Jonathan Safran Foer
Playboy, Jan 2004
by Jonathan Safran Foer
The First Empty Page
I started collecting empty paper soon after I finished my first novel, about two years ago. A family friend had been helping to archive Isaac Bashevis Singer‘s belongings for the university where his papers and artifacts were to be kept. Among the many items to be disposed of was a stack of Singer‘s unused typewriter paper. (Understandably it had been deemed to have no archival value.) My friend sent the top page to me — the next sheet on which Singer would have written — suspecting that I might take some pleasure in the remnant of the great writer‘s life.
Once white, the paper had started to yellow, and, at the corners, to brown. There was a slight wrinkle across the bottom (or was it the top?), and scattered about were specks of dust that were resistant to my gentle brushes, apparently having been ground into the paper fibers. (I‘ve read that 90 percent of household dust is actually composed of human epidermal matter. So I like to think of the page as holding the lice that once looked over it — the wrinkle corresponds to Singer‘s pinched forehead.) But to the casual glance, it‘s a clean, perfectly ordinary sheet of typing paper.
For weeks, I kept it in the envelope in which it was sent. Only occasionally did I take it out to look at or to show to a visiting friend when conversation slowed. I thought it was an interesting oddity and nothing more.
But I was wrong about the empty page. Or I was wrong about myself. A relationship developed. I found myself thinking about the piece of paper, being moved by it, taking it out of its envelope several times a day, wanting to see it. I had the page framed and put it on my living room wall. Many of the breaks I took from looking at my own empty paper were spent looking at Singer‘s.
Looking at what?
There were so many things to look at. There were the phantom words that Singer hadn‘t written and would never write, the arrangements of ink that would have turned the most common of all objects — the empty page — into the most valuable: a great work of art. The blank sheet of paper was at once empty and infinite. It contained no words and every word Singer hadn‘t yet written. The page was perhaps the best portrait of Singer — not only because it held his skin (or so I liked to think) but because it was free to echo and change. His books could be interpreted and reinterpreted, but they would never gain or lose words; his image was always bound to the moment of its creation. But the blank page contained everything Singer could have written and everyone he could have become.
And it was also a mirror. As a young writer — I was then contemplating how to move forward after my first effort — I felt so enthusiastically and agonizingly aware of the blank pages in front of me. How could I fill them? Did I even want to fill them? Was I becoming a writer because I wanted to be come a writer or because I was becoming a writer? I stared into empty pages day after day, looking, like Narcissus, for myself.
I decided to expand my collection. Singer‘s paper was not enough, just as Singer‘s books would not be enough in a library, even if they were your favorites. I wanted to see how other pieces of paper would speak to Singer‘s and to one another, how the physical differences among them would echo differences among the writers. I wanted to see if the accumulation of emptiness would be greater than the sum of its parts. So I began writing letters to authors — all of whom I admired, only one or two of whom I had ever corresponded with — asking for the next sheet of paper that he or she would have written on.
Richard Powers was the first to respond. ‘The favor is indeed strange,‘ he wrote, ‘but wonderful. The more I think about it, the more resonance it gets: a museum of pure potential, the unfilled page!‘ He sent along the next sheet from the yellow legal pad on which he writes. When I held it to my face, I could see the indentations from the writing on the page that was once above it. Within a week the indentations had disappeared — the ghost words were gone — and the page was again perfectly flat.
I received a piece of paper from Susan Sontag. It was slightly smaller than the standard 8 ”x11‘, and her name was printed across the top — for archival purposes, I imagined. John Barth sent me an empty page. It was classic three-hole style with light-blue horizontal lines and a red stripe up the margin. (How strange, I thought, that America‘s most famous metafictionist should compose on the most traditional, childlike paper.) His note: ‘Yours takes the prize for odd requests and quite intrigues me.‘ A sheet of empty graph paper from Paul Auster, which evoked his style. An absolutely gorgeous mathematician‘s log from Helen DeWitt, accompanied by advice to the young writer about getting to know one‘s typesetter. A page ripped from David Grossman‘s notebook — small, worn even in its new ness, somehow strong. He sent along a beautiful letter filled with observations, opinions, regrets, hopes and no mention of blank paper. A clean white page from Arthur Miller, no accompanying note. Paper from Zadie Smith, Victor Pelevin, David Foster Wallace (‘You are a weird bird, JSF‘), Peter Carey, John Updike…. Jonathan Franzen sent his page back in an envelope with no return address. Attached to the sheet was a note that read simply, ‘Guess whose?‘ (The postmark betrayed him.) A length wise-folded sheet of paper from Joyce Carol Oates. She explained that she likes to write on narrow pages so that she can view all of the text at once and complete pages twice as quickly. At the end of the three-page letter in which she carefully described her process of composition she wrote, ‘Truly, I believe.. .what we write is what we are.‘
I received an empty page from Don DeLillo. The paper itself was relatively ordinary: a uniform field of yellow,
A hundred years ago I used yellow paper every day in my job writing advertising copy, and when I quit the job to become a grown-up first and then a writer, I took (I guess) a fairly large quantity of this copy paper with me. The first draft of my first novel was typed on this paper and through the years I have used it again, sparingly and then more sparingly, and now there are only five sheets left.
Back in those days I was the Kid, and the friends I made on the job are either older than I am or dead (two days ago I wrote and de livered a eulogy for one of them), and so this yellow paper carries a certain weight of friendship and memory. That‘s why I thought I‘d entrust a sheet to your collection.
