Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Positive and Negative Spaces by Toni McGee Causey

Toni McGee Causey lives in south Louisiana and along with her husband, Carl, owns a civil construction company. They have two sons who managed to survive the crazy. Sort of. She’d love it if you visited her site (with links to other blog entries) at









This post was first published at Murderati on Sunday, October 4, 2009.  Reprinted with Toni's permission.

Positive and Negative Spaces

by Toni McGee Causey

When I first went to college, my major was Architecture. (I had not yet realized that I could actually be a writer as an official occupation.) I couldn’t wait to take architecture courses and I perused the curriculum in the student’s catalog and read through the course descriptions with a lust that most kids that age reserved for hot cars or cold beer. (The caveat—I already had a hot car—a 1968 cherry red Mustang,

and I had access to plenty of cold beer.) (Hi Dad. I totally did not drink until I was officially 18, the legal age of drinking, because I was a very very good kid who did everything her dad told her.) (You cannot ground me retroactively, don’t even try.)

Anyway, I wanted to be an architect, and I imagined all the sorts of buildings I would design. I endured the first semester of boring classes and looked forward to being able to take Engineering Design, the very first freshman level course that was one of the official architecture courses.

(Frank Lloyd Wright -- Falling Water)

(Craftsman style house)

Turns out? They expect architects to use math much more sophisticated than simple addition and subtraction to formulate all of those pesky things like load bearing walls that will hold the building up.

It is apparently not kosher to make wild-ass guesses, which is how I would frequently solve math problems, and they heavily frowned on the eeny-meeny-miny-moe method. Ironically, I had placed out of every math requirement, including calculus—I had this uncanny ability to guess the right answers on tests, and yet, my professors, picky bastards, would not go with the percentage route that I was going to be correct a good solid 80 to 90% of the time. 10% to 20% of the buildings falling down would be bad.

It was a very short career.

In spite of that, I’ve remained fascinated with architecture over the years, as well as interior design. I pore over magazines and web sites, absorbing new trends. I have dozens of coffee table books with photos of spaces—old plantations, castles, bungalows along an Italian coastline, the white cities of Greece.

Recently, Janet Reid recommended a little book titled: 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School by Matthew Frederick. I love this little book. Since I didn’t even get past “2 things I learned…” in my own career, it was like having a crash course in all of the cool terms I’d wanted to study, but hadn’t. Some of these things I had picked up in my journeys, but it’s nice to see them laid out so simply. What I expected when I bought the book: to learn a few more terms, satiate that longing to design by at least sidling up to it and conversing with it a bit.

What I had not expected when I bought it is to see an entire book that has as much to do with writing and living as it does architecture. And I hadn’t expected to have a startling revelation about my own life.
Now, to be fair to Mr. Frederick, he did not design the book with the latter in mind—it’s something I simply “saw” in the book. Which is a bit ironic, since the revelation occurred over the architectural term “positive and negative space.”

Mr. Frederick defines these terms thusly:

“We move through negative spaces and dwell in positive spaces.”

It’s a simple concept.

When I thought about this in relation to writing, I had a twofold appreciation for the term. First off, just the physical aspect of the page—the words and paragraphs create positive space and the white space around it is the negative space. If you pick up any manuscript and it’s filled with long, dense paragraph after paragraph, it feels cluttered and heavy, weighted and overwrought, even before you’ve read a single word. A reader brings with her the expectation of balance, and you need white space to achieve that balance. Too much white space, though, feels bereft of weight, of value, of deeper meaning, and so it’s the writer’s job not only to craft the words, but to pay attention to the space those words take up on the page.

Simple enough, right?

The other meaning when applied to writing is the creation of the worlds we hope to evoke. Mr. Frederick goes on to explain:

“The shapes and qualities of architectural spaces greatly influence human experience and behavior, for we inhabit the spaces of our built environment and not the solid walls, roofs, and columns that shape it. Positive spaces are almost always preferred by people for lingering and social interaction. Negative spaces tend to promote movement rather than dwelling in place.”

