Friday, August 18, 2017

The Secret of Ma



I edit with an axe. I hack and hammer, and when I'm done there's red everywhere.

I have to: I'm wordy.

No doubt there are a few people who've asked for my "suggestions" in the past who find the results alarming. Hopefully not discouraging, though.

But developing a habit of ruthless editing isn't the only way:

I've found that the effort to write within a strict word limit changes me - suddenly I'm writing differently, and the editing needs scissors, not an axe. I go through the text once, twice, and again. I snip and I snip and I snip, fitting it all to the page and trimming away anything at all superfluous. It's like surgery, like the detail-work of laying out a page for printing (in the old days, when you did it with onionskin and glue)

I think there's more art in editing a strictly limited short piece than in writing beautifully without limit.

Some time ago, I tried an experiment: a friend wanted me to try Twitter. I was resistant - I didn't see the point in Twitter, couldn't see its value as anything but a link aggregator I humoured him. But it started me to wondering: what was the use of this platform? What could it do?

At first, I did what everybody does on Twitter - I hacked out doggerel and haiku.

Don't laugh - this was a very valuable part of my experiment. I've written poetry for years, even sometimes sent it off to press, but I've always had the freedom of whole pages as my only limit.

But freedom breeds laziness. As evidence: I tried writing poetry on the infinite pages of a word processor, and the result was incoherent. It was never-ending stream of consciousness with no art and less value.

No doubt others can project their own frame onto the page from the start, imposing metaphysical barriers that keep the words in line, keep them from getting too unruly.

Not me, I guess.

But here's a thing: once I started "gathering po├ęsies" on Twitter things started to change. I knew I had only so much space, limited ability to control layout. What could I do inside 140 characters? The limit was so strict it made even limericks challenging, but who wants to be limited to haiku?

Oh I wrote haiku alright (and limericks) but the character limit seriously shifted how I went about verse. It made me think in minimal patterns. And, importantly, it made me think of how to write with absence.

How to write with Ma.

Ma is the Japanese art of empty spaces. Most often encountered in interior decorating, architecture, and of course visual arts the concept of Ma is difficult to explain, easy to see - just look at Hasegawa Tohaku's famous 6 panel screen Pine Trees:








Black ink. White space.

Hasegawa gives us as much with the space he leaves blank as with the lines he actually painted. He fills that entire canvas with nothing, and it's incredibly evocative. You can see an entire world here, even though he has merely depicted a few trees, and not whole trees at that.

He doesn't fill the space. He outlines it. He draws us into it. He makes us fill it.

So I learned the Ma of poetry on Twitter.

And then I tried something more challenging: fiction.

Fiction is a different beast, I hear you say. Fiction needs all those words. Words is how fiction works.

You're not wrong. But when you start to grapple with Ma you learn something Zen masters have known for centuries:

Words are liars.

Yes, the words are important: no words = no story.

But the words aren't the story - not really. The words are the frame of the story. The story, such as it is, really exists in the reader's mind, just the same as with poetry.

You have only a few thousand words with the readers. Don't try to force everything into their minds. You can't anyway, and the effort will leave you both frustrated and bereft.

No: sketch the outline of the story, show the reader the glittering edges and the mysterious silhouettes of your world and let them fill in the blank space in their mind.

That's not to say the story will be entirely in the reader's hands. If that was the case, what was the point in putting pen to paper in the first place?

You choose the frame.
You chose the images.
You create the story with the mysterious incantations of language.

I don't claim to have created this - it's a truth that writers much greater than I am likely to be worked with long before I was born. No, this is just something I've stumbled on and understand incompletely. But I think it's truth:

This is the secret of Ma.

1 comment:

Misha Burnett said...

This is exactly why I recommend writing fiction in sonnet form.