Segmenting: This is What the Spaces Say ~ Robert Root

This is What the Spaces Say

Robert Root
(Conference on College Composition and Communication Presentation, March 15, 2001)

“Each person we meet, each place we visit, each event in our lives, and for that matter the universe itself in its far-flung glory, all confront us as bits of perception and memory, inklings and intuitions, and we seem compelled . . . to bind these scraps into a whole that makes sense.” (Scott Russell Sanders, “The Warehouse and the Wilderness,” Unpublished Essay: 5)

Beyond an expanding recognition of nonfiction as a literary genre, the most significant change in the nature of nonfiction in our time has been the use of space as an element of composition. Most literary journals and mainstream publications regularly published segmented essays—and consequently so do many composition readers, although only few textbooks display any awareness of the form. Segmented essays—sometimes called collage essays or disjunctive essays or paratactic essays—depend on space, usually expressed as numbers or rows of asterisks or squiggly lines or white breaks in text, as a fundamental element of design and expression. Knowing what the spaces say is vital for understanding the nonfictionist’s craft and appreciating the possibilities of this contemporary form; it also helps us to better understand the nature of truth in the segmented essay.

* * *

The segmented essay is like an oratorio or a concerto. The spaces are like the intervals of silence between the separate elements. Sometimes the segments of prose in an essay can be recitative, aria, duet or trio, chorus; they can be allegro non troppo, allegro appassionato, andante, allegretto grazioso. This is what the spaces say: In this interval of silence hold onto what you have just heard; prepare yourself to hear something different; ponder the ways these separatenesses are part of a whole. Like musical compositions, nonfiction need not be one uninterrupted melody, one movement, but can also be the arrangement of distinct and discrete miniatures, changes of tempo, sonority, melody, separated by silences. This is what the spaces say.

* * *

The segmented essay is like a medieval altarpiece, composed of discrete panels that create a series of balances and juxtapositions rather than one continuous, unified image. Think of a triptych like Hieronymus Bosch’s three part masterpiece, The Garden of Earthly Delights [see fig.1, below], with its large central section displaying “The World before Noah,” one side panel depicting “The Marriage of Adam and Eve,” the other depicting “Hell.” Think of a polyptych like Jan Van Eyck’s twenty-part masterpiece, The Ghent Altarpiece [see fig.2, below], which can be displayed opened or closed, its pairs of parallel panels widely separated, each panel framed and bordered, all set off starkly from one another. Sometimes the segments of prose in an essay can be figure studies, landscapes, allegories, separated pairs of portraits, images of context and consequence thematically linked to a central scene.

This is what the spaces say: Stand up close and ponder each image on its own; stand further back and connect each panel to another panel that completes it as a pair or contrasts with it as an opposite; encompass all of it, remaining always aware of the borders and the individual panels but inviting an impression of the whole through its parts. Like a polyptych painting, nonfiction need not be one self-contained and harmonious picture but can also be an arrangement of separate images, a retable or reredos of scenes and portraits collectively viewed but separated by borders and frames. This is what the spaces say.

* * *

The spaces in a segmented essay are like the blackouts between scenes in a motion picture, like the fade-out/fade-in, the imageless transition between disparate sequences of images, the slow dissolve that introduces a flashback, the crosscutting to parallel events. The spaces in a segmented essay are like the silences between songs on a recording, the use of emptiness in photographs to highlight or foreground images, the time lapse between two hyperlinks on a website, the time it takes to shift focus from one facet of a multi-faceted object to another, the breaks between poems in a sonnet sequence. We learn what we learn, we know what we know, we experience what we live in segments and sections, fragments, moments, movements, periods, disjunctions and juxtapositions. This is what the spaces say.

* * *

The issue of truth, which seldom surfaces in other literary genres, perplexes nonfictionists. We begin in reality, in the hope of achieving some better understanding of the actual through writing. The inventions and manipulations of character and plot that are the hallmark of the novelist’s creativity are the barriers of the nonfictionist’s psychology; the willingness to settle for the fictionist’s “higher truth through fabrication” negates the nonfictionist’s chances of even visiting the vicinity of the kind of earthbound and actual truth that is nonfiction’s special province. The truth is hard to know, and it’s hard, ultimately, to explain, perhaps especially about our own lives, what we experience as participants, what we observe as spectators.

In a segmented essay the truth may come in bursts, in the segments of prose that are the visible text. The segmented essay is not all continuous argument, all evidence and explanation; instead, it’s a combination of pause and epiphany, silence and revelation, emptiness and edifice. This is what the spaces say: arrange the viewing of the panels so that you see their relationships in the juxtapositions rather than in a unified unbroken whole; linger your thoughts on the melody just ended before you hear the one about to begin; expect to know whatever this essay is about in the same way you know anything else, in fragments of certainty and segments of supposition, surrounded by gaps in your knowledge and borders of uncertainty. You need not fill every bit of space in order to say that you know enough; you need not write unsegmented prose in order for what you write to be truth enough. This is what the spaces say.



“The oak panels which make up the Ghent Altarpiece polyptych are housed in the Bavo Cathedral in Ghent, Belgium. Artist Hubert van Eyck began painting in the early 1420s, but died before the altarpiece was completed. Hubert’s brother, Jan van Eyck, completed the work in 1432. When the six-hinged polyptych is fully opened, the panels measure 12 feet high and 17 feet wide and depict the biblical story of the redemption of Man.”  ~ from Queen’s Alumni Review
2011 Issue #1


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