Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Negative Space

Sharon Wildwind

Once upon a time—at least, I’ve heard stories about once upon a time—that there was a rhythm to being a writer.

That rhythm said:
Never submit a manuscript or look for an agent in August. Everyone in New York is out of town in August. As for December, close up and go home. Publish in May to catch the summer readers and in October for the Christmas market. Never, ever release a book in January. No one buys a book right after Christmas.

The seasonal rhythm of writing has vanished like the dodo bird. Finish a book on Tuesday; start writing the next book on Wednesday. Come home from a convention; get ready to go to the next convention. Submit a manuscript or hunt for an agent every day of the year, with the possible exception of Christmas Day itself. With electronic publishing, publish even on Christmas Day.

Yesterday, in a water color book, I came across this: It’s possible to paint an object by painting the spaces around it. The negative space becomes the thing itself.

The first writing negative space I encountered was in a class I took almost thirty years ago. We were required to keep a daily journal, writing down snippets of overheard dialog, descriptions of people or events; in short, anything that might make a good story. Only, we weren’t to grab our notebook and write these things down as they happened. The instructor asked us to wait a full twenty-four hours before committing to paper.

He said that beginning writers were often afraid to lose the moment. Fearful of not getting the dialog or the description exactly correct, we focused on immediate retrieval. He said that we needed to train our writer’s mind to do two things: first, to develop memory because there would be times that we simply couldn’t get to a notebook. Second, to let the thing we wanted to remember settle. If we couldn’t remember it after twenty-four hours, chances were what we thought so brilliant in the moment wouldn’t make a terrific story after all.

It wasn’t easy to wait. My fingers had this intense desire to scrabble in my backpack, pull out my journal and write. Sometimes I grieved over forgetting. If I’d only written it down yesterday . . .

But gradually, I came to realize the dimensions of what he was trying to teach us. There was a huge difference between things remembered in exact detail, and things remembered as fiction. For some experiences it mattered that I could recall the exact smell, the sight, the colors. For others, it was more important to remember the—gestalt, for lack of a better word—how I was moved by the thing rather than the exact details of the thing itself. Both had a place in writing, and learning how to do both made me a better writer.

I’m just beginning to learn a second lesson about negative space. If the business of writing has truly become a 24/7 occupation, and I believe that it has, then we, as writers, have the freedom to set our own seasons. Yes, there will always be deadlines, coming at us faster and harder, with none of this nonsense about taking August off or relaxing in December. But I truly believe that it will be the negative spaces with which we surround our work that will enable us to survive.

We have to develop a whole range of negative survival spaces. Five-minute vacations that we can take on a moment’s notice. Ways to shut off that nagging “What am I going to do about Elrod’s lack of motivation in Chapter 7?” long enough for Elrod to work out the answer for himself. Entire days off in which we restore, restock, replenish those creative gifts we have been given.
Writing quote for the week:

It takes peace of mind and clarity to recognize and reorder meaningful, personal priorities . . . Many of us assume that we can continue to get along just by winging it indefinitely. We can't. We need an antidote for the hurried and harried lives that threaten to tear us apart.
~Sarah Ban Breathnach, author


Bill Cameron said...

Serendipity is a marvelous thing. This is exactly the post I needed to find this morning. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Glad to be of help, Bill.

Darlene Ryan said...

Well said, Sharon.

Lonnie Cruse said...

I'd love to give this a try but most days I can't remember my name if I wait until the next day. Sigh. Love the pictures and the negative space part.