Home > Learning, Personal > Blank spaces

Blank spaces

I used to draw a lot.

I’m not sure why I stopped, but I’d wager there were many reasons. For example:

  • It wasn’t very practical.
  • I wasn’t an artist. I was “just playing.” I found better ways to play.
  • I was busy figuring out how to live independently, which took a lot more effort than I realized.
  • I wasn’t innately an expert. (Back when I stopped, I thought you were either innately an expert or wasting your time.)

I revisited my sketchbooks over the weekend. I was surprised to see some of my drawings were pretty good. I wondered how well I’d be drawing now if I hadn’t stopped drawing. Imagine what twenty more years of practice would have done for me!

I was also surprised to see how determined I was to fill every inch of each page.


It was as if I was allergic to blank space.


Even my then boyfriend had both a flamingo and a killer-whale-in-kimono sprouting from his head.


Did I fill the space just because?

Was I afraid of wasting money? I had to buy sketchbooks myself; blank space was wasted space, and more pages I’d have to buy sooner.


Or was it something deeper?

I remembered how my younger sister asked me to stop talking at our mom’s life celebration. “It’s time for a moment of silence, Deb!” But … but … what would happen if there were silence? How could life continue in the absence of noise?

I thought of how many people are astonished when I say I’m an introvert. “But you’re not shy!” Introversion isn’t shyness, I explain often. I wish I could find just the right words to express that my incessant chatter is more a mark of nerves than anything else.

Or so I thought.

Looking at all my old sketches, I saw my incessant chatter and pages filled to the brim with drawings as outward signs of the same inward condition: fear of the void.


If there’s silence, something’s missing.

If there are blank spaces, something’s missing.

And then, then I was heartened to find that even amidst the clutter, I did dedicate entire pages to single pieces.


Those pieces were rare, but they were there.


They were a heartening reminder that little is either/or. Though I filled most pages completely, I reached out for something else in others. I reached toward a recognition blank space is still something. It doesn’t need anything else to be complete as it is.

I think I’d have grown more comfortable with blank spaces if I kept on drawing.

I suspect the same is true of silence in conversation: Perhaps the key to my learning not to fill each moment with chatter is in trying. In sitting with the initial discomfort of this-is-not-what-I’m-used-to and seeing what happens when I work beyond that.

I can’t help but think that, like with drawing, the “magic” isn’t in innate expertise but in the practice.

  1. August 25, 2015 at 7:20 pm

    Drawing is a lot like writing for me. I used to enjoy sketching too. I think words help with silence.

    • August 25, 2015 at 7:28 pm

      I love silence when I’m sitting by myself, but it seems so awkward with anyone save those very nearest to me.

      I’m curious to see what will have changed in another twenty years, or two.

      I bought another sketchbook just to see. Or, more accurately, try.

      • August 25, 2015 at 7:46 pm

        As chatty as I am as a writer, I am a quiet person. It scares people I think. Maybe if I start sketching strange things people will let me be in silence all the time.

        • August 25, 2015 at 7:48 pm

          See, now that is a great reason to carry that sketchbook with me! Maybe sometimes … so I can practice the silence I actually really love, but don’t know how to shape.

          • August 25, 2015 at 7:51 pm

            Pandora helps. The music, not the jewelry or Greek box of mischief.

  2. August 25, 2015 at 7:43 pm

    My brother has two MFAs from the Chicago Art Institute. He keeps the first drawing he ever did in his first high school art class, where he started on the road to becoming an artist. It is excruciating to look at — like reading someone else’s high school diaries. He has told me many times, that it’s all how you look at things, not necessarily what comes out on the page. That’s what art represents.

    (Of course the way I look at the things I draw, I see crap!)

    • August 25, 2015 at 7:47 pm

      it’s all how you look at things, not necessarily what comes out on the page.

      I love this. Even though I stopped drawing with my hands, I still often look at something happening–or something I’m thinking about–and wonder how I could represent that. What you wrote makes me think the art is still inside, even if I lost twenty years of figuring out how to actually get it down on paper.

