Friday Five-O: Fear of the Blank Page

Dear Friday Five-O:

How do I deal with my fear of failure? My fear of facing the blank page?

--Britney Fears

Dear Britney,

When I was in mortuary school, I had the good fortune of being surrounded by a number of dead bodies. A dead body is always a shock, and the shock continues. I never really got used to walking into a room and feeling the presence of a dead person. They were not breathing shallowly. There was no actual danger, the closer and closer I got to the body, its eyes did not shoot open, nor did its arms reach out and grab my wrist like in a horror movie. The fear was all internal.

Why am I telling you this? I could answer your question above by inferring that you are a “perfectionist,” and we could make some assumptions about what that meant. It might be fruitful to discuss your internal critic, that parental or professorial voice which judges your efforts and finds them wanting. Or we could do a thought experiment: Imagine you live in a totalitarian state, where you are fundamentally disallowed the right to express yourself...

But since you mentioned fear, I will share a question I contemplate sometimes: “Since death alone is certain,” writes Stephen Batchelor, “and the time of death is uncertain, what should I do?” For two or three months we’d have no one at the morgue. Then for six months in a row, we’d have ten bodies every day. The time of death is uncertain; death is not.

During the course of my training, one of my parents’ best friends, Betsy, died—and it was her husband, Ed, who had the cancer. We always remember Betsy as smiling, with stylish glasses (my daughter remembers them as orange, my mother as red). Betsy was an accomplished visual artist, doing book jacket covers for people like the poetry critic Helen Vendler, yet she was not above painting pumpkins with my five-year-old daughter.

My daughter won’t get to paint the cartoon character Blossom next year. She’s upset. She asks me about it. I explain death to her. That will make anyone feel stupid.

How do we handle something we don’t understand? Death is an experience upon which nothing can be predicated--meaning, we cannot take it as a subject. This frustration leads to wild hypotheses. As my wife says, “It’s a lot farther than Seattle.” It might lead to an obsession with safety. It might lead to a “carpe diem” mentality. It might lead to a fear of facing the blank page.

Eventually, I came to view all fears as microcosms of this one great fear: Uneasiness upon waking from a nap in winter, the “Sunday blues,” a relationship breaking up, a child leaving the nest...all fears come down to the fear of death. And conversely, all fears vanish in those moments when you are not afraid of death.

Some nights I would leave the funeral home and life would be so amazing, but not in any privileged way. The car noises soft in the drifting snow. The tomato on a hoagie (I think you call them subs here), just to taste it, the place where the pulpy part distinguishes itself from the rindy part...and the pepper on the tomato? It was more beautiful than a sunset.

In those moments, I found my heart greedy for human company. I believe the word is communicate, from the same root as community. The music on the radio was realer, the lyrics clearer, for what they were telling me about was my own world.

The purpose of life is to live. The purpose of a blank page is for you to fill it.

Over to you,


About the Author See other articles by Stuart Horwitz
by Stuart Horwitz

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