Can’t see the forest for the trees? I remember laughing at that saying as a child because, of course, a forest WAS the trees, right? Right. Or maybe not. We all have heard that the whole is made up of the sum of its parts, that it’s all the trees taken together that make the forest, or, in the case of a book or a story, all the chapters and scenes with their dialogue, description, and action that make up the whole. Some writers see the concept of the whole first and work toward finding the parts to make up the sum; others are masters of minutiae and start with the smallest components and work to find the whole.
Most of my stories have begun in voice and in place–a voice, almost disembodied, speaking into a landscape. Eventually, this voice finds its body and the place develops details and the rest grows from there. While I write, I usually feel like a wanderer in a vast forest whose only touchstones are the trees and rocks and insects and ferns. I move from one to another, searching ahead as far as my eyes can see through the shadows and hoping for the occasional glimpse of blue sky above or the guiding presence of the pole star for direction. I remember asking a friend in Chicago where her stories began and she said that the first thing she sees is the structure. I was dumbfounded. Structure, for me, came later as a kind of pattern the pieces I’d found could fit into. I thought of my own writing as if I were making a crazy quilt, building the pattern out of the juxtaposition of the colors, the connections between the figures in the design, and the direction of the weave. I didn’t remember ever starting with a distinct pattern in mind and making the pieces fit. Mostly, I just felt lucky that there was a subconscious action at work and eventually the pattern would emerge–as if it had been there all along. As far as my writing life goes, I’ve had to become capable of living in uncertainty.
Nowadays, I find myself absorbed in another aspect of the trees and the forest: the negative space between things. I know now a forest isn’t as simple as the sum of its trees–or ferns or lichen or stones or fungi. It’s all these in relationship, existing in space and making open patterns between them.
Ever since I studied art in college, I’ve seen the world through its negative spaces, but it’s a concept that has been slow to enter my writing mind. When I paint or draw, I try not to allow my preconceptions of what certain objects look like to interfere with how they appear at the angle and in the light that am observing them, and instead try to draw how they occupy the space around them. In other words, I don’t draw the antique clock on the wall, but the wall around it. From those lines and shadows in the background, the clock as it truly appears emerges. My vantage point, the light in the room, and my emotional state at the time all affect the way the clock might appear from one day to the next. If my point of view is directly in front of it, I see a very different clock from the clock I see at an oblique angle. But maybe more importantly, the background changes in the light, and with the different distances and angles from which I observe it. The space around the object changes with the changing conditions and with my own movement and state of mind.
What does that have to do with the forest? Well, here in Vermont, my home is surrounded by trees. We live in a forest. I’m getting to know individual trees as separate from their other plant kin. I also see them in relationship as a part of a larger forest, but what I really notice most about the way I observe them is that I am acutely aware of the space between things, the way the branches bend and angle away from the trunk toward the light shining through the empty space between and how that space helps determine their rate and direction of growth. I notice the changing patterns of light and shadow on the forest floor and across the breeze-stirred leaves and needles. I see the sky, blue or white or gray twilit, through the grid of branches; birds move through the spaces, alight and disappear into them. Farther away through the negative spaces, the background peeks and unseen forces appear and move.
One day last winter I sat at my breakfast table staring down toward the brook through black tree trunks, noticing the white snowy patches beyond, their shapes and sizes, the light and color of the white subtly changing as the sun rose higher in the sky. And something moved out there. Far across the brook three bulky shapes moved through the white space I was observing. Larger and even darker than the tree trunks, indistinct, but definitely there. I believe they were moose, but I cannot know for sure. As soon as they passed through the negative space, they were again swallowed up by the darkness of trees and forest. The scene appeared as before, except that I had changed and now the forest took on a life and a story it hadn’t had before for me.
There, in that movement, was the story. Where the birds fly, the clouds move, the leaf falls, there is the true story of the forest. It’s the minutiae and the large elements that make up a story, but they have to be in relationship in space and in those interstices is where something happens. The space can be as large as the sky overhead in a forest glen or as small as the glimmer of sunshine on a leaf in the background seen through the spindly legs of an ant scurrying along the edge of a small piece of splintered bark, but it’s the glimpse into that negative space that makes all the pieces become whole. It’s the mystery and the unspoken, the shown rather than told that dwells there, metaphor and implication, dwelling in uncertainty, sometimes fleetingly, like the wind-strewn patterns of light and shadow on the forest floor.
Negative space isn’t empty space, although at its most basic, as the white space in a poem or between paragraphs, it may appear to be empty when it is actually time and eye movement that exists there. Only in the space between can we hear the music of a poem or the voice of a story. It isn’t a vacuum where sound waves cannot transfer. This negative space is filled with possibility. It is where the story lives.