writing life

the in-between

I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of liminal space. The English word liminal comes from the Latin word limen which means threshold. It is the in-between. Something has ended and the next thing hasn’t started. You have left the security of what has been known, but haven’t yet entered into a new understanding. You’ve left the oasis but haven’t crossed the desert. The ship has sailed, but isn’t to the next port. You’ve left one job and haven’t gotten another.

Liminal spaces occur in every context, and they are uncomfortable.

In the writing life, liminal space is no less (and perhaps more) inevitable. Between projects, one short story is completed, and the new page is still blank. Between chapters, paragraphs, sentences, words.They feel like desolation, emptiness, and a total lack of inspiration.

…incidentally, I don’t believe in the need to feel i/Inspiration to get work done. The inspiration I have experienced is too fickle. You could make a case that there’s an inverse relationship between i/Inspiration and liminal space, but given how infrequently i/Inspiration comes knocking, this is probably a more depressing than useful hypothesis…

There’s no time limit or expiration date on liminal space. Sometimes they last only as long as it takes to remember that one word (existential, pungent, cruciferous, snafu). Often, longer.

In order not to be conquered by it, we have to figure out how to deal with liminal space in our writing lives and writing processes. Maybe first, by acknowledging that all writers experience liminal space. 

The liminal space is one of uncertainty. It is not safe. We do not know, cannot guess, what might be on the other side of it.

Some deal with this discomfort by self medicating. This isn’t a good long-term solution.

A better strategy may just be learning to be uncomfortable. Getting used to sitting quietly in the middle of liminal space. Meditating in the desert. Discomfort can reveal a lot about ourselves as writers and people. What in particular gives us the most anxiety? Why is it so hard to be uncertain?

The most common fear of the liminal space is that there may be nothing on the other side. That we’ll wait and wait, and struggle to forge ahead, sitting in our writing chairs, putting words together like blank puzzle pieces, and nothing will come of it. We’ll cross the threshold and step blindly into an abyss.

Here is something I have learned and that I believe in and cling to with (what I hope is) an unshakable faith. There is always something there. The threshold does not lead into a vacuum. It may lead to a place I do not at first want to go, or somewhere I do not expect. But there is always something to write. Words are omnipresent and until my brain ceases its electrical firing, I will have ideas.

They fill from beneath, like well water. –Annie Dillard

Liminal space is a time of testing. It takes guts, stamina, determination, and discipline to get across the threshold. You cannot rely on Inspiration. Inspiration does not enter the liminal space. It abandons you at the borders. You enter alone, and must find your own way to the other side.

There is always a way. Writing is the only way to find it.

Lay down your track of thoughts. String them into notes, lists, pictures, graphs, words, sentences, paragraphs, and watch where the engine of your mind takes you. It may take a long time to travel through the liminal space. It may feel like you’ll never arrive on the other side, but you will.

If you write.

2 thoughts on “the in-between”

  1. “You’ve left the oasis but haven’t crossed the desert. The ship has sailed, but isn’t to the next port. You’ve left one job and haven’t gotten another.” This reminds me of the statement that our lives are a dash. There’s birth 1959-2050. My life is the dash between birth and death. Note I’m preparing to live a nice long life in that dash.


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