The Blank Page

The Blank Page

From Chicken Soup for the Soul 20th Anniversary Edition

The Blank Page

Be patient and tough; someday this pain will be useful to you.

~Ovid

When you make an observation, you have an obligation. This is the piece of poetry that I try to live by. It’s the mantra that led me through rural Pennsylvania to conduct a creative writing workshop in prison — the pen.

As I pulled up to the jail — a colorless lump of concrete strangled with jagged concertina wire — rain fell, flickering like old film. I remembered how my life had been transformed by a single blank page. Remembered how I showed up to Crefeld, an alternative school in Philadelphia, as a troubled teen who’d been expelled from everywhere else. Remembered how Stacey, the English teacher, placed a blank sheet of paper down in front of me and told me, simply, “Write.”

“Write what?” I asked her.

Stacey’s response — “anything you want” — changed my life.

I stared at the blank page, an ocean of white glowing with possibility. Its blankness begged me to tell a story — dared me to share my own.

But I couldn’t. I froze, terrified and uncomfortable. There were things I wanted to say, but my pen was stuck, my words trapped like water under an ice block. The distance between my mind and the page felt like it could’ve been measured in light-years.

“It’s like there’s a wall,” I said.

“Every wall is a door,” Stacey replied. “You don’t need to be great to get started, but you need to get started to be great.” Stacey transformed her observation of me into an obligation to me.

Finally I gripped the pen. My hand shook and trembled like it was freezing. Then it hit me: a silence louder than all the music I’d ever heard. I took a breath, then exhaled — deep, like I just rose from under water.

I stared so deep into the page that I saw myself. Then I felt something I’d never felt before: purpose. I realized that I am the blank page, that we are all blank pages.

Because the blank page was the starter pistol that triggered my purpose, helping to take me from a juvenile delinquent to an award-winning writer, filmmaker, and professor, it was my hope to share the power and possibility of creative writing with the prisoners. I remembered the words of my mentor, Maya Angelou: “When you get, give. When you learn, teach.”

Inside I huddled with an intense group of inmates, all young men, all bent on not being broken. After the workshop, I was taken to visit the cellblock where they spent the bulk of their days and nights. On my way out, I noticed that Jordan, a participant in the workshop who was suffering from writer’s block, had the only cell whose bed did not have a mattress.

“No mattress?” I asked, puzzled.

“I have one, but I don’t sleep on it,” he told me. “What do you sleep on?” I pried.

“The hard floor, the steel frame, anywhere but not on this,” he asserted as he hunched beneath the bunk and flashed a flimsy mattress. “See,” he started, as he reburied the cot, “I can’t sleep on that. It’s too comfortable and I don’t trust comfort in a place like this.”

For Jordan, certain comforts numbed him to the raspy reality of where he really was. He used his discomfort to remind him of where he was and where he wanted to go. I remembered my initial discomfort with the blank page, my writer’s block, and thought about where I am now. Then I thought about Jordan’s struggles, both on the page and off, and how through discomfort, tremendous growth is possible.

When you make an observation, you have an obligation.

Before I left, I handed Jordan a blank page.

~MK Asante

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