White space.

I’m finding less language-free time these days, and I’m worried about it. I blame my iPhone, and universal wifi zones. It used to be that times of transition – sitting on the streetcar, waiting in the grocery line – were places where ideas would come to me most often. But now I check my Instagram feed whenever I have a spare moment.

I’ve been asking people lately about their writing practice, and I see that I’m not the only one who is suffering from distraction overload and thought burnout. I spoke to a writer who admitted with sadness that she fears she’s getting “dumber” as she gets older, that her sentences aren’t as textured as they used to be. A poet confessed that she is finding it difficult to focus when reading dense prose, and the essays she used to love. We’re writers! If we can’t write and read and focus, who can? Why are our brains so tired?

We are suffering from a lack of white space.

White space: time spent doing nothing. Staring into space. Watching steam from your teacup, watching waves lap at the shore, listening to the wind through tree branches.

Are you smirking right now? Time spent staring into space! Listening to wind! Waves lapping at the shore!

I’m deeply serious. When was the last time you gave yourself time to practice looking? When was the simple and undistracted act of seeing your main focus? (Note: watching the cat playing piano on YouTube does not count.)

It’s going to be very difficult to drop in to the state of mind you need for writing if you haven’t experienced any true blankness for at least a week (or longer). How can you have that gorgeous, rich feeling of having images come to you as you write, if you haven’t given your mind any time or space for insight?

When Hannah and I got together to discuss and schedule our digital offerings and projects for the year, wise Hannah proclaimed “white space” as she whittled down my ambitious to-do list. It was my first introduction to the term in this way. I love it. I used to call blankness “moodling” (a term borrowed from Brenda Uleland) but I like white space even better. And I have learned the hard way that if I don’t put it in my calendar, it won’t happen.

In a short story, a white space is placed between scenes to signal a moment of reflection. It’s there to give you a moment to digest the scene that just finished, and it often makes that last sentence before the space ring out with effect. You can linger there as long as you like to make some sense of what you just read.

The white space lets you linger so you can experience what just happened.

See the curve of that ladle as it poured out the tomato soup. Stay there: really see it. Listen to the man in the store say “Let it go,” and stay in the scene for a moment. Listen to him say it again, before you move on to the next scene. Hear the nuance in the phrase. The white space in a story gives you permission to experience a moment.

Do you have any white space in your life?

We will not be able to write well if we don’t have it. And it’s harder than ever to find it naturally right now. We must make it. Our hungry devices will take all of our white space from our days, if we let them.





ps: Here are two helpful tools I use to create white space in my day.

iPhones have a Do Not Disturb function in the settings now. You can automatically set your phone to regularly leave you alone during whatever times you like. I love it because once I set it, I can stop thinking about it – it’s scheduled every day, so it’s thought free, decision-free.

Freedom is software you use to schedule your daily Internet-free writing time (if you are using your computer for writing). It locks you out of the Internet for as long as you want, so you can work on your document without the temptation to check your inbox, get that one email out, or tell Facebook what you’re working on. Plus, all the cool kids use it: Zadie Smith, Miranda July, and Dave Eggers are all on Freedom.

What else works? How do you protect your time? In the comments, please share any links, tools or advice you use. Let this be a repository for writers who want to create white space.

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Beth Follett says:

I use a number of different tools to protect my writing, tools that range from the elaborate to the simple. 1. I go on a 10-day Vipassana retreat at least once a year, ten days spent in community in noble silence, as it is called in the practice. 2. I do not own and am committed to not owning a cell or iPhone. Sometimes I turn off the ringer of the line phone in my office. I do not feel obligated to respond to every stimulus. Nothing is urgent. Nothing. 3. When the world is too much with me (and I will know it if my mood begins to turn negative, grey, if cup-half-empty thoughts start revving up), I rest. I stop what I am doing and lie down for at least 30 minutes in a fetal-like pose, observing the speed and content of my thoughts, memories, fantasies. 4. I ask my household to respect these things I employ for self-care, without judgement.

