On White Space, Workshops, Dub Reggae and the Hybrid Form
"The desire of the novel to be a poem. The desire of the girl to be a horse. The desire of the poem to be an essay. The essay's desire, its reach towards fiction. And the obvious erotics of this." ¶Carole Maso
The other day in a course I am taking, the question of "white space" - line breaks between paragraphs, thoughts or phrases - came up in relation to a piece of prose. Having recently relocated to doctoral studies in Houston from a MFA program where "white space" and "experimental" forms were relatively common, I was caught off guard by the idea that the area around the words was distracting from the story's narrative propulsion. Or that a story, particularly one recounted from memory and kept short and succinct, needed a high degree of narrative propulsion at all.
Of course space in between paragraphs can absolutely negatively affect a narrative, particularly if the form is meant to mirror the material, or if claustrophobia and quickness is the desired reading experience. Likewise, it is pretty important that the writer choose her form with care before employing it, picking a structure for her story that is not only comfortable for her to write within, but beneficial to the content she is putting down.
But there is something to be said for the breathing room, the hybridity that white spaces sometimes connote. Why? Because writing itself, to the extent that it is always an amalgamation of thought, dream, language and the individual, not to mention the innumerable influences gathered simply by living, is a hybrid practice.
The other night my person and I went to see some music at Mango's, this divey little venue in Houston, our new hometown. The band we were there to see, Balaclavas, is somewhat of a hybrid itself - a mash up where punky noise music meets Dub reggae baselines, meets two twiggy vegan-looking dudes in their late twenties and one portly drummer clad in a Dracula cape and authentic French beret. Their music worked in an unsuspectingly synergistic and cohesive manner and I was captivated, reeled in, cast back out again, and all this while dancing, having fun and not thinking too hard. Driving home, talking about Balaclavas' success, their uniqueness and why, despite the best of intentions, experimental music often loses its listeners in a sea of dissonance, we decided it was the Dubby undertones, the unwavering pulse beating beneath resonant tenors, which made Balaclavas' music engulfing without anxiety, melodic without fragility.
That all this reminded me of writing might seem strange. Or maybe not. The commonalities between musicality and the temper of well-written prose is quite obvious, I think. Rarely have I met a writer, particularly one with lyrical inclinations, who is not, at the very least, an appreciative listener to music. Particularly for writers with lyrical inclinations, then, music like this, if not loved, can certainly be learned from. What I mean to say is that just as for Balaclavas the throbbing line towed in constant measure beneath the ambient guitar and drum sound, the thirsty vocals, is precisely what allows the high-end sounds to become hyperactive, to waver, stray and return, similar grounding elements must also be in place in writing for experimentation to work.
The more music I listen to, the more reading I do, the more convinced I am of the power of language and, more specifically, the power of the fragment. Particularly now, in our post-modern incarnations, fragmentation has become a language in and of itself and "snippets" - splices of sense and bits of sound - are as meaningful as whole stories, narrative arcs, conclusions. At least they are for me. As I write this entry, disparate sayings and samples of long forgotten sight and sound float into my mind and are automatically translated into my work. It seems to me that the fragments I absorb on any given day stay with me, just as the fragments I have taken in historically, the bits and pieces of my favorite works of poetry or prose, have shaped who I am, become a part of me. For example, there is a line from my favorite poem, Lines, by Anne Carson that from time to time drifts into my mind and lodges there, repeating:
To my mother
of my life I describe what I had for brunch. The lines are falling
Whatever causes this poetic phrase to resurface and repeat is a mystery. I am fairly certain though, that something about it is inextricably linked to something inside me. The same thing happens with words and phrases by Carole Maso. Descriptions by Annie Dillard and Virginia Wolf. Songs by Joni Mitchell. I want to write in a way that addresses these artists and the aspects of their work that have shaped my writing life. It seems obvious now that doing so necessitates white space, ambiance and the recurring motifs which run like baselines throughout everything I do, say, write or think.
That there can be the freedom to do this without losing my readers wasn't always obvious though. When I started writing, I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to fit what I wanted to say into the traditional short story form. I did this despite the fact that before, when I was the high school photo nerd, I holed up in the darkroom making print after print of inconclusive, "experimental" images full of white space and stark contrasts. Barren landscapes were peppered with dilapidated houses and the rippled, endless skies of upstate New York echoed throughout my work, a wholly unconscious but ultimately unifying chord.
I took my first writing workshop my junior year of college. I was no longer taking pictures, no longer sure of what I wanted to be.
The class ran from six to nine on Monday nights. Twelve of us sat around an oblong oval and watched out the window as night fell suddenly and as soon as the sun slid away from that dusky point it reaches in New York, balanced on the geometric horizon.
