2005-07-27 / Editorial

Marshall Singletary

The tyranny of the empty page


I reluctantly submit to the tyranny of the empty page - okay, the empty screen. Anyone who has ever had the responsibility of filling an empty page or monitor screen with meaningful thoughts understands the use of the word tyranny.

Now that I have accepted the invitation to submit an occasional article to The True Citizen, I shall face the empty page with more regularity than I’ve become accustomed to in my regular routines of ministry. I first heard the phrase, "the tyranny of the empty page," several years ago, and I immediately understood its meaning. The empty page demands to be filled. It mocks the writer until he or she timidly types a few words or phrases. The words stare back, and the writer realizes that nothing meaningful has been said, or what seemed like a wonderful idea really wasn’t so wonderful after all. After erasing the words or hitting the delete button, the empty page grins its intimidating grin once again, and it is time for another trip to the coffee pot. The coffee pot can be the writer’s best friend. I wonder how many ideas have been formed, changes of direction decided or opinions crystallized while pouring a cup of coffee? Most of my sermons probably have a few coffee stains across the pages.

Editorialists and columnists have fascinated me over the years. I have often wondered how they could find so much to say each week. I have especially wondered how they could have such definite opinions on so many varied subjects. (I suppose they have wondered the same thing about preachers!) It is a presumptuous and somewhat arrogant thing to believe our thoughts or opinions are worth considering or that anyone is even interested.

Perhaps now I will discover how others have found enough words and developed enough opinions to fill their columns. I have been working on this article a while, and so far the secret has eluded me. I realize that I am not the only one to face the tyranny of the empty page. It begins early. I suppose it begins somewhere in grade school with written book reports and themes such as: "How I Spent My Summer Vacation." It continues into college with the particularly intimidating "blue book" essay tests. Reports due on the boss’s desk, income tax forms and shopping lists: the empty pages and empty blanks stare back at us across a lifetime.

For those of us in the preaching ministry, empty pages waiting to be filled are the most common part of our lives. For many of us, each week there are two sermons and a Bible study to prepare. Occasionally there are baccalaureate sermons, funeral sermons, and other special ministries which begin with staring into a blank screen or looking at an empty page.

My old grandfather could never understand that. He believed that a real preacher would stand up and simply say what the Lord was telling him to say. I am glad to report that once in a while, though rarely, sermons happen just that way. I do not want to disillusion anyone, but I have discovered that most commonly, inspiration happens in conjunction with prayer, pondering and researching a passage of Scripture.

I have also discovered that there is a world of difference in having something to say and having to say something! When you have something to say, the empty page is no tyranny. It eagerly awaits the printed word and greedily receives your ideas. The words flow across the screen and the empty page begins to fill with thoughts you scarcely knew you had. The emptiness of the page seems to help the writer rather than intimidate him or her; however when you must say something, the empty page can become an enemy and a tyranny. One by one, the words fall hard onto the page. They lie there staring back at you, and you wonder about your intelligence. You know then that it’s time for another trip to the coffee pot.

There will be occasions in the days ahead when I shall have something to say, and there shall be times when I shall have to say something. I suspect you will know the difference. Either way, I am looking forward to making friends with the empty page, and I am looking forward to making friends with you.

Right now, I’m considering deleting this and writing an interesting and entertaining column … but first, I think I’ll have another cup of coffee.

Contact the Rev. Singletary at First United Methodist Church of Waynesboro, msingletary@wfumc.org.


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