It is hard to be an authentic individual in a culture that whispers relentlessly its messages about how to be. If you don’t think this is true, or if you think it is easy to be authentic in culture, I believe you have yet to try turning culture off for extended periods of time.

Sarah Selecky says:

Thank you, Beth. I completely agree. I take timeouts, too – I lie down on the floor and stare at the ceiling.

Paul says:

IA Writer (for macs, ipads, iphones) is the best writing app I’ve ever used because it’s all about whitespace. In full-screen mode it’s just text—there’s no formatting, no options, no colour picking, no font picking. All you can do is write. Coupled with turning on airplane mode, it’s the best tool I’ve found to get writing done without distraction.

Sarah Selecky says:

Wow – thank you, Paul. Here it is: http://www.iawriter.com

I write with http://www.ommwriter.com, which has options for ambient colour + sound, but IA is truly a minimalist’s dream.

Lisa King says:

It’s not just about writing time though is it? It’s the pre-requisite to writing. The unfolding that happens before any “making” muscle engages. It’s watching.

Reading a biography of Faulkner, I was set to ringing by the way so many people described him as lazy: always sitting around staring off into space. Oh, I thought. Oh! I know that space, that loam. Would I had the courage to be as committed to it as Faulkner was.

Small injections of meditation help a lot, but mostly, I get up at least an hour before anything is required of me. I sit at the kitchen window. Only that. I pour my tea and I occupy that space. Sometimes, when life has gotten really really active and noisy, I will take a weekend day and I will sit at that window until it all runs clear. Delicious.

Sarah Selecky says:

Lisa, I love how you said this: “I pour my tea and I occupy that space.” Me too. I also get up early so I can have absolutely nothing to do for about an hour each day.

I have this new loose tea that has gold balls in it that dissolve and shimmer when you pour hot water over them. So lately I’ve taken to staring into my cup of tea instead of out the window.

Stephen D. Forman says:

Small injections of medication?

Hey, whatever works…

Kristin says:

I call my blog White Space, the one I never update. My intention was to think about my writing and creativity as needing plenty of open space mentally, physically, emotionally to thrive.

Ironically, I didn’t write much for a very long time. Too much white space?

For me it is really tough to disconnect and find that space on a regular basis. Freewriting is a bit of white space for me, as is showering and driving (I know I’m not alone in getting great ideas in the midst of shaving my legs!)

One of my intentions for 2013 is to write more often, drift more often, and find more quiet moments to just observe life. And enjoy life! Which I think just makes one’s writing that much better.

P.S. Totally love the Freedom program!

Sarah Selecky says:

Your blog is *called* White Space! Oh!

I find it very challenging to create white space when my computer is even in my field of vision. There’s one room in our house where computers aren’t allowed: not coincidentally, this is my favourite place to drift.

Sarah, I love this. You really hit the nail on the head here, and this is something I’ve been seriously thinking about as well.

The other day I was in Prospect Park taking pictures of the frozen lake, and it was so cold my phone stopped working and shut itself off (that’s my theory, anyway). All of a sudden my music was gone, my connection to the outside world was gone, and it was just me, ice, and silence. It made me uncomfortable at first – not just because I was alone in a Brooklyn park at dusk in 19 degree weather, but because the silence was so LOUD! I realized it had been so long since I’d really heard it. I stood there for an additional 20 minutes or so in the freezing cold, just so soak it in. It was very beautiful and intimate and clandestine all at the same time.

So now I’ve started switching my music & phone off on my walks, on the subway, etc. It makes my head so much clearer. As Depêche Mode says – Enjoy the Silence.

As for me, I’m obsessed with Ommwriter right now, but I’m definitely going to download Freedom. It’s something I definitely need. Thank you! Love. :)

Sarah Selecky says:

Thank you Hillary! Okay, there’s a story by Kevin Brockmeier in Best American Short Stories 2008 (ed Salmon Rushdie) called “The Year of Silence” – read it. I think you will love it.

