How Things Occupy Space Matters

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.

Kerry James Marshall’s “Black and part Black Birds in America: (Crow, Goldfinch),” 2020. It is one of two new works by the artist that David Zwirner Gallery will put on view this week.Credit…Kerry James Marshall and David Zwirner

12 thoughts on “How Things Occupy Space Matters

  1. I’ve been both reading and struggling with 2 books by Graham Robb: The Debatable Land and The Discovery of Middle Earth: Mapping the Lost World of the Celts. There is lots of mapping in both books, explaining all sorts of things: divisions of power and nature; travel across distances of land and sea; communications by voice, musical instruments, physical movement; the movement of time; different technologies and when they were discovered or lost. Like Jenny’s quote and post say, organizing and presenting what fills in the space varies with individuals. Especially with people like me who can’t organize.

    I struggle with Robb’s books in part because he doesn’t share. He generally doesn’t cite secondary sources or mention companions, academic discussions, or even conversations. He does not include a page of acknowledgements. As a result he seems weird and distant to me. Maybe because he’s a bike rider. I don’t do sports.

  2. I recently subscribed to the NYT and The Atlantic magazine, (David Frum, of the Atlantic is a Canadian, his mother was the great Barbara Frum). Great quote. Off to read it.

    Another good article is how in the 1907 Tuberculosis outbreak, there were outdoor schools. A must read, especially with schools opening. The outdoor schools were open even in the winter. Yes, children can carry the COVID virus, flu and colds run rampant through schools. So, off topic but with schools opening in September, it is food for thought.

    Once had an assignment in which we were given fifty or so words. Some wrote sentences only using the words once while others wrote short stories using the words once. Interesting how one interpreted the assignment.

    1. Finishing the thought about filling story space; some wrote a story while others had sentences to form a story not yet fully formed.

  3. On a tangent re maps and storytelling, best graphic-map ever (in my opinion): “NAPOLEON’S MARCH —Probably the best statistical graphic ever drawn, this map by Charles Joseph Minard portrays the losses suffered by Napoleon’s army in the Russian campaign of 1812.” Edward Tufte includes it in one of his books as an exceptional example of telling a story through a graphic.

    1. It’s a fantastic graph, and well deserves its reputation as the best graph ever created. Several engineers in my former office had it on their walls.

  4. I understand the intent of the post, but I could not help thinking “Occupy Space Matters!” and picturing crowds of people setting up tents at Cape Kennedy/Canaveral and the Virginia Eastern Shore, and wherever SpaceX flights launch from.

    “We’ll force those highest 1% to raise the rest of us up!”

  5. Interesting! And then there’s the space between the story and the reader. How much can the author affect that space? In advertising, my job is to turn it into a path that leads people right where I want them to go. In fiction, it seems like you write with that space in mind, understanding that readers may wander in unexpected directions.

    Also, I recommend Jill Berry’s Personal Geographies: Explorations in Mixed-Media Mapmaking. Lots of cool projects to do as presented or use as springboards.

  6. Thank you for posting this article. The story about the crow, the painting, and Kerry James Marshall himself were all wonderful.

    What his central message reminded me of was not the shape of stories, but the way your books have this quality of bringing the reader alive to a place that constitutes the boundary/stage for all the actions. Each story seems to deepen as the reader’s understanding of the place and its effect on the people within it grows. Or as it enlarges a reader’s sense of how the characters live in and around it.

    Or something like that. Like when the house captured Dennis in Maybe This Time, then pushed him into the New House, because he fit in nicely. YMMV

  7. Another thought:

    The map–territory relation describes the relationship between an object and a representation of that object, as in the relation between a geographical territory and a map of it. Polish-American scientist and philosopher Alfred Korzybski remarked that “the map is not the territory” and that “the word is not the thing”, encapsulating his view that an abstraction derived from something, or a reaction to it, is not the thing itself. Korzybski held that many people do confuse maps with territories, that is, confuse models of reality with reality itself. The relationship has also been expressed in other terms, such as Alan Watts’s “The menu is not the meal.”

    – Wikipedia

  8. It strikes me that your collages are a form of mapping out a story space in three dimensions.

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