Writing the negative space

Holocaust Memorial. Artist: Andy DeComyn.

When we set out to draw an object, we usually imagine the object in the foreground of the picture, draw its outline, and fill it in. This is a representation of “positive space.” It is also possible to represent an object in “negative space” by drawing everything that is not it. This is less frequently done, so it often surprises us.

This can happen in verbal descriptions, too. Psychotherapy clients often talk about everything except what’s most important to them. The absence of the important theme may become noticeable to the listener, who is then able to fill in the gaps.

Fiction can be written in negative space, perhaps. But whether you write in positive or negative space, you still need to know what you are trying to communicate. If you don’t know what your image, idea, or message is, you can’t identify “everything that isn’t it.”

Photo: Holocaust Memorial at Church Green, near Redditch, Worcestershire, Great Britain. Artist: Andy DeComyn. Photographer: P L Chadwick. Creative Commons license.

My favorite books

From my reading list over the past fifteen years, here’s some the books I’ve most enjoyed.

A touch of magic: Sabine Baring-Gould’s The Book of Were-Wolves; Carol K. Mack’s A Field Guide to Demons, Fairies, Fallen Angels and Other Subversive Spirits; Kate DiCamillo’s The Magician’s Elephant; Ransom Rigg’s Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children; Willow G. Wilson’s Alif the Unseen; Moacyr Scliar’s The Centaur in the Garden; Matt Haig’s The Humans; Jeremy P. Bushnell’s The Weirdness; and Charlie Jane Anders’ All the Birds in the Sky.

On getting in touch with ourselves: Kathleen Dean Moore’s Riverwalking; Stephen Batchelor’s Living with the Devil; Thomas Dumm’s Loneliness as a Way of Life; Adam Phillips’ Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life; Mary-Louise Parker’s Dear Mr. You; and Dag Hammarskjöld’s personal reflections, Markings, adapted for English by W. H. Auden, after which I found a desire to have my own journals adapted by a poet.

On processing difficult experiences: Haruki Murakami’s Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage; Kenzaburō Ōe’s novel A Personal Matter about the birth of a disabled child; Zora Neale Hurston’s Barracoon (an interview in 1927 with the last survivor of a slaveship from West Africa to antebellum America); and Primo Levi’s memoir Survival in Auschwitz (also known as If This is a Man) and his sequel The Reawakening.

On ethics: Susan Neiman’s Moral Clarity, Joshua D. Greene’s Moral Tribes, Nikki Stern’s Because I Say So, Mary Midgley’s Wickedness, and Eric Felten’s Loyalty.

On literature: Anatole Broyard’s New York literary scene memoir Kafka Was the Rage, Edward Hirsch’s How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry, Clive James’ Cultural Amnesia, Lee Siegel’s Falling Upwards, F. González-Crussi’s On the Nature of Things Erotic, and Robert Bly and Marion Woodman’s Maiden King.

On understanding the mind: Lisa Zunshine’s Why We Read Fiction, Robert A. Burton’s On Being Certain, George Marshall’s Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change, and Abby Covert’s How to Make Sense of Any Mess: Information Architecture for Everybody.

And a few that are hard to classify here but that thrilled me nonetheless: Anita Amirrezvani’s historical novel about Iran, Equal of the Sun; Jacqueline Woodson’s poems Brown Girl Dreaming; Douglas J. Penick’s The Brilliance of Naked Mind; and Patrick Harpur’s The Philosopher’s Secret Fire: A History of the ImaginationSurprises can impact us most.

Interview with Billie Kelpin: “All any of us wants is to be understood and to understand”

Billie Kelpin generously shares with me her thoughts on creativity and the writing process. Her website is billiekelpin.com. – Tucker Lieberman

T.L.: How has being left-handed affected who you are?

billie_kelpinB.K.: I love this question because I truly think being left-handed in a right-handed world has given me a few insights and also a few challenges.

I always felt left-handed, much like any member of any minority feels his or her difference. It wasn’t until I started identifying more often as left-handed, talking more about being left-handed and noticing other left-handers that I felt part of a group that has a secret. I started to feel pride in how I adapt to the world once I realized I was adapting! I think one of the most significant comments to me was when my husband explained exactly why I always fumbled around opening a bottle of wine with a right-handed corkscrew in terms of physics. He explained that less torque is exerted on a corkscrew by a left-handed user. I bought a left-handed corkscrew from Lefty’s in San Francisco and have a lot of fun giving it to right-handed friends.

Realizing how much I adapt to the world, as do all left-handers, makes me feel proud in a way. It’s like the pride any of us has knowing secretly that we are meeting a challenge that others might not realize.

The biggest challenge in being left-handed, I feel, is to not feel awkward alongside right-handers. My favorite job ever was in an office where three of the five of us were left-handed! I was with my peeps!

How has your work in Deaf Education changed your understanding of language, art, and people?

I have almost a spiritual reverence for language because of my work in Deaf Education. The fact that we are connected culturally because of the language we speak and that our thinking is affected by language amazes me. I have the greatest admiration for people who are bi-lingual, tri-lingual, and beyond!

I find the teaching of English idioms fascinating and the ability to try to translate phrases like “take it for granted,” “off the record,” and a myriad of other phrases challenging and exciting.

In reference to art, I think that understanding the world visually and expressing that through the visual medium of sign language is a unique skill. An American Sign Language instructor I once had asked the hearing people in his class to describe sitting on a train and looking out the window. After watching all of us fumble awkwardly trying to relate the words of the scene into sign, he did one movement of his index finger representing telephone poles moving. A total visual representation of a complex sentence with one visual movement! Fascinating.

As for understanding of people, Deaf Education has taught me that all any of us wants is to be understood and to understand, no matter what form that takes.

