Thursday, April 7

Posted by Laurel Garver on Thursday, April 07, 2011 16 comments
While washing my hands at work, I realized my left hand looked a little strange. Naked. The spot where my engagement ring and wedding band usually sit was empty. Stranger still, the now-exposed skin was shiny with scar tissue. The finger seemed atrophied below the knuckle, slimmer than its neighbors. Over a decade of ring wearing had left its mark.

I'll return the rings to their rightful spot this afternoon; my dry skin is better today. Seeing that strange indentation and scarring got me thinking. Long habits mark us, and absence can become as palpable as presence.

A powerful way to portray a character might indeed involve showing the traces of what is not there. Virginia Woolf ends Jacob's Room with a pair of empty shoes, a powerful image of loss in wartime. Artist Sophie Calle photographed places in Berlin where the traces of its communist history had been effaced. Her book Detachment: A Berlin Travel Guide catalogs those images, as well as remembrances--real and imagined--from those who pass by the spots where monuments of the GDR (East Germany) once stood.

Where have you seen in books or life the traces of what is not there? Have you used this idea in your own work? Where might this idea deepen one of your characterizations?

This is a repost from December 2009


  1. I'm not sure. I"ll have to start looking out for it now though. good thoughts.

  2. I can't think of anything at the moment, though I'm sure I've come across it in my reading, just wasn't aware. Good thing to keep a look-out for, thanks.

  3. This is a great idea. I haven't tried it yet. My mc was forced to give up an activity she loved, but it left an emotional hole in her. There wasn't anything physical missing.

    Nope, never heard of the books before.

  4. Excellent reminder! I'm going to meditate on this one as I enter into the edits for novel #2.

  5. Wow. Deep thoughts. Now this will be stuck in my head all day! :-)

  6. Hi Laurel -

    As a widow, I can relate to absence. I'm no longer wearing my rings. Many other things come to mind.

    Thank you for giving me some ideas on how to use painful losses in my writing.


  7. Oooh, yeah! My book is about mourning, and there was a line in there about the MC avoiding looking at "even the spaces she should have filled." That's what I was trying to get at--what you just said about emptiness.

  8. Great thought on characterization. We are always talking about their attributes and personalities but not enough about what isn't there. And great lead in BTW!

  9. This post brought to mind my losses too-- my dad, whose death took away the sense of safety that kept me in a bad marriage. (I know, heavy.)

    Thanks for the post-- very thoughtful.

  10. Laura: It's not a concept for every story, but might be useful for some.

    Bish: Stories that deal with loss of some kind, even just a friend moving away, will draw on this idea.

    Stina: Giving up that activity might be something she'll continue to feel in muscle memory, even it there's no unused equipment around.

  11. Rosslyn: Those small traces can be an economical way to gesture toward a history without telling the whole story.

    Shannon: Little ghosts everywhere, right?

    Susan: even positive changes--like Berlin being free of communism--can leave traces like this.

  12. Jenn: Exactly. It can be much harder to see a lost loved one's usual hang-out than, say, his headstone.

    Josh: This is a way to gesture toward a history without necessarily telling all the details.

    Perri: Parents mark us in ways that others don't--traces remain in all sorts of places after we lose them.

  13. Great thoughts! I'll have to think about this one as I plot my new novel.

  14. OOOH! I never heard of this device before, but what potential! I'd say more but my brain just got sidetracked with brainstroming!

  15. Sent from Stina and this post, especially the shoes in Virginia Woolf, and Stina's comment gave me a brainwave about how to show my MC has lapsed in her hobby. Thanks!
    - Sophia.

  16. Susan: it can be a subtle way to layer in character history.

    Margo: How exciting to see a fellow writer's lightbulb suddenly glow! have fun brainstorming.

    Sophia: Thanks for stopping by! Isn't it cool when we inspire one another? Have a great weekend and happy writing.