An art therapist I know talks about the importance of empty space in the creative process. Just as fire needs oxygen if it’s going to keep burning, she says, you have to have empty space in which ideas can grow.

I’m not great at this. Call it enthusiasm for life, but I have so many things I want to do, I rarely allow for much empty space in my life. The side effect is that I get worn out. Then nothing grows.

Recently, the same message seems to be all over the place. A friend recently told me that her favorite “empty space” activity is playing the computer game Bookworm, which delights her to no end. A talented poet I know has been writing recently about playing World of Warcraft, and how games fit into creative life. If I pay attention, the theme seems to pop out everywhere: Take some time. Have fun. Play a game.

And yet, there are plenty of counter-influences.  At work, my colleagues and I have been asked to create status reports each week, accounting for each hour of our time. The “status report” model assumes one task or project at a time, every moment spent doing something. Last night, NPR ran a story about how “mind enhancing” drugs (think Ritalin) could soon be marketed to healthy people in order to increase concentration and, presumably, productivity.

My goal this week is to appreciate the backburner, that back-of-mind space that prefers to do its work outside of the cognitive spotlight, when the mind thinks it’s doing something else. On a day when I’m feeling particularly ambitious, I might also attempt to create some empty space, without immediately moving to fill it with something “productive.”

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