My friend, David Miller, formerly of Charleston (now a resident of Washington state), writes the best emails. He doesn’t write all that often, but when he does, he unfailingly gets my wheels turning with whatever it is that has spurred him to write. This latest perhaps more than most. The timing was just right.
“I have been stumbling around with half a thought lately and it goes something like this. Without nothing, there is no something. Absence makes presence possible,” David wrote. “Not a new or original thought by any means, but recently, I find this concept of interest.”
He went on to explain how scientists have a term for a condition which does not produce an effect. They call it the Null Hypothesis.
“If you are trying to understand the effect of a variable,” David wrote, “you need to be able to compare it to the effect when the variable does not exist or at least is held constant. Testing a new drug? You need to record the effect if the drug is not administered. But the benefit of nothing far exceeds this example.”
This was David’s brainy way of leading into what likely triggered this line of thinking, which is all the time he’s been spending with his granddaughter, watching her grow up.
“As the only child of a pair of ambitious, active parents, her life is being filled with stuff to do,” wrote David. “Her maternal grandmother is much like my daughter-in-law, adding to the activity level. When I get to be with her, I often just sit quietly and watch, being present but allowing her time to explore and play.”
David’s words prompted thoughts of a woman I knew for a time through work who kept her children so heavily scheduled every day with activities meant to make them well-rounded and multitalented. And the children were brilliant, just like their mother. But also like her, they appeared perpetually sad.
The mom was so concerned with what she was building she failed to notice the who.
I think children need down time; time to explore and discover. They need to be able to make some of their own decisions (not all). Even more than that, though, they need to learn how to manage the blank pages they’re given so they know how to fill them, rather than have them be filled.
“I am finding myself more interested in the negative space present in my photographs,” David continued in his email. (He is, by the way, a phenomenal photographer.) “Often, I find by excluding something or minimizing its presence, the photo has more impact. I look at a lot of photographs each day and find myself thinking about how I would have excluded content that is present.”
I mentioned this statement to my boyfriend Don, a creative director, knowing how much he loves simplicity in advertising, and he told me about one of the most touching and powerful ads he’d ever seen. Shortly after Audrey Hepburn’s death, Tiffany’s took out a full-page ad in the New York Times that said, in smallish print right in the center of the page: “To our Huckleberry friend – 1929-1993.” The rest of the page around it was blank, with just those few words, so perfectly summarizing what was lost.
“The impact of all that white space was more powerful than anything else they could’ve chosen to put there,” Don said. He said white space always makes clients nervous because they’re paying for that space and think they have to fill it with copy.
“What they don’t realize is that white space stops the reader cold. They can’t help but look,” he said.
This statement hit home. For the past month, I have been crammed full of copy, my life so stupidly over-scheduled it would’ve required a magnifying glass to find a spec that wasn’t written on. And then the work event finally came and went and there was this little gap before the next project begins that allowed me, Don and Celeste to head for his family camp just outside of Hinton, West Virginia.
Where I sit as I write this. With a full week of white space ahead.
For a while now, I’ve been frustrated, writing-wise. Most of my life, I’ve had more ideas for stories than I could ever hope to get down on the page, but recently, those lights had begun to burn out.
And then, after only a few hours in Hinton, the novel idea I’d once loved but had allowed to grow dusty has begun kicking around. It found the town where it wants to be set.
I hope this next week allows me to gain the momentum I’ll need to keep going after I’m back in Atlanta and there are once again too many of the wrong kinds of words crowding my page.
Now that I’ve tested the Null Hypothesis David emailed about, I realize how, for me, a little nothing is needed before something can grow.