Archived Opinion

Staring down a blank computer on deadline

It happens to writers much better than me. I know this, because I need only to open a book and find a sentence like this one to be instantly reassured: “I was sitting at my typewriter one afternoon several weeks ago, staring at a piece of blank white paper …”

That brilliant start is by James Thurber in The Thurber Carnival at the beginning of his essay, “What do you mean it was Brillig?”

Let us break down that sentence by the master, shall we?

Thurber, like me, was clearly stuck. He was as stuck as any writer can be. “I am sitting” is writer’s code that he’d been at his desk for hours, perhaps days and weeks, waiting for inspiration. “Inspiration” is the oft-spoken-about muse fiction writers apparently visit on whim. Nonfiction writers like myself and — if I dare even write his name in such close proximity to my own presence —  Thurber, tend to find their muses on deadline. And what a wicked witch she is, the old bag.

Thurber confirms he’d been moldering at his desk for some time with his very next words: “one afternoon several weeks ago.” See? He’d been there several weeks, poor man, unable to find a topic. Think about the wedding scene in Dickens’ Great Expectations and you’ll have a nice mental picture of a columnists’ or essayists’ life when writer’s block strikes: A tortured Miss Havisham, as seen by Pip, dressed in her tattered, yellowing wedding dress and hovering near the cobweb-festooned bride cake feasted on by mice. That’s what the world of Thurber on that day looked like, waiting like Miss Havisham for something that never comes. And my writer’s torture chamber looks like that, too. The greatest or the least of us, it matters not, we suffer the same.

I know the feeling well that Thurber described in his simple sentence of being chained to the writer’s desk (I repeat it here, in case you’ve forgotten his golden words: “I was sitting at my typewriter one afternoon several weeks ago, staring at a piece of blank white paper …”)

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I myself sat Sunday for at least 10 minutes staring at a blank computer screen trying to hit on something to write about before I noticed how lovely a day it was for mid December. You remember the sun shone so bright and warmly. So I went about my merry way with the mental justification, “I’ll just get up a bit early in the morning and write.”

Now, of course, it’s early in the morning and I still don’t have a topic, and I’m doing something that I swore on the sacred writer’s Bible I’d never do: I’m writing my column about not having a topic for my column.

Some of the very worst writing abuses ever found in newspapers — and that’s saying a lot given the writing abuses that are found in newspapers — have been wrought by columnists bereft of reasons to write. Columnists who have no topic of interest yet insist nevertheless on being columnists regardless of their total absence of anything meaningful to write upon.

Why, I have railed many a time against these sham writers, usually with a bourbon in one hand and a cigarette in the other hand because, my dears, one needs props when railing, though I’ve noticed that since I’ve become so amazingly humble and bourbon- and cigarette-less I tend not to rail at all … funny how it works like that.  

Thurber concludes our shining example by noting that he was “staring at a piece of blank white paper.” I’m here to note there is nothing more stimulating about staring at a blank white Microsoft word document than a blank sheet of actual paper. The key words in that sentence are the double repetition of “blank.” Nothing else matters — blank is blank, believe you me, whether it is on a computer screen or at a typewriter.

An aside: Unlike many here in this kiddy romper room that poses as The Smoky Mountain News — I jest not, the newspaper’s owners raid the state’s juvenile detention center for wayward 11- and 12-year-olds when in need of staff, they come cheaper by the dozen that way — I’m old enough to have stared mindlessly at real paper. Real, crinkly paper, children; the stuff you can hold in your hands.

Despite the uncanny similarity of us both being writers, you will be surprised to know there are a few distinct differences between Thurber and myself. First of all, he’s dead and I’m not; he was male and I’m female; we have different names; he was a Yankee and I’m a Southerner.

The End.

(Quintine Ellison can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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