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My Ode to White Space

I remember the first time I became consciously aware of white space; I was reading a book, and I came upon a blank page -- well, that is, the page was blank except for a single sentence in 10pt type, centered, and about a quarter of the way down. It read:


I was intrigued, and I thought it was cool -- so cool, in fact, that the next time I wrote to my best friend across the country, I sent a blank page with the same sentence in the same position, but at the bottom I added:

(except, of course, for the above statement and this explanation.)

What I didn't know at the time was that what I'd come across was white space, and if anyone told me that's what it was, I wouldn't have been further enlightened. I mean, just what, pray tell, is white space?

In a nutshell, white space is negative space. Some people might say it's everything that isn't or that surrounds the item of interest. It's the blank openness that gives space to the head in a head shot, the title on a title page, or the framed picture on the wall. People don't usually pay much attention to white space, but the absence of it can really make a photo, a page, a room, or even a book cover way too loud and way too cluttered.

How else can I explain? With a metaphor?

I took a poetry class once, where I learned about metaphors. My professor loved to perform when reciting poetry in front of the class, swaying with the lyrical rhythms of the words, captivating his audience with his sonorous voice, and giving the verses meaning with his perfect timing.

But, dear God, his lectures were BORING!!! I had to fight to stay awake most days. "Uh, uh, uh." Every third or fourth word he uttered was "uh." It got so I didn't hear what he said between them.

I wrote in my journal:

I wish he'd think of lecturing or just plain speaking as performing, too. A poet who is so aware of words and sounds should never say so many "uh"s. I realize, of course, that people usually say such meaningless "uh"s to fill up the spaces of silence in between words. But sometimes silence is good and beautiful; it makes what is spoken more meaningful.

And voila: the beauty of silence -- the exact same kind of beauty that white space holds.

Sometimes, when people speak, they have some notion that others are listening, and they feel that they must perform. That space that belongs to them? That silence? They feel obligated to fill it somehow, and if they can't fill it with something intelligible, they say:

"Uh, you know, like, oh, my God!"

What they don't realize is that they don't have to speak. They don't have to fill ALL that silence, ALL that page, or ALL that space. People will still look and listen. In fact, they will look and listen all the better because they don't have to filter through all the clutter to find what's meaningful.

This is what I think about when I make my covers. Is there enough white space? Is there enough openness so that what I want people to notice really stands out and isn't hiding amidst so much meaningless junk?

I used to get this incredible urge to fill every nook and cranny, every blank corner with another element, another piece of imagery, but over the years, I've discovered that a lot of my best work is simply stated, with a lot of white space. Subtly textured white space, but white space all the same.

Just a little something to think about.


Amanda said...

I love white (or negative) space and know exactly what you mean. It really is an essential part of any picture or even a piece of writing.

Was the book you spoke about something by Luke Rhinehart? I read his book Dice Man and I'm pretty sure he did exactly that same thing, leaving a page blank.

Lisabet Sarai said...

Fascinating topic, April.

When I used to write a lot of poetry, I was very aware of the shape of the poem on the page. The blank lines said as much as the lines of text, to me at least.

April Martinez said...

Amanda, I honestly don't remember what the book was, but I'm almost certain it's in more than one book.

Lisabet, as someone who considers poetry as a mostly aural form of art, I never really thought of that until just now.

LynTaylor said...

Fantastic blog April. Stephanie Meyer's used this in New Moon to reinforce Bella's state of mind after Edward has gone. October. November. December. January.

Just the words on a blank page.

It's amazing how something so simple can reinforce what the author is trying to portray.

April Martinez said...

Exactly! :)