Monday, November 23, 2009

The Importance of White Space

This summer at SCBWI National conference, I was one of the nearly 3,000 attendees who was blown away by Sherman Alexie’s opening speech. It wasn’t only the power of his message, or the skill with which he chose his words, nor even his brilliant timing.

No, what struck me like a two by four to the forehead was his masterful use of white space. This man had no fear of letting the room fall silent. In fact, he not only let the room grow silent, but he let that silence build and build until it was nearly bursting with expectation. Then he would step into that void and boom! Connect.

Or conversely, he would say something slyly humorous, then patiently wait for us to catch up to him. You could hear the faint click of our synapses as they sparked, lagging a few seconds behind the speaker, then our laughter would catch up with his words. Or else he would say something funny, then wait for us all to realize the galling pain behind the humor. Clearly, this was a master at work.

And one thing I adore about masters is how we can learn from them.

For me, when I speak, I scramble to fill up every second with something witty, pithy, or meaningful. I experience moments of silence as extreme pressure, a reminder that the onus is on me to produce—and to carry everyone along with me. My presentation’s silent moments are fraught with panic. Sometimes I’m even afraid to be silent long enough to take an actual breath.

But Alexie’s presentation showed me the error of my ways. White space could be wielded as effectively as the most brilliant prose, and to equally devastating effect.

What you leave out is as important as what you leave in.

And really, this applies to all aspects of our writing careers; from our prose, to our presentations, to our blogs.

White space is not merely blank. Its existence creates the balance or emphasis. Without the judicious application of white space, we are in danger of creating something that is far too akin to static.

White space gives depth, adds layers, it creates room to breathe.

I knew all this from a design standpoint, but I had never, ever seen it put to such effective use in a speaking format before.

But white space is not for the faint-hearted. Your speech must be extraordinarily well written. Just a long pause between sentences won’t do; the silence must say something. In a presentation, white space creates drama, it can foreshadow what’s coming next, or leave something to the imagination for the participants to fill in. You want to be sure the meaning in your words will support the weight of all that white space.

But I also wonder if it might not be a chicken/egg thing. Does the importance of your words allow you to use white space? Or does the white space give meaning to your words? Both, probably.

I think that as introverts, we are especially drawn to white space. It connects directly to our souls, feeds our aesthetic need for silence and room to think and breathe. And since it speaks so directly to who we are, it makes sense for us to consider using it as part of our communication style...

Here’s wishing you lots of white space in the next few days as you navigate the joy and noise of the Thanksgiving holiday!


We also want to sneak in a quick announcement of our contest winner from last week.
Laura Salas is our winner for her inspired quote entry. She wins a copy of Rebecca Stead's WHEN YOU REACH ME. Laura, email Mary and she will get that prize out to you!


laurasalas said...

I love your white space post. I always think pauses are so effective, and I agree, Alexie uses them masterfully.

My family is a big fan of So You Think You Can Dance, and we've commented the past season or two how frantic the solos always feel. Even in an only 30-second dance, it's SO effective to have that brief pause in there once or twice. That way the dance feels meaningful, not chaotic.

I'm getting ready to design my school visits for this winter/spring, and I'm going to have to keep that in mind.

And--yay, I won! Can't wait to read the prize book. Thank you:>)

One last thing: I've recd the Self-Promotion for Introverts book and will be reading it and interviewing Nancy once I'm home from vacation.

Now, back to trying to write during a family visit--talk about no white space!

Paul Greci said...

Thanks for this fresh take on white space and how it applies to all areas of communication. I heard Sherman Alexie speak at ALAN a few years ago. Yes, he's a master.

Vonna said...

Leaving white space in art, speaking or writing requires a lot of courage and faith in your vision. The fear that if we don't spell out every detail that nobody will get it keeps us explaining until we achieve what we feared most: The message of our work is lost. Thanks for the reminder.

Rebecca Knight said...

This is so striking :). Thank you for pointing this out!

Stella said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Stella said...

Great post, Robin! I agree, those pauses are often riveting. When I read to my students, I often pause at critical points in the story to allow time for certain plot points sink in, to grab their attention and build suspense. Sometimes when a class is a little noisy, I'll just wait in silence while I stare at them. For some reason, my silent stares are vastly more affective than a lot of arm waving and attempts to talk above them.

Mary Hershey said...

Love this post, Robin! I've been searching my mental hard drive for the lovely Japanese word for white space. E.L. Konisburg talked about it at one of her presentations at SCBWI. I'm going to track it down.

Just even reading about white space slows my respiration down and makes me take deep, oxygenating breaths.

When you create a white space in your writing and speaking, not only does it provide you a moment of consciousness and wakefulness, it invites your reader to join you in same-- that is a gift.

[ [ [ [ [ [ [ s p a c e ] ] ] ] ] ] ] ] to you all!

Becky Levine said...

I tend to try & fill up conversational white space even when I'm not up at the mike. It's a challenge for me, one I'm constantly working on, to let the silences carry for a while and to see what comes out of them. Lovely post.

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