Fly on the Wall—Learning to Love the Blank Screen

Abundant Opportunities in Apparant Emptiness

“I’m stuck.”  A plaintive cry rang out through my elementary school classroom as another student fell victim to that mysterious vortex comprising blank page syndrome.  To demonstrate resistance to the gnawing emptiness of staring for too long at an empty sheet of paper some kids would expertly place their textbook on their desk and, like unplugged robots, allow their bodies to fall lifelessly forward such that their forehead crashed with a resounding thud against the bookish pillow.

Younger years with foolscap paper and precise cursive expectations drove an incisive wedge between our teeming creative selves and the rigid confines of our learning objectives.  Today the blank page or screen can seem like a dead article as countless distractions clamour for our attention.  We’re never just sitting there in the way we were before the internet and cell phones; even as we remain glued in situ at our desk, there’s unlimited potential for stimulation that swims us away from our necessary coursework.  (This is another reason why watching videos online isn’t the same as studying a textbook and writing up an assignment.)  Clearly, being stuck is a metaphysical state just as prevalent today as in the pre-screened realm of childhood yore.

A Word From Our Sponsor in Inspiration: Crickets (Metaphoric or Literal)

Crickets, ahh, those meme inducing paragons that create a backdrop of peace and quietude.  They’re at their best in summer and their chorus is a wonderful backdrop when the academic juices are flowing.  Yet, sitting at the computer, it’s easy to still get stuck.  And when that happens there are a bajillion (or more) happy accidental distractions on offer.  Many a brief pause in coursework leads down a garden path of games and monkey business and even ‘educational’ reading that nevertheless leads us astray from our primary purpose: to kick tail at our distance education.

Chirping crickets can illustrate boredom or can provide doorways to divine instruction.  Their presence symbolizes the songlike potential within empty spaces.  A Saskatchewan-born artist named Agnes Martin spent her career mapping the blankness of space amidst unimaginable vistas of the spirit.  Many of her paintings, with titles such as ‘Wheat’ and ‘The Laws’, impart a magical mystery to those moments of sitting and gazing out onto the world while feeling a universal resonance within our soul.

Joyous jouissance doesn’t have to be limited to what we’ve already defined as ‘fun’, after all, and Martin expertly draws us into her web of ragged grids and subtle lines, with shading and hints of colour that like sibilant whispers speaking through eye contact of syllable-less speakers.  Out of blankness, that rich fullness of potential squirms and writhes and dances and flows.  Martin draws out the exuberance of life between the frail senescence of certain thoughts and clear feelings: “my paintings,” she said, “have neither object nor space nor line nor anything-no forms.  They are light, lightness, about merging, about formlessness, breaking down form.  A world without objects, without interruption, making a work without interruption or obstacle.  It is to accept the necessity of the simple direct going into a field of vision as you would cross an empty beach to look at the ocean.” (Martin, 84).

Whether seas of a meadow or oceans of meaning, Martin’s art reminds us that when at first there seems little to focus is precisely the moment where we can capture our creative energy.  The death of the blank screen happens not when we are unsure what to write but when we don’t allow ourselves to be enveloped and liberated by the potential of literal and figurative space.  It’s all in our mind, our senses merely capture data that our thoughts and sentiment combine into meaning.  To find purpose and poignancy is thus to accept blankness long enough for new ideas to rush in.  Finding our own voice as we read arid course material is to give oneself over to the Midas touch of inspiration that eureka moments are made of.

As Martin turned wheat fields into grid patterns so can we discover new ways to express what we’ve learned.  To think laterally and usefully is to let go of what we expect to see on the screen when we look up again with our corporeal eyes, rather than our mind eyes.  Premeditation is likewise the bane of free-flowing writing; if we’ve studied enough before we apply fingertip to keypad much of what we know will evacuate our cerebral cortex in a wonderful flow that brooks neither pauses nor discontents.  And voila an ‘A’ assignment is born!

We’re never really stuck on or at a place so much as we drift far from ourselves in moments of writer’s block or study stultification.  To allow a blank screen to stare back at us is thus to refract our essence; or as Allen Ginsberg put it, to remember that “after all it is you and I who are perfect not the next world.”  It’s this confidence in our powers that can propel us forward.  Magic likewise ensues when we realize the abundance enabled by those pauses of nothingness in which we seem hopelessly tangled.  It’s never us that is stuck but our inability to draw upon reservoirs of being that animate our spirit like blood circulating through vesicles.

Blanking Beyond…Bringing Clarity to Opacity

Expectations of what’s required are a huge barrier to writing those first words down; they hold us back and tie us in place like a sad mule in some old anthropology film.  We’re weighed down because we think we know what we know, and we ironically proceed to stop there rather than engaging our critical thinking skills.  H.G. Hegel wrote that “the familiar, just because it is familiar, is not cognitively understood.  The commonest way in which we deceive ourselves or others about understanding is by assuming something as familiar, and accepting it on that account; with all its pros and cons, such knowing never gets anywhere, and it knows not why” (Hegel, xxxi).

When we’re stumped, then, it’s because we’re too sure of what’s required of us rather than being open to the uncertainty of our creative skills.  The fearful realm of the unknown is where sublime creativity lies.  It’s up to us to challenge presumptions and that begins with realizing that we’re stuck because we’re being too taut and enclosed in our thinking.

An example of breaking through invisible study barriers is provided by Jacques Derrida.  Instead of thinking in morose interpretative ways, with tired lines of descent down into abysses of closure, Derrida asks us to engage in the playful act of allowing abundant new meanings to emerge from a given text.  In each academic moment we can choose to make a game of it, a productive exercise in thinking and writing, or we can choose to treat it like that old scourge: work.  Creativity and play are the stuff of success; the slogan ‘are we having fun yet?’ was perhaps invented as a reminder that fun is always possible.

If we give rote responses in our assignments we’re missing out on the active creation of interpretation.  Hermeneutic potentials abide in the solitude of self and page, or screen, and begin with an opening (rather than slamming shut) of the doors of possibility.    When we’re stuck we may be thinking too much about finding a right answer rather than one that feels correct and exists only in shades and penumbras and margins along which new battle lines are drawn.

Learning as a Shining Golden Path, A Yellow Brick Road

To think in new and creative ways while demonstrating that we’ve absorbed our course material—such that we can recapitulate with organic precision the terms and methods on offer—is a core learning outcome of every course.  It remains for us to get unstuck simply by allowing the flow to go through.  This doesn’t mean drifting away from that eerie oracle of a blank computer screen or that ominous scroll of foolscap paper, lined like some sort of corridor inhabited by a Cretan Minotaur of failure.  Going with the flow means the way out of being stuck is the way through, we are never as stumped as we seem.  Recall the line of advice given to Dorothy, probably the most famous prairie-born heroine of all time:  “You’ve always had the power my dear, you just had to learn it for yourself.”  Home, after all, is where the mind is.  And our academic home, like hermit crabs wearing the best shells their claws can find, is wherever we find ourselves to be studying.  Wherever we go there we are and wherever we are our inspiration is with us.

Hegel, H.G.  (2016).  In Derrida, J.  (2016).  Of Grammatology.  Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Martin, A.  (2011).  In Zoe Leonard ‘A Wild Patience’.  Agnes Martin.  New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Martin, A.  (2020).  ‘Agnes Martin’.  San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.  Retrieved from