A Blog About Nothing - Umberto Tosi

Ask me what I've been doing lately and chances are I'll rattle off bullet points like a Ted Talker. I recognize that the questioner is only making conversation, but I feel compelled to provide you with at least a semblance of substance - without overdoing it I hope. In turn, I may ask: "How about you? Any pancakes on the griddle?"

But what if I respond: "Nothing! Nada! Zilch! Bupkis!"?

Honest, perhaps, but sounds rude. A brush off. What a curmudgeon, that Tosi guy, a prima donna!

Worse yet, it comes off as feigned humility. Shrug. Gee. Little me? He's so humble, that Tosi guy. 

Still worse: Instead of bullet points, I give you a full accounting, a quarterly report on my works-in-progress, launches and lunches, with recipes. 

God forbid, you should think that I am really doing nothing. You should find me out as an idler, a time-waster, an Internet triva-addict, a gamer, a social media gabber. 

You may say I'm a dreamer. But I'm not the only one terrified by the hole in the doughnut. Truth is I'm compelled to tell people what I'm doing to reassure myself more than anything else.

I break out in a cold sweat with every blank screen, including once a month when I  write this blog post. My bullets points turn out to be hollow dum-dums of wishful thinking framed as goals and projects - labels on empty bottles until - and if - I fill them with something, anything, invariably unintended.

My inamorata, the distinguished surreal imagist Eleanor Spiess-Ferris says that starting on any canvas takes "an act of faith" - notwithstanding the hundreds of her works that hang in collections and have been shown in galleries, museums and universities. Literalist that I am, I keep looking for proof. I thumb ahead for clues I never find.

Nevertheless, as a writer I can't avoid falling on my spiritual behind when it comes to mustering the faith to be at least functional. This is despite a lifelong avoidance of religion that began with my eight-grade matriculation from parochial school - a subject that comes up here and there in my writing - eg., my semi-autobiographical 2010 novella, Gunning for the Holy Ghost about God, a gun, a schoolboy, a bully, nuns and arson. 

I can fear the blank spaces or air-embrace them, but not avoid them. The wise assure us that we need a blank slate in which conjure anything new, for how can it surprise and delight, terrorize or inspire if it is plainly visible already?

The end of the line is either a black hole or the Buddhist concept of emptiness, nothingness - of "no thing" - Śūnyatā! So I gather from having read my Stephen Hawking and listened to all those itinerant-gurus' and Alan Watts' talks since back when. Śūnyatā is not to be confused with nihilistic nothingness in a universe devoid of meaning, as much as it is fun to scare oneself and find a suitable excuse for another Martini. We've got a pandemic, climate change, the rise of global fascism and economic Armageddon for those purposes nowadays. 

Blank page phobia is more personal, however. It's like: What if I have nothing (more) to say? The only way to answer that question is to go ahead and say something, anything, just like in everyday conversation, even it it's "Hey what have you been doing lately?"  

Worry about what people will think fades in the comparative isolation of this COVID moment. Hard to believe that it is, after all, transitory. I'm finding some compensation in this solace, would that it were necessitated by less tragic events. Again, back to old-time religions that preach days of rest and reflection, sabbaticals, disengagement from daily grinds in order to reflect and receive.

In any case, I converse with few people from self-imposed quarantine, which I fortunately share with my inamorata keeping a semblance of mutual sanity. I've taken part in only one official editorial Zoom meeting during the past few months, with my colleagues at Chicago Quarterly Review planning our next issues. That's it, aside from Skype calls with my daughters, and shared time with my aforementioned inamorata.

The rest of the time, I interact with fictional characters who never leave. Shy folks, they are. I didn't see much of them until the parties were over and the house was empty of other visitors. Now they sit at our dinner table, watch TV with me, look over my shoulder as I browse on various devices. They don't ask me what I've been doing, nor indulge in other chit-chat, even though I interrogate them relentlessly. They say, hey, there's something you can use in my story. Make a note of this so you don't forget, even if it might seem trivial. 

