Writing in the Negative Space: Guest Post by Sherry Shahan

One day while cleaning out my office I found an old shoebox filled with letters from a friend who was in Vietnam during the mid-1960s. I spent hours rereading the gut-wrenching accounts of his physical and emotional nightmare. I was in my third semester in the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program at the time.

Later, I wrote character sketches about other high school friends. I tapped into the conflicting emotions triggered by memories, from happiness (our crazy antics) to rage (over the Vietnam war) and sorrow (teen angst).

Using this nontraditional story form was extremely challenging. Fortunately, my advisor was Louise Hawes, an amazing poet. She encouraged me to push the creative envelope. Until then, my novels had all been written in traditional narrative prose.

What began as a stream of consciousness had to be shaped into a story with a compelling beginning, middle, and end. Each character demanded his or her own story arc. Yet each storyline had to be woven seamlessly into the whole.

I concentrated on simile, metaphor, irony, startling imagery, rhythm and cadence. Sure, all good writing should contain these elements. But I became more aware of them when my writing looked like poetry.


                                                  Fat tits + quick wit
                                                  does not = stupidity
                                                  if that’s what you think.

                                 Pages of the new testament fill my pillow,
                                 gospels on a recon in search of a soul.

These two poems are short; yet say volumes about the emotional state of the characters. Perhaps more than if I’d written them in margin-to-margin prose.

Theme and subtext. Negative space plays an important role in other art forms as well. The more negative space, the more the object stands out.

                                               My motel sign:

To me, this nontraditional form was the most effective way to give readers access to the innermost thoughts of all six characters. Verse mirrors the pulse of adolescent life. Condensed metaphoric language on a single page is a good reflection of their tightly-packed world. Emotions are where teens live.

Purple Daze is set in Los Angeles in 1965. It’s a story about war, feminism, riots, love, racism, rock ‘n’ roll, and friendship. Six high school students share their personal experiences through journal entries, notes, letters, interconnected free verse and traditional poetry.

Sherry Shahan has over 30 books to her credit, fiction and nonfiction. Research has put her inside a dog sled for the 1,049 mile Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in Alaska (Dashing Through the Snow: The Story of the Jr. Iditarod, Mondo), paddling a kayak down a remote fjord (Frozen Stiff, Random House), and on a exposed ridge during a deadly electrical storm (Death Mountain, Peachtree). Shahan, class of 2007, teaches a writing course for UCLA Extension. When not traveling she takes jazz and ballet classes at a local studio. If you have any questions about her post or the MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts, contact her directly at kidbooks@thegrid.net or you can visit www.SherryShahan.com


About pamwatts

Writer, Reader, and Children's advocate
This entry was posted in Current Events, Guest Posts, Thoughts and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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