      (It also helps me understand why I loved being in Japan so much. Surrounded by kids, I was free to make silliness on paper. But then I came back, and it no longer seemed right … for shame!)

  3. August 25, 2015 at 8:31 pm

    I am also a nervously chattering introvert.
    Silence is my friend though. I sit with her as often as I can. Sit, breathe and remember that we are human beings, not human doings.
    Sadly, early experiences convinced me that I don’t have an artistic/creative bone in my body. Simultaneously I reject the label, and wear it still.

    • August 26, 2015 at 5:10 am

      I, too, love silence, as I love this statement:

      “we are human beings, not human doings.”

      The artistic/creative bone comment makes me sad. I’ve read up recently on how much other peoples’ perceptions of our capabilities–expressed in subtle and not so subtle ways–impacts our own perceptions and pursuit of certain livelihoods. This is a big part of why many people “hate math” or think they “suck at art,” though there are certainly other factors.

      (I like math. I like the constancy and predictability of numbers, which can be a nice retreat from the wild variances of human being.)

  4. August 25, 2015 at 11:44 pm

    We all have our coping mechanisms. I learned at an early age that the more you chatter the less people listen. You can blurt out the most extraordinary things, and after a while no one hears … No one is paying attention … You can have the release that comes from sharing without the loss of anonymity. As I’ve grown older I’ve become more comfortable with silence, and I’ve learned that when I’m silence I will hear other people share the most extraordinary things. When I entertain, I like best to invite everyone I know. My best is to hold an open house, where the food and the company is entirely random. And then I can be quiet and just listen.

    • August 26, 2015 at 5:15 am

      I’ve gotten better at this the last few years, and it’s happily never been a problem in the working world. In fact, one of the funniest things to me about mock trial as a 1L was how the volunteer jurors were impressed by my silence. I don’t fear silence while trying to express something precisely; my desire for precision overrides any lesser consideration.

      But sitting with small groups of friendly acquaintances, it’s hard for me to be quiet. I love larger groups where there’s no such pressure, especially the movie parties of my late teens/early 20s. I’d go and fall asleep in a corner, no joke. I loved the sense of having people near without feeling one bit of urgency to fill any silences. (Then again, that’s perhaps because silence was rare among my sister’s boisterous, rowdy friends! It was among them that I first felt accepted outside my home, and I’ll be forever grateful.)

      • August 26, 2015 at 12:10 pm

        I think we must be secret sisters … Can’t believe there’s someone else out there who likes to curl up in a corner and nod off in the middle of noisy conversation… 🙂

  5. NotAPunkRocker
    August 26, 2015 at 6:50 am

    I’m a doodle-drawer in meetings and such. yes, I agree, it’s just having that space, staring me down, full of nothing.

    Killer whale in a kimono needs to make appearances more often!

    • August 29, 2015 at 9:29 am

      We made a family card for Ra this morning. The front was just her name. It didn’t look right. It was too empty, so I went and drew something else. I went to draw another thing on another part of the page when I realized what I was doing and just left the blank space alone. Now I’m wondering if I shouldn’t have drawn killer whale in a kimono up there. :p

  6. August 26, 2015 at 7:41 am

    So beautifully put. Ps I like the art 🙂

  7. August 26, 2015 at 8:55 am

    Your work is good! Me, I’m a draughtsman, I need a ton of expensive kit just to draw a straight line. Kudos

    • August 29, 2015 at 9:31 am

      Thanks! My mom was a compulsive doodler, so I think that’s probably where my drawing began. I did master straight-ish lines young, so perhaps that was an early source of doodling confidence: “If I could do this, why not the other thing?” :p

      (Now I look at the drawings and think, “Where did that come from?!” Here’s hoping a little more practice opens up those doors again.)