Thus I get things to throw at that blank wall.

Who's afraid of the big bad Śūnyatā? I am. But it's also a great relief when I can clear enough junk from my head to let those characters reveal themselves - to be given something to write about after all, if I can keep it. I'm hearing Louis Armstrong, stoned: "... Leave your worries on the doorstep. Just direct your feet, to the Śūnyatā side of the street." And I leave you here as summer's end with two more quotes: 

  • "By replacing fear of the unknown with curiosity we open ourselves up to an infinite stream of possibility. We can let fear rule our lives or we can become childlike with curiosity, pushing our boundaries, leaping out of our comfort zones, and accepting what life puts before us." - Alan Watts
  • "Faith is holding onto uncertainties with passionate conviction." - Søren Kierkegaard



Umberto Tosi is the author of Sometimes Ridiculous, Ophelia Rising, Milagro on 34th Street and Our Own Kind. His short stories have been published in Catamaran Literary Reader and Chicago Quarterly Review where he is a contributing editor. He was contributing writer to Forbes, covering the Silicon Valley 1995-2004. Prior to that, he was an editor and staff writer for the Los Angeles Times and its Sunday magazine, West. He was also the editor of San Francisco Magazine. He has written more than 300 articles for newspapers and magazines, online and in print. He joined Authors Electric in May 2015 and has contributed to several of its anthologies, including Another Flash in the Pen and One More Flash in the Pen. He has four adult children. He resides in Chicago. (He can be contacted at Umberto3000@gmail.com)



Eden Baylee said…
Hi Umberto,

That you write about 'nothing' inspires me to think about nothing, though that is nearly impossible! I know what you mean about feeling like it's necessary to do something , even in these strange times when it would be forgiveable if all you accomplished in a day was stare at your walls contemplating the fate of the world.

I know I've felt that some days, to be perfectly honest.

There are days I don't think we deserve to exist as a species, and it truly troubles me to think it. Why are there SO MANY narcissistic facists in positions of power?

Anyway ... thanks for providing me with your blank canvas to rant. Hope you're well,


Heyyyy Umberto, I needed to read this today as I am trying to get inside the concept of Śūnyatā! for my next novel (greetings from my writers residency in door county!). Glad to hear your characters "never leave". Mine seem to be quarantining from the pandemic, which is a smart thing to do, but it would have been nice to have one running around right now. Take care, and look forward to reading more from you!
Sandra Horn said…
Thank you, Umberto. It occurs to me, reading this, that nothingness in small doses is necessary and good - it's only when it stretches out that it can be terrifying and unthinkable.
Bill Kirton said…
You've been reading too much Sartre, Umberto. May I, with enormous respect, propose you leaven him with a bit of Beckett - he's saying the same sort of thing but with added jokes. Remember the laugh-a-minute Hamm in Endgame:'You're on earth. There's no cure for that.'
FelineAddict said…
Hey Umberto,
I agree with you about the creative 'nothing'. Myself and others in my art groups are struggling with the void. The depletion of creativity, of inspiration, of positive energy. Everywhere we turn there is fear, violence, sadness, and anger. We are living in a time where we are seeing society become unhinged. During a world pandemic, we are battling loss of jobs, housing, healthcare and food shortages. There's violence in our streets, in our cities, in our neighborhoods. We see fear on people's faces on a daily occurrence and internet ugliness have become the norm. So, it's no wonder why we are depleted of positive energy with so much negativity going on.
Aliciasammons said…
A profound meditation on our perpetual fear of doing “no-thing’— heighten during quarantine. I found this passage particularly moving, ‘ I'm finding some compensation in this solace, would that it were necessitated by less tragic events. Again, back to old-time religions that preach days of rest and reflection, sabbaticals, disengagement from daily grinds in order to reflect and receive.’ Your blog invites us to see that confronting the dreaded avoid is an opportunity to participate in the eternal cycle of re-creation. Excellent.

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