Lately, I’ve been thinking about my relation to time and space. More specifically, I’m interested in discovering what this means for my writing and for my process in creating new work. Some people need that quiet, empty, clean space to write. No distractions. Some people set aside time specifically to write and only write. But I’ve never been as regimented in my writing as that. Before I moved to Florida from England, I spent years of my life waiting for trains to and from school. In the moments before the train rolled into the station, and then during the train journeys themselves, when I wasn’t reading, I would be writing. From this experience alone, I know that I am able to pick up a pen and write anywhere, no matter how loud or disruptive the atmosphere is. Those train journeys were rarely quiet. The problem I face is not with finding space or finding time, but finding a way to tackle the blank page. The dreaded blank page.
I first encountered Jo Ann Beard’s work during my undergraduate career at the University of South Florida. I was in my first creative nonfiction class, staring at "The Fourth State of Matter." My first reaction was to ask if what I was reading was really true. Not because I doubted Jo Ann, not for a second, but because the quality of each braid of the essay was perfectly intertwined with each of the others in a way I could only dream of being able to master one day. I studied Jo Ann’s work again in my first semester of the MFA here at FAU and again was struck by the seamlessness of her work, not only in "The Fourth State of Matter," but in other essays featured in The Boys of My Youth. I wondered how she did it.
Jo Ann Beard doesn’t revise. Not in the way we would expect, anyway. She told us she revises her work sentence by sentence, word by word, before her ideas move from her mind to the page. The blank page. The draft is the final product, the finished piece, which we see printed in those celebrated magazines and published as books. Each day in our workshop with Jo Ann, she asked us to spend thirty minutes free writing. Each day I left workshop with a piece I could polish and edit and that I have since turned into longer, more thoughtful essays than my initial scribbles. Her key to getting to this stage is not to fear the blank page, the space, the emptiness. The key is to submerge: into the conscious, into the subconscious, into the place where the deepest and truest stories are. Go there and stay there and pull your stories from there. Pour them onto that blank page.
As I drove Jo Ann back to her hotel after class one day, we talked about exercise. She was excited to play tennis the following morning and asked me if I worked out. Not as recently as I would have liked to admit. But writing is exercise too, or so she made me believe. Spending that time submerged in the writing is as straining mentally and emotionally as a good workout is for the body physically. She explained, “The work is that I’ve gone to that place and I’ve used that muscle.” And after a week of daily workshops, delving deep into the craft and pulling my own stories up from the depths of myself, I felt drained in the best possible way. Like I’d discovered that muscle and not only stretched it, but worked it out. Jo Ann pushed me to do the work, stretch the muscles, find the place, and fearlessly face that blank page. To submerge.
Rebecca Jensen is a first-year MFA student in nonfiction at Florida Atlantic University. She graduated from the Honors College at the University of South Florida in 2014. She has worked as fiction editor for Driftwood Press, a literary magazine, and is currently nonfiction editor at FAU’s Coastlines. She writes feature articles for Fort Lauderdale’s city magazine, Go Riverwalk, and her creative work appears or is forthcoming in FishFood Literary and Creative Arts Magazine.