(a place to dwell--a positive place)

(An example of a city street--a corridor--a negative space.)

Again, simple.

In writing a book, we’re attempting to create a world. We want to do such a fine job, that the readers feel as if they’ve inhabited that world and that they’ve met the people who live there, and know them well.

One time, a long time ago, my husband and I were house shopping. In the course of a random conversation with a man we’d met, he mentioned that he and his wife were about to put their house up for sale. When he described the location, it piqued our interest, because it was very close to where we’d been previously looking, and this house happened to be on a small lake with a decent view. It was the exact size we were looking for and, miracle of miracles, it was in our price range. We made an appointment to go view the home and double-checked with the owner prior to arriving to make sure the time was still convenient, since, obviously, they were still living in the home and it wasn’t yet listed.

We wound through the neighborhood of unique homes and arrived at his address to see a beautiful Craftsman styled house set against big oaks and a few pine trees. The landscaping was impeccable—and lush. They’d eschewed the boxy, regimented style of an English garden look and had, instead, created a free-flowing design that invited you to move through a winding walkway through a wonderland of color until you reached the front door. We had a hard time keeping our mouths from gaping open with awe and lust. I didn’t want them to add another $20K just from the look on our faces.

(similar to this)

Crossing through the threshold, however, was a shock. Though the home was beautifully designed, you couldn’t tell it for the clutter. Now, I have two sons and a husband, all of whom could easily be celebrated on the poster for “Packrats Unlimited,” so I’m not unfamiliar with the challenges of digging out from under the constant influx of junk. But this? This house was piled with detritus beyond my wildest imagination. Every level surface had piles and piles of paperwork. In the dining room, the table (which could have seated eight) had a pile so high, that the chandelier above it (and these were ten foot ceilings) was actually skewed at an angle, resting on the top of the pile. Every countertop, every sink, toilet, bed, side table: junk. We couldn’t enter the spare bedroom, though they opened the door to show us the room; there was junk piled from floor to ceiling, spanning the entire room. It looked as if someone had routinely just opened the door and tossed items in, for years.

(And waaaaaay worse than this...)

When we left there, my husband wondered if they were moving because they wanted a bigger house. I predicted that they weren’t going to even get the house officially listed and that within a year, they’d be divorced and battling over the house in a lawsuit. It didn’t surprise me in the least to see it for sale a year later with an “Owner recently divorced, highly motivated” notation on the listing.

They had not created for themselves a positive space to dwell; instead, they’d created a negative space that they could only move through. Disconnected, they became apathetic to their needs—each others’ and their own—and the family dissolved.

I’ve had people hand me novels in the past for critique and they spend a couple of chapters (or more) “building the world” – telling the reading about the political and economic machinations which have brought this world into being, into the state we find it in at this moment in time. It’s a huge mistake to do this. For one thing, the story hasn’t started yet until the characters are moving through that world and experience conflict within it. For another, the writer isn’t trusting the reader to extrapolate the positive and negative spaces from a select few examples.

If you look at the paragraph above describing the clutter, I’d be willing to bet you mentally filled in those rooms, though I didn’t describe a single stick of furniture, or the style of the interior. You filled every nook and cranny with junk in your image, though I didn’t get very specific about the junk. What’s more, if you thought about the couple, I’d be willing to be you saw them both in rather rumpled, dragged from the laundry basket wrinkled clothes, though I never described them.

We don’t have to give pages and pages of details—we just need to give a select few that show not only the space the characters are in, but how they’re interacting with that space. Some of our own choices are determined by economics which can be beyond our control, but some of the choices we make in our surroundings communicate who we are and what we think of ourselves. Same with our characters and their worlds: how do they dwell? What do they move through? Why? What does their surroundings say about them? What does yours say about you?

