A friend and I — both having finished writing novels close to the same time — found ourselves commiserating about the unsettled spot in which we found ourselves.
We had sent our manuscripts out to agents and were waiting and worrying. Waiting for good news. Worrying about bad news. Some rejections came for both of us and then more waiting. And more worrying.
“What do you call this weird space we’re in?” she’d asked. I found it hard to move on to new work even though I had lots of ideas percolating — stories, essays even another novel, and so did my friend. We were in that hard to name place of finishing something big and desperately wanting to let go and move on but being completely unable to. “We’re not writing but we’re not…not writing,” she said. And I had agreed. “Exactly. We’re in the space between.”
I had grown as fond of the characters from my novel as if they were quirky family members who came for a holiday visit and wouldn’t leave. The precocious ten-year-old birder who disappeared from a Gap store. Her self-destructive mother who obsessively collected junk thinking it was clues to her daughter’s whereabouts. Moving on to something new felt a little like cheating on a lover. Or was I grieving these characters as if they were dead? Would moving forward mean admitting the book was over and maybe nothing would happen with it? The fear of rejection loomed large, and standing still, doing nothing was safe. I felt like I needed a twelve-step program to wean myself off the book I’d spent way too many years on.
Forcing the writing is never good. So I took a break from trying to move forward. That conversation with my friend lingered. “What do you call this weird space we’re in?” What do you call this uncomfortable hiatus? It couldn’t be exclusive to writers. Most artists must have the same feeling when they’ve come to the end of a painting, a musical composition, a sculpture, but have yet to launch into the next project. I wanted to explore this in between.
It felt to me like being on a ledge, with vast emptiness below my feet. It wasn’t a particularly pleasant place to be. It was a bit, I imagined, like withdrawal from a drug.
I remembered a poet I had met years ago at an artist colony who introduced me to the word interstice. She had shown me a photo she planned to use for the cover of her book of poems — rocks in a stream all touching but you could see the small spaces and gaps, the interstices, where the rocks didn’t touch. I looked the word up.
noun\in-ˈtər-stəs\: a small space that lies between things: a small break or gap in something.
Synonyms: interim, interlude, intermission, crack, chink, cleft, cranny, crevice, fissure, space.
These were all very good words but they weren’t the right ones for all the emotions I felt.
I Googled around, typing in phrases or odd combinations of words like: in between time, not writing, recess, and in this circuitous search found a quote from Isaac Stern who described music as “that little bit between each note – silences which give the form.” I was getting closer.
From there, I stumbled upon the Japanese word for negative space, ma. Via Wikipedia I found this definition:
In Japanese, ma, suggests a consciousness of place not in the sense of an enclosed three-dimensional entity, but rather the simultaneous awareness of form and non-form. It is the thing that takes place in the imagination of the human who experiences these elements. It is the experiential place understood with emphasis on interval.
The concept of ma spans everything from the void of an empty vessel to the dugout space of a canoe, from the whiteness between words on a page to the gaps in a conversation. The blank space of a painting. The silences during a play. Wonderful things can happen in this emptiness of space or time. My Google search also led me to this quote by environmental designer Lawrence Abraham: “In nothingness, ma enables.”
It was the perfect concept. The perfect word. That it happened to be my initials made it feel especially right. Leave it to the Japanese to have created a word so full of meaning for a subtle experience we Americans have no word for at all.
This place, this space, this ma, was my moment where I could breathe in, think deeply, enjoy the space between. I could take the blankness, the hole of fearful nothingness, and turn it into something profound and meaningful. A breath, a loosening, a pause. I could wonder what my characters, old ones and new, were up to now and let them be. I could mull over my ideas without picking up a pen or tapping on a keyboard.
I could get ready to write a piece about ma.