For the Love of Liminal Spaces

Why we writers love the in-between

During Spring Break in my last year of high school, my aunt and uncle invited my parents and me to their time-share property in Mexico.

It was a beautiful resort apartment with an enormous, roofed balcony that became the site of one of my favourite vacations ever. Not because I embarked on crazy adventures or swam with dolphins, but because I spent every morning lounging on that balcony snuggling up with The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.

Since then, I’ve wanted a house with a balcony. Something about balconies — their ability to be inside and outside at the same time—fascinates me. You can see everything laid out below you, yet be largely unseen by passers-by. With fresh air against your skin and the scent of gardens in your nostrils, you are close to nature yet safe and sheltered.

A balcony is a liminal space. And it so happens that we writers love liminal spaces.

Liminality and Writing

In one of my first-year literature courses, I read Player One by Douglas Coupland. The entire novel takes place at an airport, where travellers are neither away from nor at home. They’re between countries, stuck in a liminal space.

The literary world is notoriously obsessed with liminal space. According to The Write Practice, stories are made up of liminal spaces — they are the space-time between inciting incident and resolution, where anything and everything can happen, where readers are treated to delicious tension.

Liminality is all around us in the form of mediation. The Chicago School of Media Theory has a good essay on this for the more theoretically-minded. In a nutshell: mediation is transformation, and the site of transformation is liminality — whether that’s a rite-of-passage narrative, virtuality, technology, or even cyborgs.

In other words, liminality is the experience of moving from one point to another, and writers are often the bus-drivers of this space.

Why We Love Liminality

I have several suppositions as to why we humans, especially writers, are drawn to liminality:

The promise of opportunity and the assurance that we haven’t fucked up…yet.

Spring Break in Grade 12 was such a time for me because, sitting on that balcony, I had my whole adult life ahead of me, rife with possibility. I knew mistakes would happen, but they hadn’t happened yet. I could be blissful for now. Writing is similar (more this later).

If the fun has yet to begin, it cannot be over.

This is why I love airports, especially when I’m about to depart. When you’re waiting for your plane to take you on holiday, you have your entire vacation ahead of you. Sometimes, I even wish the plane won’t come so I can be in this state of anticipation for longer.

You feel like you’re doing something even though you’re not.

I’ll be controversial here and say that I actually enjoy commutes. I like the act of going. It feels productive, like I’m doing something (despite the fact that I’m napping on the bus). I can be proud of myself for being a useful citizen by going to work, even though I’m not working yet.

In other words, liminality is the experience of moving from one point to another, and writers are often the bus-drivers of this space.

When I write, I bridge my story from its conception in my mind to its birthplace on the page.

In my mind, my story appears perfect, beautiful, and unencumbered by clunky prose, careless plot holes, woody dialogue, and all the other faults that make a story less appealing. In my mind, my story makes perfect sense; it accurately expresses the human condition and is emotionally resonant.

I suspect I am not the only writer who thinks their story is amazing if only everyone could visit my mind and see it the way I do.

Sometimes, I even wish the plane won’t come so I can be in this state of anticipation for longer.

When my story gets delivered to the page, that’s when things get messy. Cue clunky prose, careless plot holes, woody dialogue, and the nagging voice in your head (and more politely, from beta readers) that conflicts lack tension, characters lack motivation, or such-and-such just doesn’t make sense.

So, perhaps liminality is permission to fantasize about perfection when we all know, deep down, that perfection doesn’t exist.

If you’ve read to the end of this essay, I can honestly admit to you that I’m not sure where I’m going with this piece.

In the liminal space created by a global pandemic, my body points towards the future while my head looks back. I have Googled “what is liminal space in literature” many times to find no straight answer—other than whatever answer lies in this piece.

Perhaps this essay is, in itself, a liminal space, its writer suspended in the gap between not-understanding and understanding. Reaching forward and grasping something that is just taking shape.

Li Charmaine Anne (she/they) is a Canadian author and freelance writer on unceded Coast Salish territories (aka Vancouver, Canada). Her work has appeared in literary journals and magazines and she is at work on her first novel, a contemporary YA about queer Asian skater girls. To read Charmaine’s articles for free (no subscription required), sign up for her newsletter.

(She/They) Author on unceded Coast Salish territories (Vancouver, Canada). At work on first novel. Get links to read my stuff for free:

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