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The Bravery of Silence and White Space

I recently wrote a poem that I gave to my husband to read. As I expected, Peter had comments about this or that word choice, and some reservations about the tense I chose, but his most meaningful comment was his charge to tell a little less. The way he put it was to have confidence in the story within the poem, and to cut words that were explanatory. That is, get rid of my signposts that indicated: important news ahead! Pay attention! or In case you didn’t know…

Could I do without these markers? I hit delete here, and there, and still another there. I survived. I think the poem survived.

Writing poetry is full of these breath-catching deletions. How much can we take out and still make just enough sense? How much can we peel away, while leaving a sense of the moment that first engaged us? I’ve long thought of paring down as a core of writing poetry, but I hadn’t thought about it in terms of courage. It’s not a word I usually apply to myself, soft-spoken me who prefers watching from sidelines to scuffling in a field. Yet every phrase we dare to pull out, every word we pluck, does leave me a bit more light-headed. There’s no measure in this reckless business where we hope to leave something for readers to grab onto, but with spaces to do their own scrambling and make the words feel like their own. Sometimes you want to see skaters swinging their arms, the sunlight on the pond. And sometimes the sound of scraping skates will do. 

Teaching Authors is hosting Poetry Friday today!


"Sometimes you want to see skaters swinging their arms, the sunlight on the pond. And sometimes the sound of scraping skates will do." Well put. The trick is not only knowing when to choose which option but also having the courage to trust that your reader will get it. I seem to either tell too much or simply not enough.
It's so tricky, isn't it, getting that balance. And sometimes our readers won't get it. At least not at first, and that might have to be okay. There is so much of skating in the process, the leaning, the risk of falling, or just looking ridiculous. But we'll keep going, yes?
It's interesting too, because I suddenly had a more vivid picture in my mind of skaters when you said "sound of scraping skates" than when you said "skaters swinging their arms".

I have a theory for why. hah!

I'm applying knowledge I have about visual arts to writing; but it's similar when it comes to influencing someone to have a more clear reaction to what you've done.
Basically, people will fill in the blanks. When you paint something rough, with just enough detail to begin to make it real, people are more likely to have a more engaging experience with that painting. It's because people naturally project.
I suppose this also happens in writing. I suppose it's also why people will say, "I always pictured that character with a very long beard, but in this movie they didn't give him one."
The writer left out some details for you to fill in, to allow your imagination to make those leaps on it's own. Which, so interestingly, we do!
What is most interesting to me though, is how we don't really notice we've done this, until after we have done it.
For that reason... it's scary to leave out detail! :P
Thanks for your thoughts, Rachel. I think it's the imaginative engagement, when we snare it, that's so rich.
I applaud your courage! I think it takes great courage to be an artist at all! go you! xoxoxo
Sending cheers back to you, Debbi! And courage, which is yours already.
This post resonates so much with me, Jeannine. I tend to not write enough, but at the same time, it's easy to tip over into saying too much. And it does take courage to find the path between the two. Thanks for leading the way.
Here's to finding our balance!
So wise...
We try, yes? Sending you best wishes.
You're a model of quiet courage to me, Jeannine. In writing and elsewhere. A beautiful post -- and now I'll go to bed hearing those skates flashing by. xo
I actually was able to get out on skates today. Not a lot of flashing happening. The sounds were rather teetery and timid, but still a pond under winter sky was a thrill.
Skate, Jeannine, skate! This is part of what I'm thinking about with my one little word for 2012, "fierce." Yes, it takes courage. And I love a poem that allows me space to linger, to bring my own life into it.
Thanks, Irene! I love your hope for a fierce year ahead!

thank you & response

Thank you for stopping by my blog, Jeannine, and so I found you! I'm glad to know about your blog, somehow missed it on Poetry Friday, so I'm really glad you showed me the way. What a beautiful post. I tend to be a little wordy (can you tell?) so your words might end up printed and taped to my computer. They are wise as well as courageous, to step into the limelight that only shows your skates!

Re: thank you & response

Thanks for coming over. And good luck with the word-trimming!



I read your post last week and loved it, but didn't comment because I always feel funny about commenting on Live Journal sites. But it doesn't seem too intimidating. :-) I came back here today from Irene Latham's blog.

Thanks for your courage in writing and sharing your writing.

Re: Thanks

Thank you SO much for coming back, your good wishes, and for taking the leap to move past the funny feeling and comment. If you're not signed onto LJ, you can post anonymously as you did, and if you want to be identified, just sign your name on the post.
Love this, Jeannine. It's making me think about having more confidence in my reader, especially when I write free verse. I think I tend to use those signposts...Good luck with your novel!