In my college drawing class, the professor gave us an assignment that baffled me for a long time. He placed a chair before the class. “Ok,” he stated. “We’re going to learn about negative space. I want you to draw the space around the chair. Don’t draw the chair – draw all the places where the chair is not.”
I remembered this exercise in graduate school, the first time I read Wallace Stevens. In “The Snowman,” he writes about “Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.” Reading Stevens, I felt the itch, like a song playing off in the distance that sounded familiar, but maybe not. In Stevens’s terms, I did not yet have “a mind of winter.” I wondered what it would feel like, to have that mind, and if I would know when it happened. Would I be nothing then?
And then, several years ago in a memoir workshop, Patricia Hampl looked across the table where I sat earnestly taking notes and talked about the importance of blankness. “The white space is the place where a reader enters your story,” she explained. “it’s your breathing space on the page.”
Sometimes absence becomes a presence, and many times, emptiness is a real and tangible thing, force to be reckoned with. The negative space – the loss – presses itself on you more intensely than the world that’s still there. It’s the ghost pain that people feel, a throbbing in the limb that has already been amputated: the leg is gone but that old ache in the knee, it remains. It haunts you.
A little while ago, I lost an earring. It was brand new, a gift, a delicate thing, so beautiful. I loved it. When I looked in the mirror and saw that it was gone, I thought, oh, no. And then I thought, But it’s not really gone. It’s just not mine anymore. It’s gone from me. I walked around for an hour, searching the ground, trying to call it back to me. I’d only had it for such a short time, and I loved it so much. But it was lost – still out there in the world somewhere, but lost to me.