There’s an expression writers caught in writer’s block like to use. It’s like a call to arms against that only thing which stands between their pens and their next great work: Killing the White.

It’s a nice idea on the surface: what’s stopping you from having that written piece materialise in the real world, out of the mind and into matter, is the very blank surface, the very whiteness on which you depend as a canvas for that piece. So all there is left to do is kill the white, be rid of the blankness, and then you’ll be on your way, right?

Many a successful writer can attest to the positive effects of simply attacking the white, making a start anywhere on the page with a title, word, line, or even a drawing. Mark Manson puts it best with his own twist on the classic creative cycle model. Rather than thinking we need to start with inspiration, and only then will we be able to move on to action and motivation, Manson subscribes to the view that we should start with action – anything, as long as we’re making a start somewhere. And so the cycle becomes: Action –> Inspiration –> Motivation.

I like this new model. Many a time I’ve been stuck for words (even at the start of this post you’re reading), and I’ve applied it; starting with the simplest thing just for that initial push to get the ball rolling. And when that ball – or boulder – starts rolling after the slightest budge, who knows where it might end up?

So congratulations, you’ve stabbed the white and its bleeding holy ink and ideas. But believe it or not, that white space isn’t there just to piss us off. As much as killing the white might set that boulder on its course, the white itself plays a very important role in all writing, and so should never be completely discounted. I’m referring now particularly to poetry, but the same does apply to other forms of creative writing.

The average page of poetry is 99% white space.1 I know: you’re thinking of a full stop in the middle of a page. And hey, I wouldn’t be surprised if there was such a poem out there. But really, the average poem consists of only around 1% print on the average page. That’s a whole lot of white space – but that’s a whole lot of intentional white space.

Some poems take this to the extreme, as in Don Paterson’s ‘On Going to Meet a Zen Master in the Mountains and Not Finding Him’… which is a blank page.

See, unlike other forms of writing, poetry is all about balancing weights: those of meaning and emotion, and those of a more visual nature. Haikus are the perfect example of this: in three short lines a whole world can be conveyed to the reader.

The more I think about this issue, about the delicacies involved in dealing with poetry’s white spaces, the more I think about its correlation with minimalism. Just as minimalism is about not simply removing objects from one’s life, but rather making room for the things that matter (family, friends, passions, meaning, values etc.), good poetry needs this same saved space in which to thrive. Those “best words in the best order”2 often take up so little space because they have nothing superfluous to contend with.

White space should be a vital part of every poet’s vocabulary.3

 

Notes

[1] Gary Lehmann, ‘White Space’

[2] Samuel Taylor Coleridge (defining poetry)

[3] Gary Lehmann, ‘White Space’

 

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