White Space

White space.
The visual equivalent of silence.

Lately, I’ve been dwelling on Coe’s post on creative procrastination and Julie’s on porch sitting and stillness, and that lead me to nothing, as in the “nothing” mentioned twice in the final line of “The Snowman” by Wallace Stevens (“… ¦behold/Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is”) and so, here I am, pondering a few questions:

As writers, how do we each see white space? Both before our words and around them? How do we hear it? Shape it?

For white space is more than the absence of words, greater than emptiness. It seems alive. Waiting.

Suspended breath is not the absence of breath.

A few years ago I became busy with a project, busy-busy as a squirrel seeking nuts. I researched, wrote, revised. Sentences accrued, pages amassed, the thing morphed into a novel and so I typed “The End” and sent it off and then realized–ah ha!–what I had written was no novel but a very …wordy … picture book.

Did I need to write all those words to come to that realization? To be able to truly revise? Maybe. I don’t know. My process at the time did seem the equivalent of growing a glacier to harvest an ice cube.

But I think what really happened was that I had desperately gathered words and knit them into a blanket, a heavy security blanket, to guard against the nothing, the no thing. The waiting. I was busy-busy; therefore, something–some thing–had to happen. I forced it into being.

Generous margin. Long pause. White door not yet open.

White space can also be communal. We can be quiet together in a shared place. No one voice dominating, taking the floor. Perhaps in the silent moment at the end of this sentence, we might send a prayer or warm thought to Vermonters (and those in other states) wrestling with the after-effects of the hurricane.

~Mary Quattlebaum


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3 responses to “White Space

  1. Julie Larios

    Mary, this is intriguing. I like white space in my life (front porches, stillness, etc.) but I find myself resisting white space on the page. In a verse novel, the white space makes me feel like too much has been left out. And in poetry, the extra-short line usually bewilders me, as if someone had started to play a melody and then stopped (well, e.e. cummings did pretty well with it, spilling the melody down the page….) I wish more poets would talk about their line-length decisions – I have much to learn on that front. In picture books, compression and economy of language are essential, and I don’t resist white space there (though wordless spreads make me uncomfortable during read-alouds…..) White space on the page feels secretive, I guess. It feels like the literary equivalent of “Don’t complain, don’t explain” (a tenet of good manners that I’ve always assigned to people who worry too much about letting their hair down or telling the whole story – I feel like saying, “Oh, go ahead and COMPLAIN!”) Are words, as you say, a security blanket? On road trips when I was growing up, I always joined my brother and sister when they held their breath going through tunnels – maybe the suspension of breath does worry me. I feel like I’m going to burst, reading it. Yet for some people, it is calming. Hmmmmm again. Thanks for posting this – very thought-provoking.

  2. Louise Hawes

    Mary, I love this post, both its mystical and practical aspects. I like to think of the white space you mention as “the cloud of unkowing” that, like the eponymous cloud in the famous 14th century guide to prayer, is the only way through. You can’t KNOW or TOUCH or APPREHEND the greatest truths — you have to surrender to uncertainty and the transient nature of all “things,” the timelessness of “no thing.”
    And practically speaking, I think we have to give our readers white space, ways to escape the author’s preconcptions, to come into a story on their own terms. Having just finished a novel revision, I am, as always, amazed at what I TOOK OUT, not what I put in. Over and over, I found myself deleting needless clarifications, explanations, interpretations. Once I let my characters and events speak for themselves, I actually deepened the book, opened it up in the same way real-life experience is open to us all — as something lived, not told.

  3. timwynnejones

    Lovely. And
    I wonder if this post
    will appear
    like this

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