it’s time to leave a coffee shop when my body begins to shiver from the AC they’re always blasting too high. And when I leave, the coffee shop rituals of visitors will continue — the pouring of cream, the stirring, the taking off and putting back on of lids, the disposal of empty cups. And the occasional mopping of spilled drinks. The chatter of conversation and the making of coffee fill the empty spaces in this place, along with the tapping of keyboards and the pleasant music up above. And life will go on.

As I look around one last time, this thought occurs to me — whatever spaces I fill in my lifetime, whether with my presence or with my words, I pray they and I are better for it. I hope they are filled with whatever beauty and hope I can draft up and leave behind. How fitting, that I see a sign on the wall above the registers that reads: “we fine tune every espresso shot until it flows like honey.” May I continue to write, until my life and my writing flow like honey.