How To Say Something When You Have Nothing To Say

Imagine that your funny, kind teacher asks you to write a page on a question you don’t feel strongly about. Maybe the question is, “Why is it so hard to be sleepy at school?” You have an answer: “It’s hard to be sleepy at school because your brain works slowly, and you keep imagining how wonderful it would be to go back to sleep.”

You’re happy with your answer. It’s honest, truthful, and succinct. However, it has not filled a page. Your teacher wants a page. You don’t have anything more to say. You have a problem.

One key component of intelligence is the ability to GENERATE ideas, arguments, explanations, evidence, and examples. As you develop intellectually, you gain the skill of filling intellectual space. Ideally, you’ll fill a blank page with a thoughtful, critical evaluation of your subject matter. But it’s not magic. You have to develop this skill through hard work and practice.

Imagine that you’re skill level is represented by three-story building. Without any skill you’re wallowing helplessly in the sub-sub-sub-sub-basement. As you gain skills, you climb up.

Here are a few strategies to fill a page, laid out from the lowest level of skill development to the highest. Examples are included further below.

  • Basement Level 3 – Fill the page with fancy word clouds that don’t connect to anything.
  • Basement Level 2 – Fill the page through repetition, and furthermore we can add to that more repetition.
  • Basement Level 1 – Fill the page with overwrought descriptions, overuse of adjectives, adverbs, prepositional phrases, and superfluous examples.
  • Level 1 – Fill the page with story telling. Use an connected, relevant, illustrative anecdote to make your point. Really get into meat of the story (provide setting, backstory, characters, etc.)
  • Level 2 – Fill the page by bridging to ideas and concepts that are connected to the theme or question. Find ways to connect the basic ideas you came up with to related ideas and concepts (possibly ones you are more excited to talk about).
  • Level 3 – Fill the page by cutting deep to the underlying question. Analyze the key terms involved, use that analysis to ask new questions – and then answer those questions (Some useful cheat sheets- the values list, the fallacies and biases, the lenses of humanity/dehumanization, basic human needs, cultural categories.) (And at this point, you’re not “merely” filling the page any more, you are thinking on your feet and producing intellectually mature work.)

Let’s look at the these levels in action using the boring question above.

Basement Level 3 – Fill the page with fancy word clouds that don’t connect to anything.

Example: “Why is it so hard to be sleepy at school?”

Your (lousy) longer answer: “It’s hard to be sleepy at school because your brain works slowly, and you keep imagining how wonderful it would be to go back to sleep. Sleepiness is a dormant state of dormancy in which humans rest in a restful state of being, enjoying the full benefits rest and relaxation. When you are tired at school, your brain will think deeply about the deep sleep that will cure the tiredness in your brain. While thinking these thoughts, you and your brain will be lulled into a dream-like fantasy desiring the most wonderful rest that a person can enjoy and thus the work in front of the student will blur into a general annoyance that is very annoying. “

Basement Level 2 – Fill the page through repetition, and futhermore we can add to that more repetion.

Your (lousy) longer answer: “It’s hard to be sleepy at school because your brain works slowly, and you keep imagining how wonderful it would be to go back to sleep. The difficulty of being tired at school is especially difficult because the speed at which your brain functions is not as fast as when your brain is functioning at full levels of rest. While attempting to work, students will grow distracted by their desire to close their eyes, and as their eyes slowly close, the pull of sleep will further distract their focus from the work at hand.”

Basement Level 1 – Fill the page with overwrought descriptions, overuse of adjectives, adverbs, prepositional phrases, and superfluous examples.

Your (lousy) longer answer: “It’s exceptionally difficulty to be overcome by the desire to sleep at institutions of learning such as schools. This is because the human brain, which is comprised of many complicated regions, works at a slower pace when deprived of life-sustaining slumber, such that is achieved through through sleep. Sleep is commonly enjoyed at night time, when the sun had disappared over the horizon and the otherwise bright world is plunged into darkness. For example, last night I went to sleep at around midnight after enjoying a chapter of the wonderful book, Scienceblind by Andrew Shtulman. As I slept, my brain was able to recover from all the work it had done during the day and I awoke feeling refreshed, though to be honest, it would have been even more refreshed had I continued to sleep for another hour or two. When a young student is attending school, the appetite most in need of satiation is sleep and thus their consciousness will be continually pulled back towards the wonderful fantasy of comfortable unconsciousness.

Level 1 – Fill the page with story telling. Use an connected, relevant, illustrative anecdote to make your point. Really get into meat of the story (provide setting, backstory, characters, etc.)