How do you see the role of illustrations in children’s books?

lucky_the_left_pawed_puppyThe role of illustrations in children’s books is critical not only in picture books, but in chapter books as well. After I saw Julie Parker’s interpretation of “Short Stuff,” one of the dogs I wrote about in Lucky, the Left Pawed Puppy, I had a whole new idea for the story of that dog’s personality based on her illustration of him.

What finished project were you most satisfied with?

I think I was most satisfied with “The Perfect Husband App” that we are attempting to republish. It had over 8000 downloads without any advertising. I was satisfied that I had come up with a title that pulled people in. That simple app was an attempt to help couples to use phrases that seem to increase communication:

I’ll fix that, TODAY, Hon

I’m sorry.

You continue to fascinate me.

You’re amazing just the way you are.

You make me want to be a better person. 

I think the response to that app was the part that was most satisfying.

In “Shoes of 9/11,” you talk about attachment to symbols as a way of making meaning from chaos. What’s a symbol that speaks to you these days?

The answer that comes to mind is a book written in 1986 by Robert Fulghum, All I Really Needed to Learn, I Learned in Kindergarten. The kindergarten rules are to be kind, respectful, and share. No bullying is allowed in kindergarten. Kindergarten is a place for exploring science and nature. It’s a place where we’re taught respect for each other no matter where we’re from. We help the new kid or the kid who’s in trouble. We are taught respect for our environment. It’s a place where making money has no meaning. So all in all, the symbol that speaks to me these days is the kindergarten classroom.

Is there crossover in your work aimed at kids and your work aimed at adults, or do you keep those separate?

polly_and_measuring_stickThere is a crossover in a story I wrote years ago, Polly and the Measuring Stick. That story started off as a children’s story, but now I think it would be considered an allegory for all ages. It speaks to the problem we all encounter when we compare ourselves with others. It has an important message for all ages. The thread running through all my work seems to be psychological — stories that explore who we are, how we got that way, and what to do with that information once we have it! This whole thing called life seems to me too important to not try to figure out.

How do you connect with other writers?

I am a member of Orange County Writers in California. I would encourage writers to keep searching until you find the group that is perfect for you. If you’re in a rural area, start your own writing group. Our OC Writers has an online calendar of events that any group could use as a helpful model.

What do you like to read?

I am one of the very few writers who is not an avid reader! Perhaps that’s why I struggle so much with writing a novel. I do a great deal of subvocalizing when I read which means I hear every word in my head and can only read as fast as I talk.

I’d like others like me to know that it is possible to be a writer if you’re not that enthusiastic of a reader. When I do read, I like to read essays on philosophy, politics or psychology. The dialog I use in short stories and novels is dialog I pick up from listening to speech more than I do from reading. I think that actually can be a very positive trait. The precise storytelling part is the hardest to pick up if you’re not an avid fiction reader.

What reaction do you hope people will have to your work? What do you hope they’ll take away?

Crying is always a good reaction! Laughing would make me happy as well! Seriously, I’d like it if my writing evokes some emotion or provides an insight that makes the reader’s own path in life more meaningful, perhaps more fun, or just plain easier in some way. Words are like gold to me. Authors who have put words together in that special way that reaches a soul have gotten me through the hardest of times and provided joy in the best of times. I’d love to be able to write one sentence that would do that for someone.

‘Pokerface’: A new short story with detectives and magic (June 2018 giveaway)

Pokerface, by Tucker Lieberman
Pokerface by Tucker Lieberman

I’m giving away 100 e-copies of my new short story, “Pokerface,” for Kindle. The giveaway began this morning, and it was a delight to wake up and see that so many people have already entered for a chance to win! [Update: Entries closed on June 27, 2018.]

If you are excited to read it and don’t want to wait a week for the outcome of what promises to be a competition for the available copies, it’s only 99 cents on Amazon (and free for Kindle Unlimited subscribers). Thanks for your support.

Story description: Jack, a private eye in New York City in 1940, searches for a missing ruby after he is hired by a Brooklyn man who dabbles in ancient Egyptian magic. It might take multiple detectives to solve this one. A short story with a touch of the supernatural.

The character’s inner voice tells you who they are

All people have a robust inner monologue. For some, it is strong enough to take the form of a “mental illness.” Regardless of whether a character’s inner voices seem to fall within a normal range, the message of that voice is still about who the character is as a person.

T. M. Luhrmann wrote in 2013 for the New York Times:

“In the past few years I have been working with some colleagues at the Schizophrenia Research Foundation in Chennai, India, to compare the voice-hearing experience of people with schizophrenia in the United States and India….in our sample of 20 comparable cases from each country, the voices heard by patients in Chennai are considerably less violent…”

He quoted one American as describing what his voices said to him: “Usually it’s like torturing people to take their eyes out with a fork, or cut off someone’s head and drink the blood, that kind of stuff.” Whereas the Indians’ voices told them “to do domestic chores — to cook, clean, eat, bathe, to ‘go to the kitchen, prepare food.'”

In this sentence in his 2006 book The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins similarly implied that the content of our hallucinations depends on our cultural assumptions:

“If we are gullible, we don’t recognize hallucination or lucid dreaming for what it is and we claim to have seen or heard a ghost; or an angel; or God; or — especially if we happen to be young, female and Catholic — the Virgin Mary.”

In other words, no one who did not have some prior cultural exposure to a particular god would hallucinate that god.

This observation applies to characters who are “mentally ill” and those who are not. A character’s inner monologue tells you more about who that character is than about their illness or about any figment of their imagination. Less obviously, the lessons a character takes away from their inner monologue tell you more about who that person is than about any “objective truth.”


And you may know this:

The characters you hallucinate tell you about you.