Deana Driver says:

Thanks for the comments on the need to keep ‘white space’ in our lives, whether we’re writers or not. Having just returned from a two-week vacation, it was wonderful to check emails only once every few days from the hotel’s computer and to disconnect completely from social media and the other distractions of everyday work life.

As a writer of non-fiction who works at home and as a mom and grandma, I impose ‘time-outs’ on myself in which I turn off the phone (with all its email access and other instant connections) and walk away from the computer for at least a small period of time every day. Sadly, sometimes these time-outs don’t occur until late at night when the rest of the world is sleeping, but we take our creative thinking time whenever we can get it, don’t we? When I’m working on a project, especially to a deadline, I purposely ignore emails, Tweets and other distractions for most of the day, checking only in the morning, at noon and mid-afternoon or evening. Unless I’m on a roll with the writing – then who cares about anything else?

Sarah Selecky says:

Deana, so true – when you’re in the zone with a writing project, email can become much less distracting. Writing begets writing, right? Especially when there’s a deadline to help.

Marie Nicole says:

As a child I suffered from insomnia. It was insane and maddening. I invented a highly patented technique ;) involving white walls. I would paint my head-room white, add a white wall, then another and another until all the objects from my white room were outside the walls. Once the walls were solid and holding I’d grow them to fill my head-room, which being white created a vast white space in my head. Then I could finally sleep. Without knowing it, at the age of 5 I invented a zen practice.

White space is essential to writing. In today’s social media loaded world, white space is nearly impossible to achieve which is why I love your prompt writing strategy to write in a notebook non stop for 10 minutes. So simply brilliant!

Thanks for this, Sarah! One of the advantages of living in a small town and being a stay-at-home-mom is that I actually have no need for a cell phone. When I see how much time my husband spends on his phone, I’m thankful I have no use for one.

That said, I’m on my laptop way too much. I’m at my best when I set a strict daily time limit for my online work.

Between the kids and everything else, I rarely get time to stop and breathe. But thanks for the reminder!

Erica says:

Sarah, one of your writing prompts helped me find ‘white space’. I don’t remember the exact wording but it was something along the lines of “No multi-tasking: try this for a week and see what happens.”

I tried it for that week and I’ve kept doing it as much as I can. One of the biggest things is not reading while I am eating, which I used to do. Now when I eat breakfast, lunch and dinner, I have a few minutes of white space built in where I can focus on tasting my food, looking out the window, thinking about my characters, pondering life, or just being still. It’s so simple, but it really has made a difference!

Karen S. says:

Love this idea, Sarah! I am excited to experiment with white space in my life as I have had some anxiety that I cannot concentrate on details or retain information as well as I used to. My busy brain feels soothed already!

Stephen D. Forman says:

Really enjoying everyone’s contributions! On the advice of many, I’ve just downloaded Freedom– can’t wait to try it ou

Stephen D. Forman says:

Today I incorporated “Freedom” into my writing regimen to great effect! First I spent an hour on a column for work, then I re-upped for another 30-mins on SSM. Good little product.

I only fear my sense of humor may not be understood within my lifetime. Do I really have to make my punchlines so obv

Katurah says:

I have also found preserving this space integral to both my writing and my personal sanity. I find it by getting out into nature for long, uninterrupted walks about once a week, and by scheduling two or three smaller chunks of time each week. There is no substitute for nothing, after all.

Sophie says:

Now that spring has sprung I am back to walking to work every day, at least one way. It’s 35 minutes of uncluttered thinking, breathing, watching, moving time and I find I am much healthier — in body, mind, soul and spirit — for it. Yes, it takes time. But it’s time I can’t live without.

jackie says:

I am obsessed with looking at my computer – iPhone and it has become very difficult for me to give these up. I look at Facebook etc. waste so much time watching cats jumping into water etc. all that time I could be spent writing. It is like a drug and very hard to cure. Thank you for all your comments and wise wisdom Sarah.

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