Your (stronger) longer answer:  “It’s hard to be sleepy at school because you’re brain works slowly, and you keep imagining how wonderful it would be to go back to sleep. I had a particularly difficult time with this issue when I was in fourth grade. There I was, an innocent, bright-eyed youngster, thrown into a swirling abyss of confusion of chaos. Yes, my family moved. All of a sudden, my daily commute went from three minutes to an hour and three minutes. In third grade I set my alarm for 7:30 to get to school at 8. In fourth grade, I had to set my alarm for 6:30. Often times I would snap awake at 6:45 with my alarm blaring in my ear, my dad shouting from the kitchen, and the gut-churning realization that I would not have time to both eat breakfast or take a shower. I would have to choose. I usually chose to shower after the unfortunate “body odor” incident of second grade, which is worth discussing though beyond the scope of this piece. As I arrived at school each day, I would be lost in a haze of fatigue. I would do my best to avoid turning my brain on until the last possible moment. My friends would talk to me in homeroom, and I would just try to pretend that I was following their conversations. I mostly just nodded and grunted. Sadly, that seemed to be sufficient for most of my friends, and they continued prattling on about the silly things that concern fourth graders. Mostly yo-yos and continued analysis of the “body odor” incident of second grade. I did my best to focus once class began, but I found the spotlight of my consciousness continually pulled towards my desire to sleep. Math equations and reading passages blurred as I moved through them. Eventually, I came to resent school. Why would a system put a young student through such tortuous conditions. And I began to resent my parents for moving. All of this tension and frustration continued to add up, pushing out more fruitful intellectual thoughts and life-affirming reflections about friendship and the beauty of life. All I thought about was sleep and how I could overcome the obstacles between me and sweet, deep slumber. Things got better for me once I realized that I could go to be earlier. I simply had to stop playing World of Warcraft. I miss my WoW friends, but I’m doing much better in school and have a much better relationship with my family, friends, and teachers.

Level 2 – Fill the page by bridging to ideas and concepts that are connected to the theme or question. Find ways to connect the basic ideas you came up with to related ideas and concepts (possibly ones you are more excited to talk about).

Your (stronger) longer answer:  “It’s hard to be sleepy at school because your brain works slowly, and you keep imagining how wonderful it would be to go back to sleep. The need to sleep is simply part of being human. Without sleep, we die. It’s as simple as that. Sleep is as crucial to human survival as food, water, and oxygen. If a child were deprived of any of these things, we would rightly cry out in his or her defense. We have a basic human right to access the basic requirements of human survival. It’s possible that we’ll eventually view sleep as essential to human flourishing as other human needs, and we’ll enshrine the “right to sleep” alongside other human rights declarations. In 1948, the United Nations issued The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It begins with the inspiring line, “Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world…” The declaration continues to outline key human rights, including the right to participate in goverment, the right to the rule of law, and the right to live life without being enslaved. This document represents the best hope of humanity. Since 1948, the circle of rights has expanded amongst those serious about human well-being, and I see no reason why the right to sleep should not be included in this list, especially for young people who have less autonomy and less control over their schedules and demands. Adults need to look out for young people to ensure that their health and development, to say nothing of their happiness, is ensured. In order to do this realistically, we need to reassess when the school day begins. Most schools start at 8 a.m., a full hour before most day jobs. Common justifications for this are that adults need to drop their children off before going to work and the need for afternoon daylight for sports teams to practice after school. However, both of these justifications crumple under the weight of the basic human need for sleep. We can come up with ways to get kids to school at 9. We can come up with alternatives for sports practice times. We cannot replace sleep.

Level 3 – Fill the page by cutting deep to the underlying question. Analyze the key terms involved, use that analysis to ask new questions – and then answer those questions (Some useful cheat sheets- the values list, the fallacies and biases, the lenses of humanity/dehumanization, basic human needs, cultural categories.)

(And at this point, you’re not “merely” filling the page any more, you are thinking on your feet and producing intellectually mature work.)

Your longer (stronger) answer: What does it mean to ask, “Why is it hard to be sleepy at school?” First of all, the question is leading. Is it hard to be sleepy at school? In my experience, there are far more difficult and onerous challenges in life. Navigating a complex social world is hard. Dealing with the illness or death of a loved one is hard. Building a reliable ship of academic skills while sailing the crashing waves of a stormy ocean of tests and essays is hard. Being sleepy at school is annoying. It is not hard. The main reason that it cannot be classified with genuine challenges is because the strategies to address the problem are abundant and within reach of even the least imaginative student. Students can go to sleep earlier. They can nap when they get home from school. They can cut out blue light from smartphones and computer screens to ensure that they don’t lie awake waiting for sleep to come. They can learn to meditate, to clear their mind, and prepare for genuinely restful sleep. They can exercise more, changing their metabolism and sleep cycles. They can buy “happy lamps” that simulate sunlight when they wake up, alerting their body’s natural wakeful response to daylight. By asking this question, you inadvertently make life feel harder for students. You imply that life is full of insurmountable obstacles that need to be tolerated rather than overcome. There are genuinely hard things in life that truly do need to be tolerated. We don’t have control over everything in our lives. We cannot control who loves us, who wants to be friends with us, or the choices of those close to us. Millions of children live with drug-addicted parents. Many children don’t have enough to eat. Many children don’t have access to school. We would better spend our time analyzing the root causes of these entrenched problems. They are not unsolvable. We need not live in a world were so many children are helpless and hungry. We have the resources to ensure that every young person is provided with the bare essentials to survive and thrive. We simply need to direct our resources, both intellectual and material, to these issues. Instead, we’re complaining about being sleepy. I will not live my life whimpering about my appetites. I will fight to make the world a better place.