While I was thinking about this application of the architectural terms of negative and positive space, and simultaneously reading JT’s blog about the clutter of the online media and the expectations of what we have to do to create a writing career and maintain it, along with marketing it, I had an abrupt-but-fine appreciation for the connotations of positive and negative spaces and how they impact our lives. With regard to the social media/marketing aspect, I think the online world—particularly Twitter and Facebook—create the illusion of positive space, a space to dwell. Only, there is no “space” there, there is no permanent peace or interaction with tangible walls and windows, living areas and social areas. It’s all hallways and moving, traffic and business with the veneer of being social, and at its most fundamental sociological construct, it’s in disharmony with our need to dwell, because in social media, we’re always moving through. Targeting something—more interaction, more movement, more recognition, more awareness (both of each other, of marketing needs and trends, of products, not necessarily just of our own products).

It makes sense, then, that these sorts of venues create a sense of discord over time. I think it’s ironic, but I think that while it gives the illusion of greater intimacy and friendship, it also emphasizes the disconnect we have in our lives because we’re not interacting with a space or with a person, but with a computer screen. I enjoy Twitter, and, tangentially, Facebook, but I have felt far less stress in this last month since I have cut back my interaction at both places to just a few minutes a day.

Aside from that, though, is another fundamental truth of space, and it’s the fact that we build our environment. We choose where we’re going to dwell (or, at least, what we surround ourselves with in our dwelling place). The epiphany I had when reading Mr. Frederick’s book was that the positive and negative spaces were a part of our philosophy of life, not just our physicality in life. (I know this is not a new concept. It just opened up something for me.)

I’ve always been the type of person who was an overachiever. I’d accomplish something, check it off as done and move on to the next thing. It felt lazy, almost, to just… be. To be in a place and time without some sort of pressing item that needed to be achieved next. The problem with this was that I was dwelling in the corridors of my life. If something was done, it was over and I passed on through to the next challenge, and there was no space to just enjoy.

In the world of publishing, there is always the next hurdle. Always.

As soon as you finish a book, you have to try to get an agent. As soon as you get an agent, you have to try to sell it. As soon as you sell it, you have to start worrying about what changes they’re going to want and whether you can deliver that. As soon as you deliver that, there are marketing decisions that are made (often without your input) and marketing decisions you make (which increases the pressure), because now there is a goal: sell the books. While all of this is going on, you’re trying to either write the next book on a contract (and you are worrying whether or not you can hit the bar you’ve set for yourself again, whether you even remember how to write a book, and why on earth did you think you could do it again?) or you’re trying your dead level best to convince someone that yes, you can write another one and here it is, or here is the proposal. As soon as your first book goes on sale, all sorts of goals will crop up—will it do well enough, will it further your career, will it die a stone cold death and stop your career. If the former, the bar is set higher. If the latter, that’s a whole set of other problems / goals / fears. People will tell you to stop and enjoy the moment, but you’re generally so frantic to accomplish all of the stuff you need to accomplish in the short window that your book will be on the shelf that by the time you think you have time to stop and enjoy it, it’s long past gone and is probably buried under the last three goals you were striving for.

It is very difficult to just “be” and dwell.

But positive space—not just positive thinking, but positive space—is as necessary to our mental health and our survival as that negative space—that moving, ever onward. We need the connections around us, the grounding in the here and now, the raft of joy in the midst of a chaotic world, to replenish the soul and the well of creativity. You can go a lot of years without doing this, and still function. I can attest to that. But you’ll be missing so much.

So beyond just the writing applications of space and how it’s relevant to character development, my own personal philosophy has shifted in priorities: take the time to enjoy the people around you. Take the time to look at the things you have done and enjoy them. Dwell. Be. Replenish. The world and the race will still be there when you’re ready to re-join. There is no one final race anyway, but millions of races. If you don’t join this day’s race, you can join tomorrow’s.

What is one thing you’d change about your physical environment that would make it a more pleasant place to dwell? Does your environment reflect the real you? If not, why not? 


Unknown said...

As always, a wonderful read. Thanks Toni for sharing with us.
Karla Schexnayder
PS Lunch soon?

Unknown said...

Hey Toni,
As always, a wonderful read. Thanks for sharing with us.
Karla Schexnayder
PS Lunch soon?