My journal then was why I took the course. It stayed held together by a white rubber band with the word BROCCOLI still printed in faint blue on its side. Into this book I folded short stories and wrote down snippets of sound, pieces of people I passed on the street, stood behind in line or sat next to on the subway. I'd written this way for years, privately and in a disjointed form. I said so to the professor when we met one-on-one in her office before the class began. This was something she wanted everyone to do, meet with her and make sure they wanted to write with the seriousness the class required. I held up the journal. She said, you're ready for conversation, then?
Carol was a novelist. She sat at the head of the class on our first day and talked about the writing life. It's both lonely and impoverished, she said.
Later, she told us, I'm trying to sell a book. It opens with smell. Always start with a sensory experience, she said, it draws the reader in.
Carol warned us under no uncertain terms that hers was a fiction workshop. No prose poems, she said, straight fiction. I had never written a story before and this was my first introduction to the phrase prose poem. So that semester, I tried to write what I thought I should. I tried very hard. It was kind of a prose poem.
In her workshop notes to me Carol said something I'll never forget. In fact, I can recite it, word for word, from memory, and will do so now:
One of the most rewarding things about teaching young writers is helping to guide them towards the kind of writers they want to be. This is especially true when their style and subject matter is divergent from that of their peers, and from what is considered traditional.
Then she gave me a book by Carole Maso.
The book was called Break Every Rule, Essays on Language, Longing and Moments of Desire. It is, like much of Maso's work, composed of fragments and rendered in a kind of post-modern stream of consciousness style. It is a collision of words that cohere, somehow, and manage to hold readers enthralled.
I read the book in one sitting. I then thought long and hard about how Maso made me do this. Here is what I came up with: she uses recurring motifs and they are almost always sensory, visual or olfactory. Colors or smells. Signifiers of warmth. Each time readers reach overwhelm and think perhaps they have been lost, enter the familiar - the smell of baked ziti, heating in the oven. The feel of warm bread between one's fingers. The sound of a lover, talking on the phone in the next room. The color yellow or purple or grey - to ground them again, to push them forward.
In the next writing course I took, with the next fiction writing professor, I tried to write a story and produced another prose poem, this one more poetic than the last. I feel like you have lost me in a beautiful word thicket, he said. I spent the semester trying to convince him that this was ok with me. I said, the recurring motifs. I said, spaces, in between the lines for the reader to insert herself, to meld her story with mine. A new story, with every read. He raised his eyebrows and shook his head but later spent hours with me on the phone, over email, revising a series to submit to MFA programs. He said, just promise me you'll do the same for some young writer when you are in my shoes. I promised him I would and someday, hopefully, I will.
Of course, before that, before I moved across the country to go to grad school, find California, fall in love and figure out I don't have to write capital F Fiction, I took other writing classes and wrote other, "traditional" short stories for them. In these pieces there are scenes, then summaries, then scenes again. There is snappy dialogue in which my protagonist converses with other characters. Then she lives through a series of events. Then she reaches an epiphany and the story ends with a pensive punch.
For these classes my peers and I read every story published in The New Yorker with highlighters, mapping out the ratio of summary to scene, figuring out the formula for success. We learned how to compose sentences so that the strongest words came at the end. We recorded anonymous conversations, then transcribed them, learning about dialogue, the disparity between real speech and the kind written with tags and quote marks.
The stories I wrote for these classes were ok. They were like every other seven page road to climax and come down. They were bread and butter. There was little to be unsure of in them. Still, I am glad to have written them. I am glad to know the rules.
Now, when I write, there is everything to question. Different truths. The line between fact and fiction, poetry and prose. There is the question of emptiness, the places on the page where readers hover in interstices, sit suspended in the space between paragraphs, phrases, images, ideas. A friend of mine calls this the "parastanzagraph," form, the Frankensteinian hybrid child born from the merger of poetry, prose, paragraphs and stanzas.
So what does all this add up to? I'm not sure. And maybe that just proves how frustrating white space, work without a thesis or clear point to follow through on can be. But maybe I've allowed myself to stray, associate, arise and subside, forgetting and remembering and forgetting again the central ideas which prompted me to write this in the first place. Maybe I've done this on the page and in the process said something about the possibilities of white space, of room to wander and of the recurring motifs which allow us, through their constant presence, a playful read, a conversation. Maybe not. Maybe by the time you read this I'll already be back at the drawing board, plotting out point by point the Freytag triangle I mean to project onto everything I write. Whatever the case may be, whatever the form it takes, the desire to enter into conversation with others will remain. It is, after all, the reason people make say or do anything at all.
"You write it all, discovering it at the end of the line of words. The line of words is a fiber optic, flexible as wire; it illumines the path just before its fragile tip. You probe with it, delicate as a worm." ¶Annie Dillard
"My form is always an odd amalgam taken from painting, sculpture, theory, film, music, poetry, dance, mathematics, even fiction sometimes." ¶Carole Maso
"Be brief and tell us everything." ¶Charles Simic