  8. August 26, 2015 at 10:53 am

    I used to draw a lot, too. I wasn’t nervously filling spaces – I was trying to make ART. I think I stopped when I realized I would never truly be a great artist. I don’t know if that is some type of perfectionism – not something I THINK I generally suffer from, but it occurs to me that if I had/did keep drawing, practice would at least make better.

    Are you going to start dabbling again? You’re really good.

    • August 29, 2015 at 9:33 am

      Thanks, Peg! I am going to start dabbling again. I get these pangs of “but I’ll never even get where I was when I stopped two decades ago!” but, hey. My goal isn’t so much perfection as discovery.

      Also, if your doodling was part of what led to your giggle-inducing photo edits, I’m glad for ’em. 🙂

  9. August 27, 2015 at 7:14 am

    Did you realize that there is purpose in the white space you left in your doodling? The “space” is actually very plentiful. It is just used as filler between your drawings. It gives the view an opportunity to view each picture in its own “frame” of space.

    Have you ever tried being socially anti-social? It is something we’ve always done in my family. We hang out together all the time, but we are often doing our own thing (or nothing). So no conversation is required since we just enjoy the presences of each other. I’m a little on the shy side and large crowds cause anxiety issues so I don’t usually do large gatherings. The problem with that is that there are 82 people in my immediate family group so any family get-together is a crowd.

    • August 29, 2015 at 9:38 am

      I went through a brief period with Li’l D where I felt guilty if I did anything other than focus 100% on him. I soon remembered how my mom wasn’t constantly engaged with us, though she was near unless we were out running through the neighborhood, and how that was a really good thing. We now try and make a practice of spending some time close to each other but engaged in our own pursuits. (I finished reading my first fiction book in ages yesterday! Victory!)

      Large crowds make me anxious, too. Anthony and I went to karaoke not too long before we got married. It was actually a smallish crowd, but we were jammed in a small room and it felt like an enormous crowd to me. I cried on our way home and said there was no way, no how I was going to get married in front of more than a couple of people. He reassured me that I’d hardly notice the other people around us, and that I’d also feel much better out in the great wide open. He was, of course, correct. 🙂

  10. August 27, 2015 at 8:08 am

    I’ve found great comfort in people that I can be silent with, that I’m not expected to fill all of the voids with! But, then again, I’m the shy one. (Crazy confident and insanely shy… talk about making some socially awkward moments happen!!)

    • August 29, 2015 at 9:39 am


      I have one friend who hardly ever talks. Anthony thought she didn’t like him for a long time. I told him, “Nope, she just doesn’t talk much.” She has plenty to say; she’s just judicious about actually saying it. I kinda admire that. Hee.

  11. August 28, 2015 at 6:38 am

    Funny how much you and I are alike in so many ways. Many years ago, I carried with me a sketchbook and a journal, everywhere I went. If one didn’t satisfy the other always would. I would never write in my sketchbook and would never draw in my journal. I stopped drawing, I don’t know why, well maybe I do know why but am unable or unwilling to lay the reasons out for complete exploration and acceptance.

    Also like you, I hated blank spaces (in both).

    I like silence. Those I am closest too are those I can be silent with.

    • August 29, 2015 at 9:42 am

      I used to fill a handwritten journal every few months. A couple weeks ago, I pulled out my current journal–only halfway full–and discovered I’ve been writing in it since 2008. It makes me think it’s time to start carrying it with me again, the better to capture for myself and myself alone some definitive moments and thoughts. I’ll definitely be carrying my new small sketchbook with me, the better to practice (with one piece per page!) whenever the urge strikes.

  12. August 31, 2015 at 2:32 am

    An important lesson, and a lovely reminder!

    Though that head-sprouting killer whale-in-kimono is pretty rad, too…

    • September 3, 2015 at 5:07 am

      I’m thinking of working her into new places. 😉

      Also, I’m glad for the reminder I haven’t drawn anything the last few days. If I don’t keep at it, I’ll never see how my skills can grow!

  1. January 9, 2016 at 7:28 am

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