This week I have been thinking about the concept of “filler.”
You know, the stuff that we stick between the gaps of real things. Like snacks. Or grout. It exists, and has to exist, to tide you over between meals, or to prevent getting your pinky toe stuck in the gap between the tiles on your bathroom floor, but nobody has ever gone into a beautifully-tiled bathroom and said, “My God that is some fantastic grout!”
(Now, interior designers are doing some cool things with grout these days so it is possible that someone has actually said this. Interesting grout, coupled with tile set in an interesting way, could in fact exist. Inside of a larger context, grout is useful and even perhaps beautiful. But on its own, grout is nothing.)
Or take meat products, since I am writing to you as perhaps the only carnivore that you know. Delicious sausages and hamburgers require no extra ingredients: meat, fat, perhaps a little salt or other flavorings, that’s it. Cook those babies up and you have quite a satisfying meal. Or if you want to get REALLY fancy, smoke ’em. I am now tempted to drift away into fantasias of smoked sausages….
No fillers are needed to make a good meat product. Some fillers might be added to say, a sausage, to create extra delicious flavors. Chicken-apple sausage is a popular variety, in which the (cheap) apples stretch the (expensive) chicken farther, but also provide a refreshing counterpoint in both taste and texture.
However, some purveyors of meat use fillers to use less meat while charging the same price-per-pound. These fillers are usually starch-based, and add nothing but cost-savings to the burger. No added flavor or texture for the end consumer to enjoy other than extra starchy things to digest. These people are why you can’t trust any pre-made beef patties and have to read the ingredients every single time. Thanks, fillers!
The idea of fillers also exists in art and music, in the form of white space, or rests. Good use of white space in a graphic design, or negative space in a painting or sculpture, can add oodles of visual interest and breathing room to the piece. In fact, I would argue that negative space is essential to good visual presentation. (Bear in mind that you can’t have negative space without first having an object for that negative space to react around.)
In music, the space between the notes is often just as important as the notes themselves. There’s a vast difference between the short, clipped notes of a march, and the long drawn-out notes in something like a tone poem. A complex rhythm is the interplay between positive and negative, in they way that the filler interacts with the drumbeats. Any specialness in the silence is a byproduct of how that silence interacts with the musical notes.
If you try to treat the silence between the notes as Its Own Thing, you end up with such ridiculousness as John Cage’s 4’33”.
The point: fillers are not necessarily bad, and can be useful or even helpful as a part of a bigger picture. On their own, fillers are neutral. The problem comes when you try to substitute the filler for the real thing.
A day full of snacks is a day at the end of which you’ll (read: I will) be unsatisfied and cranky.
A bathroom full of grout is…well, unfinished.
A hamburger full of fillers is still a hamburger, I guess, but not one that I would want to eat.
A painting full of white space is…not a painting.
And let’s be real, a “musical composition” of silence is not a musical composition at all.
That leads me, dear reader, to the topic on which my mind lingers…mental filler.
I spend more time than I should on Twitter.
It’s is fun! It’s full of novel content that makes me (mildly) amused and makes me (shallowly) think. There’s always something new!
But social media is primarily a connector–grout, if you will. Some people are doing good work of providing premium content on social media (this tweetstorm by AJA Cortes is a good example), but for the most part, all the content on social channels is dependent upon the primary media that tweets link to. Or references, in the case of many of the parody or esoteric accounts.
Twitter is very good for connecting things, for discovering, for bridging from one content creator to another, but as a “meal” in itself? It’s ultimately unfulfilling.
It can be very easy to fall into the trap of wanting mental snack food all the time. It’s easy, it’s amusing, and it’s very readily available. (And often wrapped in brightly colored, single serving containers!)
But I have to remind myself that single-serving snacks, be they mental or food, won’t build a good body. Whether it’s a body of work or body of thought doesn’t matter.
One can’t build a solid, delicious hamburger out of starchy filler.
And if I (or you) don’t want to end up blown away like a pile of dried up starch on a tile counter made of actual tiles by people who Did The Work, can’t focus on the filler. We have to focus on the substantial things. Meals. Tiles. Meat. Good art and music. Solid thought: books.
We must relegate filler to its proper place–to fill in the gaps.
It can be a beautiful, delicious, or amusing way to fill in those gaps, but it must exist within the proper context of Real, Solid Work.
So do the work, dearest, and enjoy the fleeting space of filler in its own due time.
(If you thought I was giving you advice, my dear reader, you might be wrong. I am mostly giving myself a lecture here. This is a common failing on my part.)
With all my love,