When Perfection Comes…
L. Troy Appling
Better to keep silent and let the world think you brilliant, than to open your mouth and spoil the illusion.
As a kid I used to beg my mom and dad to buy me notebooks. I must confess that I have an obsession with paper that is possibly only surpassed by my obsession with pens. I could write in a different notebook/scratchpad/journal every day for a month and never use the same one twice. (I could write on those notebooks with a different pen every day for ayear and never repeat a single one.) Like I said—I have an obsession. I admit it.
As an adult I have gathered an impressive collection of notebooks and journals: spiral-bound, leather, hardback, cloth, lined, unlined—all shapes, sizes, and colors—in as many varieties as one could possibly hope for. And though no two notebooks or journals are exactly alike, they almost all have one thing in common:
There’s nothing written in them.
I have all these nice journals that are as blank inside as the day they were bought. On some level I know that it’s a waste of money and resources; somewhere an actual writer is being deprived of a place to store her vast imagination because some amateur has hoarded the pages of a journal on some dusty bookshelf in Tallahassee, Florida.
It’s not that I don’t have grand plans and ideas befitting the status of these tomes. I don’t buy them thinking, “That would look great sitting on the shelf behind the couch. I wonder how it will look with a thin coating of dust.” No, I have images of thick volumes whose pages are filled with my poems, stories, and wisdom gleaned from almost three decades of life.
But it never happens. I’ve started a couple of times, sure: one 300-page forest-green specimen got as many as twenty poems copied into it before it was abandoned in the frantic pace of my world. Another more damning example is the small navy blue tome whose title page was inscribed “Things I Love About My Wife” – it only had ten pages filled.
Nor is it that I don’t have the desire to write. I enjoy writing, but I’m not sure what to write and what deserves a place on those somehow hallowed pages. I come from a firmly religious background that is deeply rooted in the concept of logos—the power of the written word. There’s something almost sacred and ceremonial about committing ink to bound paper (“In the beginning was the Word…”). It is said that with mere words God created the universe; my personal meanderings across the page seem hopelessly common and profane.
I have over two thousand books in my apartment, and another thousand in storage. I’m surrounded by literally over a million words, yet I can’t figure out what to write. (It’s kind of like watching cable or satellite; you have over a hundred channels, but you still can’t decide what to watch.) I have creative writing books and books with hundreds of writing prompts—two shelves worth, in fact. I have prompts for short stories, poems, and essays—but still my journals sit empty.
When I was an undergraduate student I wrote all the time. I have a four-inch loose-leaf binder filled with journal entries and writings—just from one year! I also have one notebook that functioned as a log of my freshman year—I literally wrote down everything I ate, what I did, and how much I spent. (When I re-read them I keep waiting for a Patrick Stewart voiceover: “Captain’s Log, stardate 42314.9.”) But now—a Master’s degree, marriage, baby, three jobs, and four moves later—I rarely write at all, except for school. I have never written anything for my wife, except for a few stanzas of iambic pentameter that became my wedding vows. I have written hundreds of pages of literary analysis and criticism on everything from Beowulf to Beat poets, but that’s not personal or creative enough to merit a place in cloth.
Part of the problem is that I’m afraid to start writing in these journals. I’m afraid I’ll mess them up; one wrong word and the whole 500-page journal is suddenly worthless. Seventy-nine-cent spiral notebooks from the local office shop are one thing – I have dozens of those, too (wide, college, narrow, legal, 1- 2- 3- and 5-subjects). I have no problem writing in those. If I mess up, I can just rip out the offending pages, banish them, and start over as if they never existed. But bind the same paper inside cloth or leather and it seems to become sacred—“Take off your errors, for the place where you are writing is holy.”
I think a deeper problem than fear that keeps me from writing in these nicer journals, though, is that on some level they are just for show. All those exquisite cloth and leather spines looking majestically over the room from the top few shelves, above the Complete Works of William Shakespeare and several versions of the Bible, give the casual observer the idea that hey, someone in this house is an impressive man of letters. My family thinks of me as the next Lewis (C.S., not Sinclair) or Hemingway; I’m “the writer” of the family. It doesn’t matter to them that I’ve never been published or even submitted a manuscript. The mystique is apparently enough for them, and I am unwilling (or unable) to disrupt the illusion.
Thus few people are ever given the chance to discover that contained within those regal covers is nothing—blank pages untouched by the imagination. That’s a secret too painful and damning to reveal. I tell myself that someday I will fill those pages—that someday I will transfer all my random jottings from those lowly spiral theme books to the hallowed pages of bound leather. But it never happens. Something always comes up.
To let people see the truth of the blank pages is too hard. I’m afraid that I’ll leave an indelible mark on the pages that will forever mar the value of the whole journal. Perhaps it’s better to keep up appearances. So there the journals sit, vainly impressing a world that will never see the inside—the stark, empty truth.
L. Troy Appling is a second-year PhD student at Florida State University in Tallahassee. The emphasis in his research is on the relationship between religious expression and culture as seen in twentieth-century American drama. He writes: “This essay was originally written for a class on creative nonfiction the first semester I was at Florida State. Still unpacking, I was inundated with unopened boxes of books, and inspiration literally fell on me when one of those boxes (containing empty journals) burst on my feet.” When not studying or grading papers, Troy is at home spending time with his wife Marie and their 18-month-old son Ryan.