Messing With Mr. In-Between
Toward the end of World War Two everyone was humming or singing Johnny Mercer’s new song, “Ac-cent-tchu-ate The Positive” popularized by Bing Crosby in a movie called “Here Come the Waves.” The song was catchy and up-beat and just what people wanted to hear. I still remember the chorus:
You’ve got to accentuate the positive,
Eliminate the negative,
Latch on to the affirmative
Don’t mess with Mr. In Between
I’ve been thinking about those words these last few days. I’ve come to a point in my current writing project that I have to start eliminating – not the negatives, necessarily, but certainly the superfluous. As with my book Dear Medora, my current work involves a plethora of material. Culling and honing is one of the hardest parts of writing for me, especially when it involves the words of other people.
In this case, the book will be based not only on family words – on correspondence and memoir – but, more specifically, on my best-selling-author-uncle Willard’s words, both published and unpublished. It’s hard for me to eliminate any of them. I want to accentuate them all. However, I know better.
Painters and photographers sometimes speak of “negative space.” They know that the absence of content doesn’t mean the absence of interest. In fact, negative space often adds interest by placing stronger emphasis on the subject. Sometimes, though, negative space depends upon the viewer.
I have a painting called “The Cyclist” by my friend Al Barela. It was done in the 1960s during the popular California “hard edge” movement and Al, a professor at San Francisco State College, was in the thick of it. Over the years, many people have admired “The Cyclist” and many others have admired the birds.
“What birds?” I asked the first time they were mentioned. And then I realized that they were looking not at the bright stripes of the positive space, but at the black negative space. Some folks actually needed a bit of coaching to see the cyclist image.
In writing, negative space means eliminating detail without losing depth. The platitude writers are given is “just write what moves the story along.” And therein lies the difficulty. In a painting, it’s possible to see the negative space. In a conversation, you can hear those meaningful silences. With the written word, the reader can neither see nor hear the negative space. It’s up to the writer to decide which is the positive, which the negative, and which the in-between.
It’s nice to be able to hum along with Bing as I try to work it out…