The Empty Pages

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My first journal was a yellow legal pad. So was my second. Then came a series of leathers, hardbacks and spiral bounds. The pens evolved from whatever was on hand to a few chosen favorites—mostly black, mostly medium point.

Early on, the pages were filled with the prayers of a high school kid who wanted everything and understood little. I wrote in code about the girls I liked and with bravado about the quality of my faith. I’d finish the last line of the last page of one journal, select its successor and keep writing. The journals from this era make a stack more than a foot tall.

And then somewhere along the way, the writing slowed.

What used to be ten pages per week became more like three. And then what was three pages per week became more like three pages per month.

Vincent van Gogh wrote, “In most men there exists a poet who died young, whom the man survived.” Was the poet in me dying a little more with every unfilled page? Could any day be a good day if at the end of that day its page was empty?

Recently, I noticed that I had taken on a strange behavior. If I went too long between journal entries, I would shelve the journal and buy a new one, as if what words that old journal did hold might blow off the pages like dust if I opened it again. A new book would be a kind of do-over. My first entry would always contain an apology to God, followed by a determination to write more. But, inevitably, before long the journal would find itself at the bottom of my backpack, on hand but unused.

So now I have two stacks of journals, both over a foot high. In the first stack, every line of every page is filled. As for the second, hundreds and hundreds of the pages are empty.

I’ve always carried my current journal with me everywhere I go. I still do. But I’ve hardly written a thing in fifteen months. And sometimes, the sight of that little book no longer filling with words like before embarrasses me, like the truest part of me—the part that prays—is fading. But only sometimes.

More and more I’m making my peace with the empty pages. I know the poet is still alive, it’s just that he’s had a tough year. Sometimes he doesn’t know how to say what is in his heart. Other times he does, but chooses not to write it down. Other times, he’s just too busy to carve out the time it takes to sit still long enough to make a record of the moment.

Regardless, I’m beginning to understand that those empty pages tell a story too. And an important one. It is the story of following a call with my wife, of raising children, of grieving a farewell from a church and friends I’ve loved more than I can express, of selling a house and buying another, of entering in to a new community, a new church, and a new role in a city we love—along with all the new relationships, challenges and adjustments these circumstances bring.

I’m sure your life, like mine, is filled with disciplines abandoned, traditions forgotten and eras undocumented. So we must ask ourselves, is the discipline the excellent thing, or the way to it? Is the tradition itself what is meaningful, or a sign pointing the way? Is an era of life something words can preserve on paper? What are we really losing in the empty pages?

Sometimes the words don’t come. Or they come, but they don’t do justice. Sometimes we just have to put down the pen and leave the journal in the bottom of the backpack and let the empty pages tell the story.

Listen. When the time comes back around to pick up your pen and write, then write. And write without guilt.  It’s okay.

Profile photo of Russ Ramsey

Russ Ramsey and his wife and four children make their home in Nashville, Tennessee. He is a pastor at Christ Presbyterian Church and the author of Struck: One Christian's Reflections on Encountering Death (IVP, 2017), Behold the Lamb of God: An Advent Narrative (Rabbit Room Press, 2011) and Behold the King of Glory: A Narrative of the Life, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ (Crossway, 2015). He is a graduate of Taylor University (1991) and Covenant Theological Seminary (MDiv – 2000, ThM – 2003). Follow Russ on Facebook / Twitter / Instagram.


20 Comments

  1. Matthew J Adams

    Thank you. I’m currently in a drought that has lasted for many, many, many months. The gaps between entries and meaningful output has been used to taunt me at times…but there’s comfort in that space.

  2. Laura Peterson

    Russ, this is great. I have a desk drawer that’s mostly filled with empty journals that people have bought for me….sometimes I feel so much pressure to fill them up with words. Thanks for the reminder that their time will come.

  3. Jaclyn

    Have you been leafing through my journals, Russ? Yes, journals. I’ll do the same thing–start a new one if I haven’t touched the first in a long time.

    I was just thinking back, sadly, on the past year. I went from scribbling all day, every day, to hardly at all. It felt like the year was lost.

    Thank you for the reminder. The books in heaven surely capture all the detail I’ve missed. New friends, new challenges, new skills and stronger bonds with loved ones are all proof of where we’ve gone.

    …and I can always pick up my Elements of Style for a grammar tune-up =)

  4. Profile photo of Eric Peters

    Eric Peters

    @ericpeters

    Russ, you just summed up the last four years of my so-called “writing” life. Reminds me of Freddy Buechner’s advice, “Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery it is…”
    I am glad you’re a new Nashville resident.

  5. Chris Yokel

    I used to feel the same way about my journaling. Now I haven’t journaled for years. But I have a Moleskine that I carry around a lot, and it mostly gets filled with poetry, quotes, and other such random things. Maybe that’s the way the heart unburdens now. Same idea, different method.

  6. Loren

    Wow…sounds like my history! I kept a journal faithfully all through high school, sporadically through college and after that…once in a blue moon. Dreams of becoming a writer took back stage to “real life” (husband, job, then kids, currently kids and husband and other responsibilities and experiences I never dreamed I’d have). Last year I determined to commit more to writing and started a blog thinking that would get me writing more. In one sense it has, but there is so much I don’t write down because I know it will be read…. But I’m slowly realizing that God can use my words and I need to put them to paper; I’m not to feel guilty when I don’t write, but I often feel relieved and restored when I do.

  7. luaphacim

    Russ, your words strike a deep chord in me. Once, I dreamed of being a poet. As I grew older and more sensible, my writings and ambitions have shrunk accordingly, until now I just feel fortunate to have aspirations of one day being accepted by all as a mediocre essayist.

  8. Pam Morley

    That fourth paragraph up, we are with you! Disciplines abandoned, traditions forgotten and eras undocumented. Yep. Thanks for writing again! Praying for you all in Tennessee!

  9. Anna Prohaska

    The pages unwritten and memories lost are often a source of frustration for me, but this is a refreshing thought that not all inspirations or happenings need to be canned in order to prove importance. In fact, sometimes the complete opposite. Thank you for this new perspective.

  10. Paul B

    Very well written. You have described me also. What about the correlation between the speed of information and instant accessibility of our digital world with the slow methodical pounding out of of letters, words, and ideas onto a page? Are the muscles we once used for journaling simply atrophying as we machine gun our minds with more and more information? I am experimenting with some online journaling… not nearly as nostalgic, but may get me documenting the journey again.

  11. Dryad

    My journaling has always been sporadic.
    However, there is one year-shaped hole in them, relic of a time when thinking too much hurt.
    My mother, on the other hand, is a chronic journaler who files her used journals in order of year. She is a more organized person than I.

  12. Samantha Nicole

    Thank you , Mr. Ramsey.

    I used to view my journals as a way to vent my feelings, but I’ve realized lately that my writings have a purpose. I’ve never been fond of writing, but there’s a reason I have sporadic thoughts that need jotting down. My journal entries consist mainly of sermon notes, random poems, and daily happening; but there’s a reason for them, and I’m sure I’ll find it some day…

  13. Angie K.

    Russ,
    Thank you for sharing just what I needed to hear! Uncooperative hands make typing so much more effective than writing in my mostly-empty journal, and this is something with which I’ve been coming to peace. But empty files and weeks with nothing written do indeed tell a story… and I continue searching for the words – I know they’re there…

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