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White Space

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March 25, 2024

Home|body

WHITE SPACE: “We’ll have to make little holes for the air”

Last week, after navigating the density of daily life, the earth, and the universe itself, I took a vow of silence. Not that severe, but a light goal—for a month—of trying to do less, resist social scrolling, bravely have a staring fight with the pervading Fear of Empty Space. Focus on small frivolous acts like doing, but not necessarily completing, a puzzle in my wifi/phone-free happy place upstate.

I’ve already had plenty of practice at this.

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When my kids have bemoaned they are “bored” through the years, I’ve told them that’s a bad word. Boredom means—no offense—you are dim and/or have no imagination. Everything you need to be entertained in life is in your own head and all around you. Now leave me alone and go play outside.

Another parenting amateur-tip I have used, to the great benefit of my wallet, is never over-scheduling them (see: boredom). Not only did I not want my kids to be that busy, but I didn’t want to be their frazzled chauffeur getting them to all their busy things.

The result is they may not be the most ambitious and overachieving kids in every club and on every team, but they are creative, they like to read, they are comfortable being alone, they always have each other. Our home is our cozy, constructive sanctuary and we probably spend too much time in it.

When I was in college, it became clear I needed to be in the city, New York City, to be the writer I imagined I wanted to be when I graduated. I was productive there and had the time of my life squeezing myself into the dizzying chaos, but then I met the desert. My friend and I took a semi-cross country road trip timed around me dropping off a disc of my first novel to my publisher in West Alabama (and him loading us up with a bag of his tree’s tiny peaches in return); popping over the border for lunch in Mexico with a velvet Elvis portrait purchase (which we affectionately named Velvis); driving through Texas overnight to get to White Sands, NM for the full moon; and finally attending her cousin’s wedding in Fort Collins, CO, and circling the wagons homeward.

Talk about white space: Miles of sand so soft you can snowboard it. And under the light of the full moon a miraculous, disorienting thing happened in this massive magical desert. The sky was so bright on this night, it blended with the sand so you couldn’t make out the edge between; we staggered blindly as if floating through a hallucination. Which made sense since we had stayed up all night to drive here and somewhere in the earliest/latest hours encountered a phalanx of creepy jackrabbits alongside the country road poised upwards on hind legs as if to greet our passing. I’m not kidding, and if I dreamt it, my friend did equally. I learned in getting to know New Mexico better and even feeling compelled to buy a full-size sculpture of a woman made of chicken wire, thread and buttons, that good and accessible art could happen here. With all that space on the boundless land and big sky to project upon.

Maybe there could be more room for my words in such a space. So the older I get, the more I gravitate to country instead of city, to quiet instead of loud, and sometimes—not always—I like the sort of art that quietly invites us to come in and linger as if in an empty church. Embracing white space as a writer seems contradictory to the cause, and yet, I think the most essential.

“Cartographic Grids” by Artist: Juan Geuer, in Ottawa Art Gallery, 2013; Photo by Joanne Clifford, CC BY 2.0

As a writing instructor at NYU and Gotham Writers Workshop some years back, I started one of my online courses (Fiction Writing 101) like this:

Greetings class! In the spirit of beginning, I’m going to present you with…a blank space. Consider this not an error to quickly scroll through but a moment of silence to revel in for a moment:

There it was: the daunting, overwhelming silence of the blank page. Or, in our online medium here, the blank screen.

In this class, geared toward the beginner/inexperienced writer, or one who just needs a little rebooting, our goal is to leap into this blank abyss willingly, joyously, even recklessly. There are no mistakes here. There is no wasted time. The blank screen is not a pristine piece of marble to be carved precisely, but a whiteboard waiting for your very erasable marker.

All that you throw onto this space is worthwhile, even if you return to delete it later, because you are exercising those writing muscles. The more you exercise, the stronger you will get. This is not to say writing will get easier exactly—even the pros, especially the pros, struggle—but it will get better. I promise. Your words will get better. You will get stronger. You just have to begin.

And then once beginning and actually filling the blank page, encouraging them to also be conscious of not going to far. To honor the white space, finding balance between words and their lack. To listen, and pause. I advised my students to sprinkle in dialogue, shorter lines, small paragraphs in the mix of long—literally look at the proportions of text to non-text on the page and add some more white paint, erase. Blanks can mean everything; the place where the reader’s thoughts get to vibrate as they do when you stare at the meditative color fields of a Rothko painting. Room to breathe.

Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg is classic book on writing with much to say about the blank page and much inspiration with which to fill it. She talks about the blank page and its associations with fear and doubt. And if this is true for you, then start from fear/doubt. Face your fears and doubts by writing about them, embracing them.

To begin writing from our pain eventually engenders compassion for our small and groping lives.

Above all, a writer should have a tenderness for all things, the lack of judgment. The point here in these essays I write is never to assert what I know, but to ponder and probe all I don’t. Be kind, Goldberg says. Ultimately, this means be kind to yourself.

One of my favorite lyrical authors is Carole Maso, whose works often read like a prose-poem. There is much white space here with line breaks like poetry, much sensory detail and emotion, plenty of space for the reader to breathe and be and think. I am invited in this space to write my own notes and thoughts in the margins, story ideas, associations. The reader is made to feel very close indeed, in this special incubation where the formation of language itself becomes a subject matter. It endlessly inspires.

Here are a few passages (because I couldn’t choose) from Maso’s book AVA:

Want I wanted to say—what I meant to say—the other night at the restaurant. 

Where I looked up to the sky and wept. 

Speak to me.

She’s very pregnant

Orange and mimosa groves.

And under the pomegranate…

*

After everything there is to be said,

Our lives still counted for something. 

Beautiful flying things. 

How small tonight the characters from Verdi’s opera look in this grand arena. And though they are gesturing passionately—

How they seem to be whispering

The light in your eyes. 

One hundred love letters, written by hand.

And we listen to the music that is silence. 

*

Hovering and beautiful alphabet—

To create a language that heals as much as it separates. 

—as we form our first words after making love. 

*

Yes, we’ll have to make little holes for the air. 

Green, how much I want you—green.

Somewhere a young girl learns her alphabet.

My hand reading for a distant, undiscovered planet.

So much is yet to be written—

Why save your songs for spring?

Writing about what’s yet to be written, letters floating and taking shape. Asking questions more than answering. Admitting all you don’t know. Embracing silences rather filling every void. Be still. Be here. Now. Learn. Listen.

This is my ongoing journey, even and especially while writing.


Krista Mad­sen is the au­thor be­hind word­smith­ery shop,  Sleepy Hol­low, inK., and pro­ducer of the Home|body newslet­ter, which she is sharing reg­u­larly with The Hudson Independent readership. You can  subscribe for free to see all her posts and re­ceive them di­rectly in your in­box.

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