Spaces between words

Marc Davis

Marc Davis

The good conversations are always the impractical ones, I’ve discovered. Either I do a focussed interview of somebody and I end up with the right quotes and facts in my notebook, ready to write a story. Or I … have fun. The notebook winds up chaotic, but I end up thinking about all sorts of interesting things.

My lunch on Friday with Marc Davis, Yahoo’s “social media guru” was a good conversation. Yes, we dutifully got around to talking about how technology might a) make all people permanent producers of “content” (photos, text, video) and b) connect them socially. But first we indulged ourselves with the fun stuff.

Marc, it turns out, is a student of words. He studied at the University of Konstanz with Wolfgang Iser, author of such works as Der Akt des Lesens (The Act of Reading). We talked a lot about what communication is and whether it is even possible.

It is possible, of course, but there is an arbitrary dimension to it. A spews out words (in text, audio or video, or in person) and perhaps other gestures. B receives them and does something with them (or not). (Mis)communication happens somewhere between A and B.

As Marc puts it, it happens in “the spaces between words.” A has to say the words, but B has to put something into those spaces.

This immediately reminded me of my drawing and painting classes in college. “Look at the negative spaces,” my teacher kept saying. He meant: Don’t just draw the leg and hip and waist and so forth. Look at the shape of the empty space surrounding them. And it’s true. If you draw the empty space it’s always a better drawing.

The spaces between words are a little different, of course. They are for somebody else to fill in. So the skilled writer/storyteller/communicator uses words in such a way as to create empty spaces for the other person’s imagination and projection. The writer cannot control what the other persons puts in there, but can shape the space.

That is really difficult. It takes the second secret of good writing, ie empathy, to do it well.

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