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Blank Looks : Every Day, Writers Face Empty Pages That Are Actually Filled With Promise

November 05, 1989|JACK SMITH

TWO OF THE most comfortable sensations that have haunted me all my life," writes Bill Campbell of Glendale, "are walking onto a tennis court before play and sitting down before my typewriter.

"Could it be the mystery of wondering how it will come out? The relish of an impending challenge?"

We are all familiar with such beginnings: moments that are vibrant with promise. There is a quickening of the pulse, a mixture of fear and exultation.

Perhaps Campbell's word challenge is better than fear . We are buoyed by confidence. We know that we are about to encounter what James Joyce called "the reality of experience," and we will not be found wanting.

I no longer play tennis, and when I did play, I didn't wonder how it would come out. I could be pretty sure I would lose. Nevertheless, when I took the court, I felt that involuntary surge of mastery. This time my serve would be untouchable. That I more often lost than won did nothing to discourage that preliminary expectation--even when it was my wife who beat me.

Today I am a big fan of television tennis. I can't watch Ivan Lendl on the court without wondering what it would be like to play against him. Suppose I had the first serve, and assuming I could get the ball in the service court: How long would I last--one serve, two?--before Lendl walked off the court in disgust?

I don't think Campbell was talking about daydreams, though. He was talking about real-life situations.

All right. I sit down at the typewriter (in my case a computer). I start with a two-sentence quote from Bill Campbell. Then I am struck wordless by the impending challenge. The mystery of how it will come out. Usually I get up and go into the kitchen for a cup of coffee. Then I check to see if the mail has come. Then I decide to finish reading the paper. Then I go back to my computer. The sense of mystery and challenge has not gone away.

When you face that mystery and challenge every day of your life, it takes on the dangerous texture of routine. You know that the muses will not come to your rescue. Genius will not alight on your shoulder like a parrot. Your fairy godmother may make the coffee, but she won't write a word.

At that moment you are reminded of Thomas Edison's aphorism that genius is "1% inspiration and 99% perspiration," and you strike the first key. Was it Gene Fowler or Red Smith who said that the way to overcome writer's block is to put a piece of paper in the typewriter and wait until a drop of blood appears on your forehead?

But Campbell is describing a real-life phenomenon. Children experience it on their first day of school, filled with emotions that we have long since forgotten as they march for the first time into their classrooms.

I'm sure that the South Pacific planter felt it that enchanted evening when he first saw the face across a crowded room and knew that somehow he would see it again and again. "Who can explain it? Who can tell you why?"

Brides feel it when the minister says, "Do you take this man to be your lawful wedded husband? (And, of course, bridegrooms feel it, too.) That is a threshold brightened by mystery, challenge, enchantment--sometimes shadowed by apprehension.

Every runner feels it when he is on the mark and set and waiting, his ears straining for the pistol shot. Every field-goal kicker feels it when he is waiting for the ball to be snapped from center, and the game is on the line.

Who has not felt it on the first day of a new job? "That's your desk over there. The coffee machine is at the back of the room. Your break is at 10. Good luck."

Every policeman must feel it when, armed with a warrant, he knocks on the door of a dangerous felon.

Every felon must know it when he hears that knock.

The feeling is not known only to the noble.

Who can explain it? Who can tell you why?

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