The Book I Didn’t Write (or In Praise of Negative Space)

negative space

For six months and tens of thousands of words, I thought that my second book would be about faith home.

I thought it would be about soil and suburbs and the small, important work of settling into your own life. I imagined I’d write out the slow process of building around you some healthier, sturdier kind of faith, and in doing so, I would figure it out myself.

I read a memoir, once, by a woman who healed from her divorce by recreating and redesigning her home. Around the House and in the Garden, it was called. And I found it beautiful and powerful – the ways that those overstuffed chairs and rugs and bookshelves became outward manifestations of deep internal growth and change.

I guess it stuck with me, because this is what I was thinking about when I slogged out a proposal for that second book.

I had just released When We Were on Fire – a memoir deconstructing the faith of my adolescence. It felt like I’d spent the last several years pounding madly at crumbling drywall, taking the whole thing down. There I stood, covered in the dust of it, surrounded by the rubble, aching to build something new.

I started to write about home.

I wrote about our house search, which began in the tiny community of Taylor’s Falls, Minnesota and then looped crazily through Minneapolis and its Northern suburbs. I wrote about our odd, glassy-eyed realtor and about all the lives I imagined I’d have in all of those homes we walked through.

I wrote thousands of words about the home we finally found – this 1980s suburban home with the pond opening up behind it like a hidden gift. I checked out books from the library on place and home, on the history of the suburbs, on the psychology of home design.

I went so far as to go down to the Anoka County Historical Society to look at old maps of our neighborhood, our suburb back when it was gravel roads and a Christmas tree farm. I learned the name of the soil: loamy fine sand. I’d never heard the word loamy before then, but I liked the way it felt in my mouth.

I wrote and I wrote and I wrote, and I tried to ignore the fact that it wasn’t working. That nothing about this book was working.

The most beautiful part of memoir writing, for me, has always been the way that peering back into the ordinary moments of your life reveals hidden treasures and themes, and that as you write it, you begin to see how the seemingly disparate parts of your life were always connected.

I wanted my work of suburban homemaking to connect to something true and lovely about faith. And I think it probably does. But no matter how hard I tried, how many pages I wrote that winter, I couldn’t find the connecting point.

During a meeting with my writing group later that spring, I burst into tears, confessing that it wasn’t working, that none of it was working. I had only a few months until my first book deadline, and I had pages and pages that would never, it felt, add up to a book – at least not the one I had hoped to write.

And the consensus that night, spoken gently and ringing devastatingly true to my ear was this: Maybe this is not your work right now.

This might be a crazy idea, one of the women said. But have you thought about writing about your road trip? It seems like there was something urgent and important about that.

*

I’m heading to the Festival of Faith and Writing in Grand Rapids tomorrow morning, and so I’ve been thinking this week a lot about writing and process and the mysterious work of creativity.

I’ve been thinking about all of those months that I spent writing something that didn’t end up being the thing. All those words filed on my computer in a folder called “Book 2 – Take 1.” Is there a purpose in this idling work? In creative output that doesn’t seem to land anywhere in particular?

It’s a question about my work, but it’s also a question about my life and about its meaning. What I want to know is this: Is all this work wasted?

Does this matter too?

*

In art, there is a concept called negative space the empty space around and between the subjects of a piece of art. Negative space is important in that it helps to define the boundaries of what is actually there. It brings balance.

I’ve started to think about that first take on the book as a kind of weighted, negative space in my book and in my life. I started to write about faith home and instead found myself running away. I tried to rebuild my deconstructed faith, but as I did, my foot punched through a rotted floorboard that had to do with feeling God…one that I didn’t know was still there.

What started as an attempt to rebuild turned into a journey toward making peace with the empty space that remains when your old ways of believing fall flat.

And this matters.

It matters how we get to the place where we end up. The roads we started to take and then didn’t – these add to the story, and I believe that because God is a God of abundance, of excess, of plenty, not one of these rabbit rails are wasted.

Maybe someday I’ll write a book about faith home. Maybe not. But for now, it is there and not there. It’s the negative space, the invisible stitching at the back of the garment.

You can’t see it, but it was a gift. It is not wasted. It holds so much together.

24 thoughts on “The Book I Didn’t Write (or In Praise of Negative Space)

  1. this is beautiful, Addie. I have been so moved by your gift with words and your willingness to share the vulnerable, broken places of your heart. thank you.

