Writers Must Harness the Power of Ma — The Emptiness Between Words

Once you get rolling on a good bit of writing, you don’t want to stop. After all, the more you create, the better your end product will be, right? However, you might just be what the Japanese call a manuke, or fool. This is a person without the awareness of ma — a philosophy that cherishes the space between things. In order to writer better, writers must harness the power of ma.

Ma: Everything Equals Nothing

If we have all of something, then we have none of it. If there were no space, or emptiness around a tree, then everything would be tree. There would be nothing that was not a tree. The same goes for music. Play one note, forever, with no pauses and you just have noise. But sprinkle in gaps and you get music and a beat. 

The concept of Ma is integrated into the very word used to write it. The kanji symbol starts with the symbol for door or gate 門. Yet as the gates swings open, we can see between the doors to the space beyond. The Japanese place the kanji for sun 日 there to form Ma 間. Thus the sunlight peaks between the gates. 

The Ma of Architecture: Creating Space

In traditional Japanese architecture, ma takes the form of negative space, a place where things are not. By creating open spaces, architects can give people room to breathe, to move, and to contemplate their surroundings.

The philosophy of ma isn’t simply to tidy things up Marie Kondo-style. Instead its a physical manifestation of the concept of emptiness. They create a recessed alcove called toko-no-ma. It’s a place where one can meditate on the beauty of the natural world or contemplate the fleeting nature of existence while sipping green tea and munching on rice crackers.

The Ma of Writing: The Pause Between Words

In writing, we can use ma give emphasis to moments we do create. If we simply churn out words, all we have is a stack of papers. By pausing between bouts of writing, it gives our brain time to appreciate what we have created. It generates a sense of tension and release. Often in these moments of not-writing, our brains will surprise us with new ideas. 

It’s very similar to how a martial artist can use ma to anticipate an opponent’s movements. They focus on the space between themselves and their opponent. By becoming aware of the ma between them, the martial artist can predict and respond to their opponent’s movements, creating an advantage in combat.

Writing a story is littered with opposition and conflict. Not the kind you generate for your characters, but the struggles you overcome to get the right words on the page. By being aware of the ma (the pauses in writing) we can better anticipate and respond to our story and characters. 

The Manuke: Without Ma

On the other hand, the Japanese concept of manuke refers to a person who lacks ma or is without ma. It can be translated as “fool” or “simpleton.” A manuke is someone who is unaware of the spaces between things, both physical and abstract. They may miss important details or fail to appreciate the beauty of the world around them. 

Yet, being a manuke is not necessarily a negative thing. In some cases, it can be seen as a state of innocence or purity, free from the complications of the world.

Ma in Our Everyday Lives

Once you look around, you will see Ma everywhere. By understanding and appreciating the space between things, you can cultivate a sense of harmony, balance, and mindfulness in our daily lives. As Junichiro Tanizaki puts it, “we find beauty not in the thing itself but in the patterns of shadows, the light and darkness, that one thing against another creates.”

Once you start noticing it, Ma is everywhere. I hope we can all find inspiration in this spiritual and physical manifestation of an ancient principle. Take a look around your home, or the next time you’re out and about and see if you can find your own interpretation of Ma. The author, Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, put it best: “We find beauty not in the thing itself but in the patterns of shadows, the light and darkness, that one thing against another creates.”

Tim Kane

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