Friday, June 24, 2011

Writing in the Negative Space

We are honored to present the first in a series of guest blogs from the prestigious Vermont College of Fine Arts as part of a Blog Initiative “raising awareness for the exciting and innovative MFA writing programs offered at VCFA.” 

Today’s guest blogger is Sherry Shahan.
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). 

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 or you can visit


  1. Thank you Sherry, I love your examples. They are sticking in my head... (in a pleasant way) Purple Daze sounds like a book I want to read.

  2. I went to your blog and tried to click on Purple Haze, but it's not linked to a place where I can buy the book.

  3. Thank you Sherry for this fantastic food for thought. I love to write poetry, but never thought of using this form for storytelling.

  4. Whenever people are around me, they say, "you have a lot of negative space."
    Positive Spin

  5. Fascinating and oh my goodness 30 books. Wow! I've never tried writing poetry and I'm awe of those who write it so well.

    Children’s Author
    Write What Inspires You Blog
    The Golden Pathway Story book Blog

  6. Great article, Sherry. I particularly love the line: "Verse mirrors the pulse of adolescent life." It resonates with me partly because I wrote a lot of poetry as a kid.

    I think about the concept of negative space mostly when I paint. It's a wonderful idea to consider it when writing too.

    I'm really looking forward to hosting five VCFA articles -- Tuesdays in August -- on my blog: On Beyond Words & Pictures

  7. You all do a great job with this blog, Susan, and have super guests. Kudos.

  8. Fascinating - with a sense of raw power.

    Must read this book.

    Margot’s Magic Carpet
    Books With a WOW Factor

  9. Sherry--Thanks for wowing us here at P&I with your wonderful post about Negative Space. I must admit your post has blown my mind. I can see in your examples the truth of what you're saying. We're having another author interview coming up soon, Sonia Sonyes who also writes in verse. Stay tuned all!

  10. Ah, the 60s. I was 13 in 65 - memorable times.

    And, I agree with Megan; "Verse mirrors the pulse of adolescent life" is such a poignant line. I also wrote a lot of poetry in my teens - I guess that's an effective way for some teens to deal with their out-of-control emotions.

    Your book sounds very interesting!

  11. The collective way PURPLE DAZE is written sounds fascinating! And thank you for sharing about negative space.

  12. I am not an expert in poetry, but what a great technique to know. I really want to learn more now that it has been defined for me and see how elements of it can be part of my novel. I explore poetry in mine and what was amazing was the way it laid out... Thank you for sharing your knowledge with Pen and Ink. This is exciting stuff.

    Hilde of Pen and Ink.


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