My most recent addition to the Empty Page Project came this past fall when I was paying a visit to the Freud Museum in London. (For those who haven‘t been there, it‘s the house in which Freud spent the last year of his life after having fled Nazi-occupied Austria. The books are left as he left them. His figurines haven‘t been moved. The famous couch draped in Persian carpets seems to hold the indentation of his final patient.) It was a beautiful Sunday afternoon, and with the help of a friend I was able to arrange for a private tour. The director led a memorable walk through the house, filling my head as we went with touching, funny anecdotes. At the end as we were about to part ways, I explained my collection to her. ‘I‘m sure you can‘t help,‘ I said, ‘but I‘d hate myself if I left without asking.‘
She gave it a thought, which in itself was more than I ever would have anticipated, and then smiled wryly. I don‘t remember us speaking any more words to each other. She led me back to Freud‘s office, a room filled well be yond its capacity with busts, vases, books, ashtrays, rugs, prints, ancient artifacts, magnifying glasses, pieces of glass.. .things — the things one can‘t help but think of as expressing the man who collected them. One at a time and slowly, she moved aside the velvet ropes that marked off the protected area. (You know your heart is beating heavily when you become aware of the spaces between the beats.) She led me to Freud‘s desk, which hadn‘t been moved since his death, and opened the center drawer. It was filled with such beautiful… things: a velvet pouch, which held a lock of his wife‘s hair; appointment cards for his patients; the pieces of a broken statuette; and a stack of his blank paper. Across the top of each page read:
Prof Sigm. Freud
20 Maresftld Gardens
Tel: Hampstead 2002
Carefully she slid off the top sheet and handed it to me.
What would be the ideal sheet of empty paper? I know which ones I‘d like. Kafka‘s would be wonderful. As would one of Beckett‘s. I‘d love an empty page of Bruno Schulz‘s. That would mean the world to me. Nietzsche. Rilke. Why not Shakespeare while we‘re at it? Or Newton? More realistically a sheet from WG. Sebald would be great. (Would it have been as great, though, if he hadn‘t died, too young, in a car crash? And if not, what does that say about the collection?)
The ideal sheet would not necessarily be that of the greatest writer but that which held the most potential.
Through a lot of difficult research I was able to find out that Anne Frank‘s diary was not completely filled. (The family was betrayed and arrested; her writing ended abruptly.) There are empty pages, waiting there for the touch of a pen that will never come.
I read the diary as a child and have reread it several times since. But it wasn‘t until last year that I first visited the Anne Frank House. I was in Amsterdam to give a lecture for the release of my novel‘s Dutch translation. In one afternoon I saw the foreign edition of my book and the Anne Frank diary itself. Each experience moved me strongly, in what I now realize were opposite ways:
In the case of my book, I had become so accustomed to its familiar physical presence that to witness it as an idea — which it necessarily was for me, as I couldn‘t understand the Dutch — was jarring. I saw the ripples that emanated from the words I threw in the lake. The book — the ink that I had applied to the paper — had taken on a life in the world. It had grown in directions not under my control, or even in my view. It was becoming an abstraction.
And in the case of the diary, I was so accustomed to think ing of it as an idea, a sadness that resonated across languages and generations, that to see the physical referent, the actual book, was not only moving but shocking. I couldn‘t believe that the thing we had been thinking and talking about all of that time was actually a thing.
I‘m writing this essay for a magazine that, for all of its other attributes, is distinguished by its unclothed women. What about an unclothed page? Is that the page‘s ‘natural‘ state? And is there something equally taboo about it? Equally erotic? Does it make it more exciting to know that the advertising space in this issue runs somewhere in the neighborhood of $l00,000 a page? And if so, why?
If I insert one blank page, when the magazine is printed it will become more than 3 million blank pages. Stacked, these blank pages would form an empty column the height of the Empire State Building. Laid end-to-end they could cover a path from Boston to Washington, D.C. And more than that, as PLAYBOY has a readership of close to 10 million, the mental space that these empty pages would occupy is breathtaking. One blank page, created with the ease of a single hard return, will contain the potential of each of the 10 million people who look at it. What might they draw on it? What might they write? What thoughts might it inspire in them? What image would they see in its depths? What image do you see?
Please cut the empty page from this article and mail it to:
The Naked Page Project, C/ PLAYBOY, 730 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10019.
The Last Emptiness
My little brother is going to be a senior in college this year. He‘s already started to worry about what to do with his life. (My telling him that he can be anything he wants doesn‘t help him at all. It hurts him.) He has some interest in documentary filmmaking, although he‘s done nothing to prepare himself for such a path; architecture seems interesting, but he‘s afraid of designing suburban kitchens for the rest of his life; writing would be a consideration, except that both of his older brothers do it.
When he was a baby, I would carry him up and down the stairs even though my parents told me not to hold him un less they were watching. I knew even as a seven-year-old that I was putting him in danger. But I had to put him in danger so I could protect him from danger.
He‘s envious of me, and I‘m envious of him. He wants direction in his life. He wants to have words to apply to his interests, recognizable ways to describe himself. (It isn‘t acceptable simply being someone who experiences the world deeply.) He wants an unchanging mailing address. He wants to accomplish things, to put empty paper behind him — whatever form that empty paper should take. I remember what it was like to be so uncertain, so scared. And I remember the joy of not knowing, of everything seeming possible and possibly wonderful. Or horrible. Or mediocre.
Every day I better know what to expect, and so the days grow shorter and fit tighter, and if it isn‘t like dying, it‘s like disappointment. But I can remember, as if it were yesterday, turning on my laptop, knowing that I was about to start my first novel — the moment before life wrote on me.
In his story ‘Gimpel the Fool,‘ Singer writes of a ‘once removed‘ world, a better world in which the foolish are redeemed and everyone gets what he deserves. In that world we never say all of the things we wish we hadn‘t said. And we say all of the things we wish we had. It‘s easy and impossible to imagine. We are graceful, in that world, and patient, the full expressions of what we know ourselves to be. It‘s nice to think about.