Rick Magee (opinion): The siren song of empty pages

A moleskin notebook

A moleskin notebook

Hearst file photo

My friend Peter is moving, and, as he was clearing out things he doesn’t want to keep, he came across an interesting blank book and asked me if my son would like to have it. The book has a weirdly ornate leather cover with heavy stitching and a large brass hasp to keep it closed. There are also a couple of rings sewn into the cover that look like you could attach a strap if you needed to sling your notebook over your shoulder for some reason. It is definitely the kind of peculiar and cool sort of thing my son would like, so I happily took it.

Every artist and writer I have ever known harbors an obsession with interesting notebooks. I myself have a large and varied collection ranging from a small green leather book with Celtic designs on the cover to simple softcover books I carry with me all the time. My current favorite is the grand old Moleskine classic. One of my student poets has talked in loving terms about a lovely leather notebook she has. Her problem, though, is a common one among notebook admirers: finding the words that are worthy of appearing in such a wonderful blank book. Many of us get paralyzed by the siren song of empty pages and the fear that our writing won’t quite do the fancy cover justice.

My son has no such compunctions. When I presented him with the new notebook, he thanked me and immediately started thinking about what it should be for. He finally decided that it should be a combination spell book and poetry book. I told him that was a good idea.

“I know,” he told me patiently, “that’s why this is a spell book and a poetry book.”

He had none of the fears of the blank page or any sense that his writing would be inferior to the book it was written in, and he started to work filling the pages right away. He proudly read me the first couple of poem spells, and they were very good, though I am sure they were helped a lot by his dramatic reading style.

His complete composure and fearlessness in the face of hundreds of threatening blank pages is not unusual. Earlier in April, I visited his school, Johnson Elementary in Bethel, to lead assemblies about poetry for each grade, and the students responded in extremely enthusiastically. They showed none of the trepidation that adults often exhibit when they are asked to think about poetry, and the kids loudly reminded me that poetry is something vital and energetic, and fun.

I took a crew of Sacred Heart students with me to help me out. We were all a little nervous about performing in front of hundreds of third-, fourth-, and fifth-graders, but the kids put as at ease pretty quickly with their interest and excitement. A group of fifth-grade boys decided right away that Andy, one of my students, was the coolest guy they’d ever seen, and their bumptious energy helped us get going.

Once I got into the presentation, I got swept away by the creative freedom the kids exhibited. I asked them to define what a poem is, and they came up with amazing answers that were not locked into old, stale ways of thinking about things. They did almost effortlessly what the best poets have to work at.

The kids have a lesson that many of us grown-ups should learn about breaking down the barriers that keep us from expressing ourselves clearly. Don’t be afraid of the blank pages in the fancy books.

Rick Magee is a Bethel resident and an English professor at a Connecticut university. Contact him at r.m.magee.writer@gmail.com.