05/31/2013 11:45 EDT | Updated 07/31/2013 05:12 EDT

Martha Schabas: My Blank Page

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Vintage desk set up. Antique eyeglasses, old notepad - book, fountain pen, spectacles on wooden table.

Martha Schabas will be appearing at Trinity Bellwoods Park on Saturday, June 22nd, from 12 - 4 pm at A Literary Picnic, part of Luminato Festival 2013. With the theme of "Beginnings" as inspiration, over 60 authors will take to three stages to share selections from their work and offer insight into where a story begins, and how writers confront the blank page. Many of the participating authors will also be setting up their own picnic blankets "backstage" for one-on-one exchanges with the public throughout the day.

On each Saturday leading up to the festivities -- as well as on the big day itself -- The Huffington Post is presenting blog posts from selected authors on how they personally handle writing that daunting first word. So far, we have heard from Ania Szado, Evan Munday, and Mathew Henderson. Today, we feature Martha's contribution. And check back in next week for Martha Schabas's take.

If the blank page is killing me, the only thing to do is personify it. That means, if I'm sitting at my computer, and trying to review a book for a newspaper--a book I either didn't care for, or cared for so much that I begin to worry about Criticism In The First Place--I will imbue the blank screen with our last conversation. Who cares if this conversation was about a completely different book? I took exception with your claim that text, in this book, was a metaphor, and I was distracted by the meal I had frying on the stove. I'm not much of a cook and simple recipes will distract me. By the time dinner was ready, you had made a hundred more notes in the margins. And you had perfected a theory that compared the way time drags in this novel to the way time drags in the walk between our two apartments. Now I can edit out the part where I raised my voice and said that stupid thing about hyper-colour verbs. The word "ecstatic," which is yours, can be mine, and I will say "gorgeous" the way you do. As if it burst to life the second I thought it. As if I am the only arbiter of gorgeous thought.

But it's more likely that I am sitting at my computer and trying to write a novel. You can still be here with me--you are of course, you are texting me (stop texting me!)--but I will try to be more coy about your presence. I will recast the trip we took to the Ardèche Valley in 2006. I will make you tip the canoe and I will make the sky a little higher and the sun a bit more red. You did not tip the canoe--you are really an excellent oarsman--but if you tip the canoe in my novel I can reframe the argument we had about my bathing suit. I had chosen this particular bathing suit because I had not been planning on getting wet. That can't make any sense in real life. But in my novel, and partially on account of the redder sun, my behaviour will seem both tragic and incredible. For god's sake, my behaviour will seem downright heroic! I will speak to all the heartbreak of really nice bathing suits, and to the impossibility, once you've cut their tags off, of ever keeping them dry again.

Sometimes, when the blank page is too much for me, I may try to write like someone else. I guess it's no big confession to say that this someone else is you right now. There are precedents for plagiarism in literature, of course. I want to argue that it was mostly plagiarism until John Donne.

At the very least, there are precedents for plagiarism in Greco-Roman art. All I'm doing here is taking a certain cadence that comes naturally to you--call it style or call it psychology--and trying it on for size. To tell you the truth, it feels an awful lot like singing, which would never have occurred to me to do either. And I could make a good case for myself if you put me to it. I would draw your attention to the words here that are My Words and to the ideas that could have only come from the intersection of my childhood and my temperature. We both know that if an expert looked over these lines, she would not be fooled for a moment. She would see all of my work and she would ask me where my voice went. And I would wave my hands like an air-traffic controller and say: Hey! Hello! I'm right over here!

Because I need to make it clear that you and I are becoming increasingly hilarious to ourselves. Come on. It's an Ecstatic Feeling. I would go so far as to call it Gorgeous. And I know that it feels this way for everyone. But still. Come on. Still.

Martha Schabas' first novel, Various Positions, was a Globe & Mail Best Book and was shortlisted for the Ontario Library Association's Evergreen Award.



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