Kate George/Bodacious Betty said...

Hi Toni,

I enjoyed your commentary.

As a writer who began life as a visual artist I like to be reminded of the concept of positive and negative space. Our lives need both, our writing needs both. Perhaps everything needs both positive and negative to survive.

It is interesting how easy it is to get wrapped up in the process of becoming a successful writer.

JM Kelley said...

Aw, Toni, I just want to hug this post. I love it. I'm sitting here nodding along and expecting my head to roll off my neck any second now.

To answer your questions would require miles of space, considering my life is in flux right now, but the most important thing I hold onto is that I know where that positive space is, and somehow I'll get there. At least I can visit it until I get all my ducks in a row.

There's something so exhilarating about finding that one place where everything just feels right. There's a little more color, the air around you is a little sweeter, and you feel utterly free. And yet you've never felt more connected.

Vicki Lane said...

Great post! A very good way at looking at writing.

Sylvia Dickey Smith said...

This post is just what I needed read right now. My newest book is just now on the market and I'm hot into marketing--worrying about those issues you mentioned--will it be good enough to notice, will folks like it, what if they don't? Can I get the energy up to continue on?

Positive and negative space is truly something to address right now -- as i market, and celebrate, and accept what I have indeed accomplished. Thanks

Sylvia Dickey Smith

A War of Her Own

Toni McGee Causey said...

Hi Karla - thank you! Sent you an email on FB. ;)

Toni McGee Causey said...

Kate, I think you're 100% correct - we definitely need both positive and negative spaces. We need to remember how to slow down and savor, and we also need to feel comfortable moving through space, getting to where we need to go, if that makes sense.

JM, thank you -- and I love love love that last paragraph you wrote there. It's so true--when we find the right place for us, we feel both connected and free.

Toni McGee Causey said...

Vicki, thank you!

Sylvia, I so empathize right now--it's incredibly nerve-wracking and almost debilitating the sheer volume of marketing stuff we have to attend to when a first book comes out, instead of having the creative space to really think about and work on the second book. I am one of those authors who'll do a lot for a book, and I feel like that's been a good thing, in many ways. But recently, I've come to the conclusion that I have to draw the line, I have to protect the creativity, the mental space where the work takes place. Because if I make myself crazy trying to get attention for this book (whatever "this" book is), I won't be in a good mental place to create something better, and only by creating something better will I entice more readers.

Here's to you finding the balance you deserve, and in doing so, reap so much success, it's beyond your imagination. :)

Clever Cherry / Betty said...

Toni - This was wonderful. This is a little OT but it reminded me of something about space. I lived in the desert for 8 healing years. Later I read a book called Finding Fran. In it Fran speaks of living outside of Taos, NM and all the wide open spaces. I'm paraphrasing but she says something to the effect that Space Empties You. That resonated with my experience. All those hours of quiet in the desert emptied negative stuff right out of me.

Kaye Wilkinson Barley - Meanderings and Muses said...

Toni, Thank You for allowing me to re-post this. It blew me away the first time I read it, and I found it to be every bit as powerful and thought provoking the second time around.

Patrick Brian Miller said...

I know an author, Wade Hall, who has blue prints of a Frank Lloyd Wright house that was never constructed. He is planning to have it built as the centerpiece of a rural writers retreat on some beautiful wooded property he owns. He took me through the location, and it will make a great positive space for writers someday. Your take on architecture/writer was fascinating. One of the most intirguing posts I've read in a while.

Anonymous said...

What is the title and/or artist of the painting of the woman crouching within an "invisible box"?

Toni McGee Causey said...

Anon -- I apologize -- I cannot find it again! I tried to go back to that image in order to answer it, but it was originally saved on a computer that crashed and I didn't move the data (artist, link) over apparently when I had moved the blog files. Very sorry not to be able to answer--I don't even have a clue how I found it. I tried googling all of the relevant key words I could think that I might have used before, and nada! argh. Very sorry--I am usually much better at giving attributions.