I learned at an early age that empty space is never just empty space.
When I was 8, my primary school took us on a trip to the Tate Gallery in London and I encountered the giant beckoning voids of Rothko’s canvases. Seeing them again as an adult, I am always struck by the sheer scale of these paintings. As a small kid, they were quite overwhelming. Memory is a tricksy companion, but the way I recall it I sat for what felt like an hour, losing myself in the blackness, seeming to go through the canvas itself to find whole worlds on the other side.
There was something about the emptiness I encountered that day that made it feel like so much more than just nothingness. It embodied what I’ve seen in so many contexts since about the way possibilities emerge and are nurtured — some gaining line and solidity until they become reality, some flickering and fading before they are ever noticed. From vacuums rippled by quantum fluctuations in Physics to the bottomless wells in Haruki Murakami’s novels haunted by monsters of a character’s unconscious, empty space is never just empty space.
As writers we come across well-meaning people all the time who reassure us that everyone started with the same empty page. It’s meant to make us feel that until the point we put pen to paper anything is possible. That we stand where Proust and Angelou also stood and maybe, well, you know the rest.
The problem is that it’s not true. I knew it about art from the day I laid eyes on that room full of Rothkos, each one a window to a part of myself I had never encountered before. And it’s the same in so many other areas — from the blank walls we stare at before taking the anxious leap into our first relationship to the silence that confronts our attempts to solve the world’s wicked problems.
I’ve never found a better or more succinct explanation of how remarkable art, ideas, or solutions arise from blank space than that of the pioneering free solo climber and base jumper Dean Potter. This is how he described the way he found spaces through which to thread his high line and walk across the sky:
“I see what I do as a picture. I…see the space between formations and I want to enter that, and I…get a flash or a picture and then I live it”
There are different elements in this description, each of them with a crucial part in creativity. Most of them relate to Potter himself, and to each of us looking for inspiration. They are the things that mean the empty page in front of me will never be the same as the empty page looking back at Angelou or Proust:
- A very clear and very particular vision, and the imagination to build something concrete from it;
- The confidence a person has in their own ability to take that vision and make it real;
- And a certain courage, the kind needed to take the first step.
But the thing I want to focus on is something else — the frame. “I…see the space between formations,” Potter said. And too often we miss that. An empty space is always framed by something, and it is that frame which makes it different from every other space. It’s the shadows crowding around the edge; it’s the slightly blurred crimson lip in the Rothkos of my childhood, melting into the black, not in the space itself but not out of sight. It is with these in the periphery that ideas emerge. It’s why the empty lines in the notebook I take with me into the mountains are so different from the empty lines of the notebook I keep in my office drawer.
To understand how to deepen the shadows that frame the space in which our ideas are born we need to change something fundamental to the way we think of ourselves. We need to change how we think about knowledge, about how and why we learn and remember.
Knowledge is the raw material of ideas. Most of us would agree with that — to have more, and more original ideas, we need more knowledge. But this is true not because ideas are constructed like houses from the brings of what we know. Rather ideas form in the spaces between the things we know. This is why when I teach creativity, I teach people to stop thinking about knowledge as the sum of the things they know and to start thinking of it as the product — not to see the value not in each fact, each dot on the mental map, but in the almost infinitely greater number of possible connections between them.
How much more powerful would our minds be if we learn not so we can remember each separate fact but so that we can use it — to combine with other things we know to weave an endlessly rich pattern of new possibility?
Take the dugong, an aquatic mammal closely related to the elephant and the hyrax. That’s an interesting thing to know and we can trot out the fact to impress friends or quiz setters alike, always having something amusing to say when people ask us for obscure facts at parties.
Or we could travel down the rabbit hole of its family ties. We could explore its marine habitat (seagrass, often, which is how I came to be a seagrass activist) and ask what else that ecosystem supports, how we can protect it, what other habitats are subject to similar dangers, why some of them (reefs are cool, but are theory really more cool than mangroves? Why?) receive more attention than others. The dugong, that is, like any other thing, can be a destination, an entry in a mental ledger or a teeming network of roads leading to who knows what adventures. So many spaces adjacent to just one creature, each of them unique!
Thinking about space in this way, as something that evolves, nurtures possibility beneath the surface, breathes in the air from the constantly shifting shadows around it until, often with no warning, an idea is ready to emerge, sheds light on some of the strange ways our minds work.
Maybe this is what happens when we come at an answer only from the side, sneaking in by diverting our attention elsewhere. Maybe we are changing the frame, creating richer spaces.
And maybe procrastination too has an element of it. Maybe the blank page staring back at me on day 10 of an assignment really is different from the blank page that taunted me on day 1. Maybe distracting myself with other tasks is essential in preparing the canvas. That’s certainly how it often feels my ADHD brain works. Maybe actually the emptiness is changing — if I crystallised something on the page earlier it wold be less complex, rich & appropriate. Maybe we should stop demanding interim progress of the procrastinators— the interim progress is the mental frame we evolving around the empty page.
To come back to Potter, who spent many of his last years in the towering granite of Yosemite, if we want better ideas, better solutions, or just a more artful life, we should surround ourselves with mountains, literal or metaphorical. And breathtaking spaces between them into which we can cast our high line will emerge.