Negative Space

An image of the landscape from the window of a car going down the interstate. There are clouds, distant trees, and a small orange traffic construction cone in the background.

When we lived in Manitowoc and I drove 45 minutes to work each day, I filled the time in the car with audio books, podcasts and phone calls to friends and family. Likewise, when I walked the dog, the same media and conversation piped in to my ear buds. It felt luxurious to have the time to consume well-produced media or to catch up with friends. Despite that, I believe my impulse to fill the time of these walks with curated sound meant I missed an opportunity to be fully present.

In her book Reclaiming Conversation, Sherry Turkle talks about solitude as an important foundation for self awareness and our capacity for empathy. Solitude gives us time to know ourselves, and often, space to let issues and challenges percolate to the surface of our consciousness where they can be seen and, if need be, addressed. When I fill my mind with podcasts and phone calls, however good, I’m avoiding solitude and miss an opportunity to daydream, think, listen, and notice. One of my teaching and design mentors called this “negative space” and that description resonates with me– without it, you’ve got no time to see the form of the things that are. Let it all breathe a bit.

As with most of the things I write about: this is a message to myself. I’ve always struggled not to fill the time or the conversation. Similarly, the flip side of my energy and drive is a habit of always being in motion and doing things at the expense of stillness, silence, and (on occasion) reflection. As with many things it can be both-and. I can be productive and hold the metaphoric negative space, but it won’t happen without deliberate choice. To continue the negative space metaphor further: it’s like the furniture in letterpress. These bits surround the type and hold it in its particular space. They do not print, but without them nothing works. The type will wobble or be too close together.

An image of letterpress type locked up and waiting for printing. Large wood letters read (backwards) KITCHENSINK.
Letterpress form image by user @gillographic (Gillian Fisher).

I imagine part of the answer is to be clearer about what I’m working on and what I’m not. What prints and what holds space? Not to feel as if I can’t plug into podcasts, but to do so with the confidence that that time is made clearer by the deliberate negative space around it.

Author: Katie

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