It is December 1, 1941. A man sits alone at a table in a drinking establishment with a single glass and a bottle of booze. Swaths of light and shadow alternately sweep across his face. The camera zooms out and then a second man comes in, the establishment’s piano player, and he begins to play. After some lines of terse, tense dialogue, the first man slams his fist down on the table and says, “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.” The drinking establishment is Rick’s Café Américain, the two men are Rick and Sam, and the movie, of course, is Casablanca. You can watch this clip or any other of the myriad posted scenes from the movie here.
I love this movie. When I was a budding scientist on a research cruise to map the crustal structure beneath the island of Java, there was a crews’ lounge equipped with stacks of videos. Casablanca was among them, and I watched it so many times I could nearly recite the entire script by heart. Even now, every time I watch it, I get goose bumps, and I still believe it is one of the most brilliantly crafted movies ever made. The reason I say that can be summed up in two words: white space. I tell my fiction students that if they want to write brilliant fiction, they need to study Casablanca and learn from it how to write the white space. They just don’t make movies like this anymore.
Unlike most of today’s box office hits, movies that beat you senseless by flashing from one screen-filling and ear-splitting scene of exploding buildings and flying cars to another, Casablanca is quiet. You have to think about what is going on because most of the action and the story takes place between the lines. That is what I mean by “white space,” and I think the art of creating in that space is, sadly, one we are losing. As a culture, we seem to be living in super-size land. The term is commonly associated with many meals that end up on your plate and drinks you can buy in waxed cups large enough to swim laps in, but I think it also describes most fare in movies and—saddest of all—too many books. Why is it that so many titles lately take the approach that the reader must be hit over the head with graphic descriptions, plots that resemble TV reality shows in some alternate universe, and sappy, easy messages? Why do so many stories showcase grand, clever authorial tricks and sleights of hand for no other reason than to impress? Why does it seem so difficult to find a publisher willing to take a chance on a work that addresses those deeper and subtler themes that might cause a little discomfort on the part of the reader?
Perhaps I rant. Perhaps I am old fashioned, but I prefer a well-wrought piece based on the nuances of craft and plot, a story that takes your breath but does it quietly, almost without your knowing it. Let’s go back to that famous line in Casablanca: “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.” Such a simple line (well, there is the repetition and the cadence that elevate the line to poetry) and yet it contains within it enough back-story to knock you off your feet. A World War. Two people desperately in love who each thought they were lost to the other and now have found each other again. A resistance fighter who has come between them. A song that neither of them has listened to since the Germans invaded Paris in 1940 because the loss and the memories it evokes are too much to bear. “You played it for her, you can play it for me. If she can stand it, I can,” Rick says.
If you watch just about any scene in the movie closely, chances are, you will see it is what is not said rather than what is said—the silence that resonates between the spoken words—that gives the scene its power. Taken out of context, the lines could almost be cool, casual conversation, but the meaning behind them is hot enough to burn. In Wendy Richmond’s article “Contemplating White Space”, about an exhibit an at the Guggenheim in New York, she says, “As professionals in the arts, we learn about the ‘void’—more typically called ‘white space’—in Art 101. Whether the subject is architecture, two-dimensional art, film, dance or theater, we know that designing the empty space is as important as designing the content that surrounds it. But it’s not easy to allow emptiness. You have to defend it.”
It’s the same with writing. It is perhaps one of the most difficult aspects of craft to construct a story in the “void” and to let the juxtaposition between the text and the unspoken be the vessel that carries it. So how do we, as writers, approach white space? Sometimes, in my luckiest of writing moments a scene will come to me fully formed, its skeletal prose framing the page while the inner conflict resonates between the ribs, hums in the teeth, vibrates the bones of the fingers. But mostly, in my quotidian battles with the page, I construct a scene in all its detail and then begin subtracting until what is left is only what is necessary.
What this involves, I think, is making those necessary words pregnant with meaning and often with double meaning. One meaning—the easier one—forms the words, while the other—the more complex, difficult one—forms the white space. Again, as an exercise, look at any scene from Casablanca and count the number of double entendres and lines where the essence of the meaning remains in the silence. Another example, in fact the one that gave me the idea for this article, is Natasha Tretheway’s poem “Elegy,” which you can read here. The last line is so simple, and yet reading it, I felt cracked open by its true meaning.
You could also say that finding the white space is like sitting by the side of the creek and listening to the wind and the water. Perhaps what you first hear is the louder noise of the world—airplanes, a distant siren, someone’s radio playing too loud—but after a while, all that fades into chatter. After a while, it is the murmur and the whisper you are left with: the sound of the world. It’s been there all along, you just couldn’t hear it beneath the commotion.
Naomi Benaron earned an MFA from Antioch University and an MS in earth sciences from Scripps Institution of Oceanography. She teaches for UCLA Writers’ Program and is a mentor for the Afghan Women’s Writing Project. An advocate for African refugees in her community, she has worked extensively with genocide survivors. Her novel Running the Rift won the 2010 Bellwether Prize for a work addressing issues of social justice. She is also an Ironman triathlete.