Saturday’s Vide Grenier (village jumble sale) turned up an exciting find. For one euro I bought a letter, unopened. It bore the stamp of the German authorities, a Polish place name, and the date 1942.
Seventy years after its intended reading, I sliced into the envelope. Inside was a single folded sheet of notepaper, still crisp and white. The spidery writing was blobbed with the uneven ink of a fountain pen. My mediocre grasp of French didn’t stand a chance.
In the three days before a friend came over and translated it, several war epics played out in my mind. Occupied territory… wartime secrets…code breaking…a letter stolen… the intended reader dead…
I was on the edge of my seat when it was eventually read out to me. The writer talked about the price of bread, and how far advanced the spring was. And then, well, that was it. Not one reference to the war, or the political climate. Not a mention of fear, hatred, or the thrill of lives lived close to death.
It said nothing, and yet it said everything- about the censorship, the restriction of free speech, and the monotony that are the marks of living under occupation. It made me think about how much is revealed by the absence of words on a page. Often absence is more telling than presence.
When we write, we carefully compose our ink marks. Perhaps we should also consider how to use the white spaces; the no man’s land of paragraph breaks, the pauses between words, the blank page at the end of a chapter.
Technically speaking, white space gives the reader a moment to breathe, to process, to reflect. Paragraph breaks signal changes in location, or allow us to take leaps in time. But we can make use of the absence of words on a more subtle level also.
We could, for example, have our character be asked a question, and reply only with silence. Or, our character could choose not to mention a huge subject in their life. The ‘elephant in the room’ has a powerful impact.
If we can just look past the proliferation of symbols we will see that there is wildness hiding in the shadows of our words.
The Weekly Prompt:
Look at your page of writing. Instead of focusing on the black ink marks, be interested in the emptiness between the words. Notice how the white sky of the page wraps perfectly around your letters. How the ground of it supports them. What is being spoken by the absence of words?
When you next write a story or poem, have the intention to allow the white page to reveal. In this way the reader will discover the answers to their questions, rather than being a passive recipient. If they are spoon-fed the words, you deprive them of the excitement of the exploration.
This article was first published on May 4th 2013