Different voices and chocolate cake
Where did the week go?

The spaces between

Apparently someone once said to Artur Rubinstein that he was a great pianist. He replied that, actually, he didn't play the notes any better than anyone else: what he played better than anyone was the spaces between the notes.

It's sort-of obvious that a very plain, bare narrative - what one might loosely and irritatingly call Hemingway-style - apparently using as few words as possible, works as much by what's not said, as by what is. From that realisation it's not so far to realise that much of such a story's power is in what the reader finds in - or puts into? - the spaces between the words. We may not even be aware we're finding anything, and what we're lured into putting there may not be the details of how people feel or places look, a sophisticated structure of ideas or series of events. It might be nothing more than a sense of import, a hyper-sensitivity, a skinned-ness that's beyond words or even thought.

It's less obvious that rich, baroque, lavish writing also operates in the spaces. Why look for spaces, for what's not there, when the words are piled high, the scents and sights and sounds lap round us, the ideas tumble over themselves and each other? But what happens between these kinds of notes is important too. Perhaps it helps to think of 'between' in the other sense, as we talk of a love scene played between two people: 'between' meaning 'shared', 'joint', the friction between things that makes sparks or flames or new gloss, or irreversible damage.

Of course what goes on between the words is conditioned by the words that surround them as well as by who's doing the reading, but that's not just a statement of the bleedin' obvious: it pinpoints the separate but mutually dependent nature of the two: word-and-silence operate as a pair just as writer-and-reader do. Anyone who doesn't believe me should listen to three or four different performances of, say, the same Chopin nocturne. I think this is something that novelists who are also poets, with their hyper-sensitivity to all the other things that words do beyond conveying information, often understand better than the rest of us writers. I've been reading the poet Tobias Hill's novel The Love of Stones and I'm still trying to work out where the wonderful richness of the worlds he creates comes from, because when you look at the individual words and sentences they're as simple and precise as a needle.

So can I, as a writer, shape the spaces between the words? Of course: they're my words and my spaces. What I can't shape is what you find in them, but that's all right. It's what each finds for him or herself that makes a text come alive and become a story, because in the end it's only our own experience which is truly alive to us, and it's that we invest in what we read. As a writer, I offer you the spaces as well as the words, and ask you to make them breathe.

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