I was reading a piece in the NYT about the painter Kerry James Marshall and read this quote from him:
“The picture plane is the site of every action,” Mr. Marshall said. . . . “How things occupy that space,” he added, “matters more than anything.”
I’ve always thought that creative writing, music, and the visual arts shared a language. I taught art for ten years before I switched to teaching writing, and the parallels were obvious. The Marshall quote struck me as a great example of that. The story is the site of every action, the stories that are most reader-participatory are made of action that allows the reader to intuit meaning instead of being told, but it was the “how things occupy that space” that really struck me.
I could give everyone reading this blog five sentences/story events and tell you to make a story of them, and I’d get wildly different stories because of how you each arranged those pieces to occupy the story space. I think that’s one aspect of story-telling that is under-taught: the story space. You have 5,000/25,000/100,000 words of story real estate. How do you subdivide it, what order do you arrange it in? If the most emphasis comes at the end, what must saved for that moment? If the emotional investment comes at the beginning, what must be placed there? What are the important spaces in the narrative? What occupies them?
I try to quantify that with turning points and word counts, and that’s a good crutch for me, but the truth is that looking at a story as a two- or three-dimensional space is more useful than looking at it as a cause-and-effect line. For one thing, a linear story is probably more of a circle than a line, o at least, a curved line that meets itself, Story Ouroboros. For another, important elements lie outside that line, moving in two dimensions and sometimes into three Trying to push story event into a straight line ignores the story space, limits the story space, robs the story space of its possibilities.
Earlier this week, on a completely different train of thought, I ordered a book (paper and everything, not digital, so I could draw all over it) on mapmaking. That desire to see a space drawn out on paper just collided with Marshall’s “things occupying space” and makes me want to draw story maps now, not in lines but in big spaces I can define by action and character. (Back to Curio and mind-mapping, with new intent.)
But mostly I’m just enthralled by Marshall’s work and his philosophies. It’s good to be enthralled again, so thank you, Kerry James Marshall.