Last January Laura Ruby brought to our first faculty meeting
a New Yorker article written by John McPhee on “Structure.”  (January 14,
2013, p. 46). And she made copies for those of
us who asked. Such is the pace of the residency that I did not read the article
last January—nor when I got home (no excuse). But last week, cleaning off my
desk, I found it again, and finally….

McPhee writes about his difficulties and strategies in
organizing the pieces he writes. He recalls his high-school writing teacher,
Mrs. McKee, and shares her philosophy in the words he says to his own writing
students: “You can build a strong sound, and artful structure. You can build a
structure in such a way that it causes people to want to keep turning pages. A compelling
structure in non-fiction can have an attracting effect analogous to a story
line in fiction.” 
I’m not going to try to summarize his entire article but
rather focus on the section in which he refers to his writing of Encounters with the Arch Druid. This section seems useful for both fiction and non-fiction writers. For this book McPhee
went on three journeys:  “A, in the North
Cascades with a mining geologist; B, on a Georgia island with a resort
developer;  C, on the Colorado River in
the Grand Canyon with a builder of huge dams. D—David Brower, the high priest
of the Sierra Club—would be in all three parts.”  Going down the Colorado River, McPhee,
Brower, the dam-builder and the guide come to Upset Rapid, a place so dangerous
that the guide, by rule, “had to stop and study the heavier rapids before
proceeding.” Readers learn that people have died in Upset Rapid.  When the guide is ready to proceed they get
back in the raft, except for David Brower. “Brower was waiting for us when we
touched the riverbank in quiet water.” The dam builder asked him why he did not
ride through the rapid. Brower replied: “Because I’m chicken.”
McPhee ends that section right there and leaves a half inch
of white space.  Then a new section. “…
that describes Brower as a rope-and-piton climber of the first order, who had
clung by his fingernails to dizzying rock faces and granite crags. The white
space that separated the Upset Rapid and the alpinist said things I would much
prefer to leave to the white space to say—violin phraseology about courage and
lack of courage and how they can exist side by side in the human breast.”
McPhee left space for the reader to make sense of David
Brower and form a conclusion about the complexities we all carry within us—so much
more effective than the writer telling us, concluding for us.  As readers, we take to heart that which we
have discovered for ourselves, perhaps more than the lessons we are given.
Like McPhee, we sometimes leave a space in the telling that
lets readers put together contrasting traits in a character’s make-up.
to mind is the bear in I Want My Hat Back (by Jon Klassen) who loves his hat and needs his hat, a clue to a gentle nature, but who is willing
to do we-aren’t-quite-sure-what to get his hat back, revealing perhaps a not-so
gentle nature. 

Hunting the White Cow
by Tres Seymour is one of my favorite picture books, I think because there is
so much white space—not contrasts within a character, but just so much we don’t know: why
did the cow “go wild”? how does the cow get that rope “broke off” without
breaking her own neck? what’s  going to
happen when the girl learns cow calling?
In a more serious work, Liza Ketchum’s Newsgirl , there’s a big white space around the relationship
between Amelia’s mother and Estelle.  Readers can piece together what makes sense to
I’m sure there are more examples of writers using “white space.”
This feels like an issue worth exploring further. Perhaps we can share titles of books which make effective use of space, leaving out.  

I’m wondering, too, if there are times when we
don’t want to use white space, but want to tell the reader exactly what is going on.
Here’s what we learn about Opal’s daddy,
“the Preacher,” in Chapter 2  in Because of Winn Dixie: “My daddy is a
good preacher and a nice man, but sometimes it’s hard for me to think about him
as my daddy, because he spends so much time preaching or thinking about
preaching or getting ready to preach…” “Sometimes he reminded me of a turtle
hiding inside its shell, in there thinking about things and not ever sticking
his head out into the world.” We have a  pretty complete picture here. There’s not too much to guess about.

What’s the difference in these two instances?  Perhaps it comes
down to what do we want the reader to pause over, to imagine? What is critical to the story? What do we have
to make clear in order to move the story along? The daddy’s change is an
important part of the story in Winn-Dixie,
so we need to be clear where he is at the beginning. The mom’s relationship
with Estelle in Newsgirl is almost a
part of the setting. As such, we only need to know that both Mom and Estelle
care about Amelia. We don’t need to pin down their relationship to each other.

All of this makes me want to look more carefully at my own writing to be sure I am telling what needs to be told and leaving room for the reader to make sense of some of the puzzles.

More later…maybe January.