Writers are always searching for perfect words to paint powerful images. We shade with appropriate adjectives, we color with clauses, we expand our definitions with details; we specify , we clarify, and we bring our images to life by describing what they are, what they have, and what they do.
Another often overlooked way to create powerful images is by telling what something or someone or somewhere is not.
We can approach objects, places, people, situations, and events from the opposite or unlikely side, from a new perspective, by examining what our subject is not, what it does not have, or what it cannot do.
Like looking at the negatives of old photos, we can examine the negative spaces as a means of creating a similar, yet different image- -a shadow image.
An Angel for Solomon Singer by Cynthia Rylant contains a powerful and poetic description of a room, considering all that it is not, and all the features it does not have, and all the things Solomon is not allowed to have or do in this room-- all things for which he longs.
Solomon Singer lived in a hotel for men near the corner of Columbus Avenue and Eighty-fifth Street in New York City, and he did not like it. The hotel had none of the things he loved.
His room had no balcony ( he dreamed of beautiful balconies). It had no fireplace (and he knew he would surely think better sitting before a fireplace). It had no porch swing for napping and no picture window for watching the birds. He could not have a cat. He could not have a dog. He could not even paint the walls a different color and, oh, what a difference a yellow wall or purple wall would have made!
With these negative words, we not only see the dismal hotel room in which Soloman dwells, but we also feel his loneliness, his weariness, and his pain. A description of what the room actually contains, what it actually looks like, would not have created an accurate image for us, nor fill us with the same empathy.
Once I noticed the power of this not/no in this passage, I began to see this technique in other texts and to experiment with it in my own writing.
One of my attempts with this technique is this third section of a longer five-part poem, The Dancer's Dream Suite
She never planned to be a dancer.
She was not the ballerina who befriended each neophyte dancer that entered the company. She never immediately smiled as visitors entered the studio to witness, to gawk-- to envy the lithe bodies stretching and bending on the highly polished hardwood floor.
She had none of the easy dancer banter hidden in her mind that fell effortlessly from the mouth of her sisters in pink. She had never been like the current starling darling of the company, a little girl dreaming of elegantly spinning from the time she was three.
She never wore a tutu for Halloween or ran into her yard in ballet slippers before her mother could remind her to change.
Dancing was not what she intended to do and she never intended to stay in this place.
The company was not her family, as the Russian proclaimed, and most of them were not even her friends.
No one applauded her successes and waited with flowers for her after the last performance to take her to a late dinner as Jake’s Café around the corner where the other dancers gathered and stayed long into the night dancing wild unstructured gyrations that were not part of classic ballet.
No-- instead she exited the stage door, caught the train home, riding silently, neither looking out the window or at her fellow riders.
No-- instead she returned home to feed her cats and read trashy grocery store novels until she fell asleep alone, dreaming of children she didn’t have and their father whom she had not yet met. © RobinWHolland
This dancer comes to life as we consider what she is not, how she has none of the expected characteristics of a dancer. Again, her loneliness is tangible and resides in the negative space.
I recently was introduced to two additional and powerful uses of negative space.
As I read the poem Lure by Robin Coste Lewis in the collection Voyage of the Sable Venus, winner of the 2015 National Book Award for Poetry, I was struck by the quiet horror that we feel as the narrator recounts an incident of incest that "did not take place" in her childhood. The negative statements recounting her truth render the images and events all the more disturbing and haunting.
Her poem begins:
I am not there.
(We are not in that room.
I am not sitting on your lap.
I am not wearing the yellow
and white gingham skirt so pretty
Grandmother just made for me
In a recent interview about her work with Nicole Sealey at PEN America, in response to a question about the most daring thing Lewis had ever put into words, interestingly, she responds by discussing Lure and what she was not intending to do with this piece.
... “Lure,” is an exploration of incest and its long-term impact on survivors. That was challenging to write because... I wasn’t interested in being shocking, or even cathartic. If all I can do is to get my poem to go “Boo!” that might be thrilling for a second, but it would be cheap, gimmicky. I’m also disinterested in catharsis as a goal. As a tool, sure, but as a goal I remain suspicious. So what if we all cry. Who cares? A poem is not an Oprah episode. Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against crying. I hope my work allows the reader to access sensations that have been locked away or ill-considered. But when we make that the sole mark or goal—“I cried...” —we miss out on poetry’s deeper properties, which can take us far beyond emotional release. And so when thinking about how to write about incest, I knew catharsis was not enough. I wanted more. I assumed my reader was more intelligent than me, so then there was no need to over-explain, or to trick my reader with a gimmick, even a gimmick about abuse. Also, I never want my work to be a sly narcissistic invitation that requires the reader to look at me instead of the poem.You may read the entire interview here.
E. Lockhart begins her young adult novel, We Were Liars by having one of her characters tell us about the negative spaces of the family who populates her novel--who they are not.
Welcome to the beautiful Sinclair family.
No one is a criminal.
No one is an addict.
No one is a failure...
On the first page of this novel we are immediately intrigued as she alternates between what the Sinclairs are and are not, leaving us wanting to know this privileged family, to understand their particular pains and specific situations, as they gather each summer on their private island.
And finally, as I was looking for something unrelated on the internet this week, I re-encountered one of the most well-known protest poem/songs --The Revolution Will Not Be Televised by one of my favorite artists from the 70's, Gil Scott-Heron. ( This song is the first cut on Pieces of a Man.)
I smiled as I realized the entire structure of his poem/song is in negative space--- the revolution will not......
You will not be able to stay home, brother
You will not be able to plug in, turn on and cop out
You will not be able to lose yourself on skag
And skip out for beer during commercials
Because the revolution will not be televisedThe revolution will not be televised
The revolution will not be brought to you by Xerox
In 4 parts without commercial interruptions....
I also smiled at how times have changed--- and how not being televised, not being streamed, not being seen instantly, everywhere, is no longer an option.
You can listen to to the entire song here and read the complete lyrics here.
The power of no, not and negative spaces.
The underside, the shadow image.
We can use these negative statements and views to look with new eyes at objects, places, people, situations, and events.
What is not?
Today's Deeper Writing Possibilities
Reread the samples and others you may locate.
Describe an object or a place by telling about what it is not.
Write about a person, their circumstances and situation--- tell their story using only negative descriptions and statements.
Write about an event- a trauma, a sadness, regret, or a celebration by detailing what did not happen--either as a technique to describe what actually happened in the manner of Robin Coste Lewis in Lure- -or to examine what truly did not occur.