The anguish of a blank page, perpetuated through the centuries

my latest book, A Writing Studies Primer (Introduction to Writing Studies, untranslated), includes a chapter on the gods, goddesses and patron saints of scripture. During my research, I was struck by the fact that writers have always sought the inspiration and intercession of the gods.

In reality, frustrated writers who yearn for a muse or heavenly help adhere to a 5,000-year-old tradition.

The first writers looked to the sky

The first writing system, the cuneiform, appeared in Sumer around 3200 BC to keep track of wheat stocks, transactions, real estate and revenue. Scribes used clay tablets to record information – basically, these were the first Excel spreadsheets.

Originally the Sumerian goddess of grain, nisaba was associated with writing. She was pictured holding a gold stylus and a clay tablet.

As it was common for each profession to adopt a tutelary god or goddess, the new class of scribes chose Nisaba. In the schools that trained young scribes, the tablets invoke his name – “Praised be Nisaba! Poets praised his influence and claimed she gave beautiful handwriting to diligent students.

His Egyptian counterpart was Seshatwhose name is translated by “woman scribe”.

Seshat, recognizable by his headdress surmounted by a stylized papyrus and his stylus in his right hand, guided the reed pens of the scribes while the priests communicate with the divine.

Writing then consisted of communicating with the gods, and the Greeks and Romans carried on this tradition. They turned to the nine daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne, known collectively as muses. Among them, Calliope particularly stands out, not only because a musical instrument bears her name, but also because she was considered the first of the sisters for her eloquence.

The Muses have since evolved into a single global “muse” that serves as a source of inspiration.

World gods and goddesses of writing

The gods and other legendary figures in writing are not limited to Western civilization. In China, the historian Cangjie, who lived in the 17the century BC, would have created the chinese language characters. Legend has it that it was inspired by the design of a turtle’s veins. At the time, the Chinese often wrote on turtle shells.

According to one competing historyfolk hero Fuxi and his sister Nüwa are said to have created the Chinese character system around 2000 BC. Yet, it is the name Cangjie that lives on in the cangjie input method, which refers to the system allowing Chinese to be typed using a standard QWERTY keyboard.

In India, writers still invoke the Hindu elephant-headed god Ganeshabefore putting the ink on the paper. Known for removing obstacles, Ganesh can be particularly helpful to those struggling with blank page syndrome. There is also saraswatithe Hindu goddess of knowledge and the arts, renowned for her eloquence.

In Mesoamerica, the Mayan culture considers Itzamna as the deity who provided the pillars of civilization: writing, calendars, medicine and worship rituals. His depiction as a toothless, wise old man indicated that he was not to be feared, an important characteristic for someone who encourages an anxiety-inducing process like writing.

The patron saints of writing

In Christianity, the patron saints serve as models and defenders of heaven. Various groups – professions, people with a certain disease and even entire nations – adopt a patron saint.

Saint Bridget of Irelandwho lived from 451 to 525, is the patron saint of printing presses and poets. Contemporary of the best known Saint PatrickSaint Bridget founded a monastery for women, which included a school of art that became famous for its handwritten and decorative manuscripts, notably the Book of Kildare.

After Saint Bridget in Ireland, Saint Columba, who lived from 521 to 597, founded the influential Abbey of Iona, an island off the coast of Scotland. A renowned scholar, Saint Columba transcribed over 300 books during his lifetime.

The influence of patron saints dedicated to literacy – reading and writing – continued long after the Middle Ages. In 1912 the College of Saint Scholastica was founded in Minnesota as a tribute to Scholastic (480-543), who, with his twin brother Benedict (died 547), enjoyed discussing sacred texts. Both Italian patron saints have been associated with books, reading and teaching.

Objects charged with power

Some writers may think supernatural characters seem a little too removed from the physical world. Fear not – there are magical items they can touch for inspiration and help, such as talismans. Derived from the ancient Greek word teleinwhich means “to accomplish”, it was an object which, like an amulet, protected the wearer and facilitated good fortune.

Today, you can purchase talismans inspired by ancient Celtic symbols that are believed to aid in the writing process. Online, some promise “natural inspiration and help in all your writing endeavors.” Others advertise a similar product that is supposed to help “find the right word at the most opportune time”.

Others turn to stones. A blank page syndrome crystal gift set offers agate, carnelian, tiger’s eye, citrine, amethyst and clear quartz crystals on a merchant site to help those struggling to formulate sentences. [setcadeaudecristauxcontrelesyndromedelapageblancheproposesurunsitemarchanddescristauxd’agatedecornalined’œildetigredecitrined’améthysteetdequartzclairpouraiderceuxquiontdumalàformulerdesphrases

What makes a writer?

What prompted the creation of divine beings and objects that could inspire and intercede on behalf of writers? To me it is no mystery that writers seek intervention divine for 5000 years.

Of course, counting the number of sheep or bushels of grain can seem like routine work. Yet in the early writing systems, the physical act of writing was extremely difficult – and that’s one of the reasons why schoolchildren prayed for help. Later, the act of creation – coming up with ideas, communicating them clearly, and engaging readers – could make writing seem like a Herculean task. Paradoxically, this complex skill does not necessarily flow naturally, even with a lot of practice.

The romantic image of the writer in his attic does not do justice to the tedious reality of producing words, one after another.

In his memoirs On writingStephen King said: The amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the others get up and get to work. At the suggestion of a friend, Patchett attached a sign-in sheet at the door of his writing room to make sure she wrote every day.

No matter how accomplished a writer is, they will inevitably face blank page syndrome. Pulitzer Prize-winning author John McPhee, who began contributing to the New Yorker in 1963, evokes it in a article from 2013 : “The blank page syndrome. It strikes down some writers for months. It strikes down certain writers for life. Another famous writer from New YorkerJoseph Mitchell, was struck by the white page syndrome in 1964 and just sat and stared at his typewriter for 30 years.

I struggled with writing this article myself, writing it and rewriting it in my head a dozen times before typing the first word.

Poet and satirist Dorothy Parker once said : “ I hate to write; I like to have written. »

I’m like you, Dorothy.

Joyce KinkeadDistinguished Professor of English, Utah State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under Creative Commons license. Read theoriginal article.

Image credit: Shutterstock

DOSSIER – The novels of the literary season: 2020, the new year



The anguish of a blank page, perpetuated through the centuries