The Blank Page

The worst grade I got in college was a D, objectively a bad grade. I still got credit for the class, but probably it would have been better if I had just dropped and started again. Up until the final paper I had a high A – it was an intro to American history lecture. Great professor, interesting topics and readings, well organized. The grade on my transcript would make you think that either I or the class had a serious problem. I guess it was me and this is my admission, the class should not be blamed. I would like it noted that my next lowest grade in college was a B but mostly I got A’s so I did learn something from this early experience.

Here is what happened: I had to write a final paper and I didn’t do it. That is the entire story of the grade. I had an A, I failed to turn in the final, I got a D. I read the book from which the final was to be written. I loved the book, it was a great book. I had all kinds of interesting things to say about whatever the essay topic was and the connection to the class and the book and blah blah blah I could have gone on for pages and pages. But I didn’t know how to start. And because I did not know how to start I never finished, I never turned in the paper that was not written and thus the grade.

Of course I had written papers before this particular paper, and I have written many many many pages of all manner of thing after, but this particular incident has haunted me in a way. It has taught me, but it has left me with a sorrow of sorts and I will always regret not having written the damn paper. It was a little bit of performance anxiety I know. I remember sitting at my electric typewriter (remember those?) with the soft hum of power and I started, then tore out the paper and started again and again because there was no magic of select and delete. There was the tactical experience of pulling on the paper, listening to the carriage spin, the pop in your arm as the grip released and the satisfying crumple of failure.

I wanted the opening paragraph to be brilliant, because I had been brilliant in class up until that point. I am not ashamed to say I was a bit of a teacher’s pet, I was praised for my astute commentary in class and my on point connection to current geo-political happenings. This paper was the final culmination of a semester of outstanding intelligence, and perhaps ego, and it had to be perfect. But the words appearing on the page were not perfect and so I am became despondent and gave up.

When my doting professor asked me where the paper was I made up some lame excuse about ‘oh I dropped it in his box maybe it wasn’t date/time stamped (yes that that thing too?) and I must have made a mistake so will get you a late copy,’ and he said ‘oh yes so you will get some credit.’ Doting yes, flexible no. We know the end of this story.

I never failed to turn in a paper after that. I learned something about just getting something done and why sometimes ‘good enough is.’ Not always of course, you have to have a willingness to revise, rework, redo but to ‘re’ anything you have to start somewhere and you have to know that it is okay to go back again and again if you have to, or want to but always you just have to start.

The blank page is intimidating, you don’t know in advance what is going to be on there at the end of the day and we want so much for it to be something great. The fear of something less than great holds us back. In my mind I would have had an A in that class if I had just written the paper, but maybe not. Maybe the paper would have been terrible and it would have caused me to get a B. At least it would have been something I did, that’s the real lesson and I want to remember that forever.

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