  2. I remember that writing group meeting. I remember Anna making that suggestion. I’m so glad your heart was open enough to listen. Night Driving is a masterpiece.

  3. This so reminds me of my favourite passage from The Little Prince, about how wasting time on something is what makes something so precious:
    “‘To tame’ means to establish ties. To me, you are still nothing more than a little boy who is just like a hundred thousand other little boys. And I have no need of you. And you, on your part, have no need of me. To you I am nothing more than a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But if you tame me, then we shall need each other [and] shall be unique in all the world. People have forgotten this truth, but you mustn’t forget it. You become responsible forever for what you’ve tamed. You’re responsible for your rose. It is the time you have wasted for your rose that makes your rose so important.”

  4. 1. I love Night Driving. It was so great.

    2. I love this idea of negative space. It lends credence to the fact that even though I used to see only the vibrant colors and shapes of faith, during this part of my life, where I mostly see the emptiness between them, maybe I’m still seeing part of the whole.

    Hmm. This is just the tiniest spark of an idea in my mind, but it feels like it has the potential to become revolutionary.

    1. Thank you Janice. So glad you loved the book, and love that the idea of negative space is helping you make connections. It was kind of an epiphany for me too…though I still need to do lots of thinking about it.

  5. This is so good. I love that you knew. You knew it wasn’t working. In my own life, people keep asking when I will write a book (not because I have a particularly engaging story, mind. Because that’s what you’re supposed to do when you have a journalism degree, apparently. Write things. Who knew. haha) but I don’t feel like I’ve lived my book yet. I have things I would say, but not a story. Not yet. It’s still being written into my life. Still being lived. Maybe that’s what your journey home, feeling at home in your faith, will look like. (*shrug)

    1. An author friend of mine, at age 45, was once asked why he didn’t write his latest novel when he was 25. (Weird question, yes.) He said, “I didn’t write it at 25 because I didn’t KNOW it at 25.” So I love the idea of not having lived one’s book yet.

  6. “The roads we started to take and then didn’t – these add to the story,
    and I believe that because God is a God of abundance, of excess, of
    plenty, not one of these rabbit rails are wasted.” This is one of the giant lessons I’ve been learning over the past five years or so. It is a beautiful lesson, and very, very hard. I love that it’s true.

  7. “The most beautiful part of memoir writing, for me, has always been the way that peering back into the ordinary moments of your life reveals hidden treasures and themes, and that as you write it, you begin to see how the seemingly disparate parts of your life were always connected.” << YES. Thank you. This is what I'm learning as I'm neck deep in memoir revisions, and I'm blown away by all the hidden themes and connections. It's therapeutic, isn't it?

  8. I’m a little late to this party (blog), but have had it rumbling around in my brain for awhile. Your tale of the writings that didn’t become a book or THE book reminded me so much of the pain I felt reading “Go Set a Watchman” by Harper Lee. Hands down one of my top ten favorite books of all time is “To Kill A Mockingbird.” I’m not sure anymore how many times I have read it. When “Go Set A Watchman” was released, I hesitated to read it because there was all this controversy surrounding it. It was not Harper Lee’s choice to publish it. It was simply her first attempt at writing a novel. It was the draft of a book she wrote before “To Kill A Mockingbird” (even though it takes place after that book) and she felt it was not THE book, so she set it aside to write her (truly) great American novel. All I could think about while I read the “Watchman” book was, “This isn’t right. This is not the book Ms. Lee intended for us to read.” I could see why she set it aside and started over. The result of that action was strikingly, breathtakingly wonderful. I’m glad she wrote the first one simply because it led her to write THE book. And maybe that is true for you as well. I have loved both of your books. I’m pretty sure a book about suburban life in Minnesota would not have been able to touch nearly as many people as what you had published did. At least not now. What I know for sure is that if you ever do go back to those set-aside writings about “faith home,” the end result we be something totally different than you originally intended. But even if Book 2 Take 1 never sees the light of day again, it let you to write the book that did.

    1. I love this note Pam. I haven’t read Go Set a Watchman, mostly because I have the same sense that something precious was taken from Harper Lee as an author when they published that manuscript — the freedom to start over. To take the book that you thought you were writing and let it lead you to the words you were meant to write. Thanks for the encouragement and the kid words…and for reading.

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