Negative Space

Why don't these two just kiss already?

Two of my favorite short stories—Stuart Dybek’s “We Didn’t” and Tobias Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain”—have at least one thing in common. Both arrive at what the story is by first relating what the story is not. For Dybek, all the times the couple did not have sex, which heightens the overall sense of loss on which the story lands. For Wolff, the things that the pretentious editor does not think as a bullet passes through his brain, peeling away his contemptuous exterior to a more empathetic version. Rick Moody employs a similar technique in The Ice Storm to transport the reader back to 1973, listing all the things that haven’t happened yet or haven’t been invented.

Prose writers don’t often think about negative space, since our art form doesn’t have a physical canvas. Even a poet can tinker with how a poem looks on a page, but prose writers rarely even consider the effect paragraph length can have on a reader. It’s not a spatial art; however, any narrative implies its anti-narrative. When we write a word, we could have chosen virtually any other in its place and each of those possibilities lends itself to any number of parallel narratives, like all the books in Borges’ “Library of Babel.”

Red on black? How posh.

You may remember learning about the stages of Greek pottery in art history. How they eventually tired of painting figures in black onto the red clay pots and began painting around the scenes, so that the figures were red and the backgrounds were black. Like in the short stories, the artists applied their energy to the things that were not being rendered, in order to reveal the image. More complicated to achieve, and new to the consumer. Now it’s essential for visual artists to consider how they are interacting with negative space, since it has become such an important element of the medium.

When I read a short story that utilizes negative space, it’s certainly refreshing. A lot of times when I’m reading in the Willow Springs slush pile, it feels like I’m tossing black on red pots over my shoulder, disappointed. Which often leads me to wonder, what exactly I’m looking for. The answer isn’t a story that explores negative space—that’s far too specific. And I’m almost positive that I don’t have some notion of the Platonic story that I measure everything against—I certainly couldn’t articulate it. It’s more likely the opposite; the things that excite me as a reader, are things that subvert the notion of Platonic story. Like using negative space or an interview, narrative play and imposed structures, anecdotal forms, magic, the page as a canvas, time expansion and collapse, fantasy, collage, having a gun that never goes off.

There’s a saying around my apartment: Influences sell books; enemies facilitate art. Which is, of course, something that people who can’t sell books say; however, there’s definitely value in taking issue with the established order. And it’s not a matter of experimental versus traditional. It’s a matter of good versus bad.

Every story presents the writer with a unique set of problems—solving these problems (for instance, getting an audience to sympathize with a cranky old man or finding a new angle on a story of love and loss) is where the magic happens. We accomplish this by breaking the rules—by doing something decidedly un-“Story”like. Every story needs to break the rules to succeed.

So, if you’re like the high school students I teach, you begin to wonder: what is a story; if everything is permissible, why are there all these rules. The simple answer is: so we can break them, but the answer is also steeped in this idea of negative space—that to put forward a notion of what story is implies that there are infinite things that a story is not. I guess, for me, defining story-ness is accomplished by proving, slowly, that the negative space deserves our attention. As with all things that are impossible to define, it’s best to try and to miss, but to miss as well as we possibly can. Then to try again.


  • Shira Richman says:

    I like the way you bring ancient pottery into this topic about what a story is not and how to use what a story is not in a story to make it singularly yours. I also love the caption on the negative space image. Nice post.

  • Ours is the trying… Somebody with initials said that. It’ll come to me.

  • Ericka Taylor says:

    I like that you didn’t refer to Hemingway’s iceberg. It feels like rule-breaking. Well done.

    • Michael Bell says:

      I wish I had been that clever; however, I’d say what lies under a story’s surface and negative space are different things. In the Dybek and the Wolff, the things they tell us did not happen in the world of the story actually help us to gain access to the things that are under the surface in the Hemingway model. In those instances, the negative space is directly stated and, therefore, part of the above-water portion of the iceberg. Negative space is simply, all the that could have happened in a story, but didn’t. If the writer doesn’t choose to address it, it probably won’t exist for the reader.

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