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Iron & Glass

Against the Blank Page: Strategies for Creative Research in Chaotic Times

by Pratt Institute Archives on 2021-03-31T13:48:00-04:00 | Comments

Post contributed by Sydni Meyer, Graduate Assisant, MLIS '21. 

There are of course more terrifying things than a blank page. But as due dates draw ever closer, each blank page holds more anxiety than excitement as these pandemic semesters roll on. Early research is always fraught with anxiety, largely because research is an iterative - not linear - process. Research can seem linear: all the brainstorming, forming a research question, and researching eventually lead you to the blank page. But at each juncture, lingering complicated questions or doubts can toss you back to an earlier research phase. In his book Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness, and Creativity, David Lynch describes ideas as a “piece of a puzzle that indicates the rest….a hopeful puzzle piece” (Lynch 2006, 23). Ideas as puzzle pieces is a useful analogy for the iterative research process: you should be hopeful as the pieces connect together, but also cognizant that one ill-fitting piece requires you to rethink previous connections. Because these stresses are inherent to the research process, the difference between pre-and post-pandemic research is broadly one of degree not kind.

A wyvern doing iterative research. Jennings, Lucas. (Untitled), 1625. Engraving from De Lapide Philosophico.

Research is not just a frustrating monologue with yourself, but a lively conversation with peers and the authors of the articles and books you are using to guide your inquiry. Even when you are typing alone, you are engaged in some kind of conversation, choosing who you agree with and who you want to argue with. It’s difficult to remember how crucial social learning is when we are all scattered across the globe. Online conversations and social media platforms become a substitute for these informal conversations with peers, contradicting the typical productivity advice to just “log off.” We are all navigating difficult times filled with acute and general pressures and anxieties. By staying connected with peers, we are more able to deal with research pressures together, even if that requires being more strategic with social media usage.

The joys of working together. Bella Lewitzky Dance Company. “Lewitzky,” 1976-1979.

Knowing some of the reasons research and creativity are more difficult during the pandemic, how are we supposed to create? By devising a research plan tailored to our current environment. We know that our current situation is not ideal for studying, that research offers varying waves of frustration and catharsis, and research is even more difficult when we feel like we are doing isolated work. So we should map out a plan that builds an exploratory research environment prioritizing creativity, connectivity, and rest.

Creative Exploration

When devising a research idea, I start by browsing reference materials related to my research topic to start getting familiar with the language. The stakes are low - not yet committed to a full book or article, but developing an idea by understanding the conversation around the topic. Since we can’t stroll into the library and browse, research guides on the library website list the most useful reference databases for your specific discipline (pro tip: use the filters on the right of the guide list to narrow the list down to a subject-specific guide). Digitized theses of previous Pratt students are also useful in the initial search process, providing a peek into current scholarly conversations and complete with extensive bibliographies of potentially relevant sources. To conjure the experience of walking between the reference books lost in your thoughts, these collections JStor offer small visual escapes:


  • Pratt Institute Archives’s Negatives Collection transports you to the Pratt Campus, but in a photographic negative dream state.

  • The Fleet Library at RISD’s Manning Rare Woods Collection has oddly calming microscope images of wood grain.

  • The Fleet Library at RISD also has the Loeb Symmetry Portfolio with images of geometric silkscreens visualizing different symmetrical patterns.

May your ideas blossom like spring flowers. “Daffodils.”1959, Pratt Institute Collection.

Connecting Ideas

After your simulated browsing experience, start developing your vocabulary around your topic and mapping out how your ideas might connect to form questions. This is a more active part of the research process, where you string ideas together to form your research question. This research guide explains concept mapping and developing search terms from the research vocabulary you’ve been building. Using these search terms in the library catalog will help you find more relevant resources as you further formulate your research questions. To track particularly fruitful search terms, you can either save the searches to your library account (this guide walks you through that process) or write them down. 

Connecting with Peers

Now that you’ve firmly started your research conversation with yourself, start talking through your idea with classmates. Jenny Odell’s book How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy discusses using social media as a tool to build connections with friends and larger community projects, not just as a convenient distraction. It provides a useful reframing of internet friendships. We can’t log off right now, but we can think about using different levels of intention and attention to avoid infinite scrolling and other phone practices that pull you out of research mode. Pratt’s Center for Teaching and Learning created a helpful Guide to Online Learning for Students that includes time management tips and links to resources from the Learning/Access Center.

This could be us but it’s a pandemic. “H.C.(?) Negatives, Prattonia.” 1973. Pratt Institute Collection.

Self Care

Perhaps above all, build rest into your research plan. Creativity can be fickle, but prioritizing production over your health is not a sustainable creative practice. Allow yourself the time to rest and daydream, to vacillate between focused research thinking and less focused thought. Read poetry, read fiction, stream movies, or browse the digital collections of other libraries through the Internet Archive. Allow yourself the space to create something without immediate judgment; a critical eye is important, but let yourself follow an idea to its conclusion before abandoning all creative hope. 


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