The Art of Boredom — an Unrecognized Fount of Creativity
I’m increasingly disturbed by my behavior.
I have a tic, an affliction, a virus. When a moment of emptiness descends upon me, I reach for my phone, tap it madly, and hope to find stimulation. I do this in line at the grocery store, during my kids’ soccer games, or even at a red light.
Like many, I’m searching for the dopamine spritzer I’ve become addicted to. My brain craves novelty and stimulation, and I’m caught in a loop of compulsive neediness. I scroll through photos, read random updates, and then when the red light changes to green, I go on my way (if I see the light). I’ve become the “computer creature” Keith Haring presciently depicted in his art in the 80s, a human with a computer monitor for a head and a phone for a hand. I am my gadgets.
“The net is designed to be an interruption system, a machine geared to dividing attention,” Nicholas Carr explains in his book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. “We willingly accept the loss of concentration and focus, the division of our attention and the fragmentation of our thoughts, in return for the wealth of compelling or at least diverting information we receive.”
Except that the diverting information tends not to nourish my soul or spark my imagination. Instead, it steals something precious from me: boredom.
Wait a minute, boredom … precious? Yes. Many vital things have gone extinct in the last couple of centuries, but perhaps one of the most under-appreciated is the scarcity of true boredom in our lives. Think about it: when was the last time you experienced a moment of emptiness and allowed your mind to luxuriate in it without twitching to grab your smart phone or a remote control? If you’re like me, you’re so addicted to online distractions that you make excuses to dart away from the deep thinking an impasse in your novel requires to search for something — anything — on the Internet, as if the web can write your next scene.
Boredom is a creator’s friend, though, because your mind naturally resists such moments of stasis and seeks stimulation. Before our era of hyper connectivity, boredom was an occasion of observation, a wonderful juncture of daydreaming — a time when one might conjure a new story idea while milking a cow or building a fire.
“It is very curious that boredom, which itself has such a calm and sedate nature, can have such a capacity to initiate motion. The effect that boredom brings about is absolutely magical,” Kierkegaard said.
When you pause to accept boredom’s invitation to actually experience the world, your senses become heightened, and you notice things you wouldn’t have otherwise. As the poet Mary Oliver wrote, “To see that the way the flicker flies is greatly different from the way the swallow plays in the golden air of summer.” Oliver tried to see through “the heavenly visibles to the heavenly invisibles,” something that requires absorption in those stray, lingering moments of life. These moments, seemingly fallow, are actually a fertile breeding ground for ideas. Being bored signals to the mind that you’re in need of fresh thoughts and spurs creative thinking.
In fact, Sandi Mann and Rebekah Cadman, psychology researchers at the University of Central Lancashire, found that the boredom felt during passive activities heightens the “daydreaming effect” on creativity. The more passive the boredom, the more likely the daydreaming and the more creative a person is afterward. Moments of boredom resemble sleep. When the mind finds itself in an interlude of rest, synapses connect in different ways, and new thoughts form. So even though you might think of the time waiting in line at the grocery store as dead time, your mind is actually readying itself for an imaginative adventure or an illuminating insight. “Certain good things are not possible except where there is a certain degree of monotony,” wrote Bertrand Russell.
I think of boredom as a meditator’s breath. It’s a way to explore the silence of myself — and the sounds in that silence.
In the musician John Cage’s 4’33’’, his most famous piece, a pianist walks on stage to play a composition, sits erectly at the piano, adjusts the sheet music, and pauses for four minutes and 33 seconds. In that intense silence, sound is transformed. Each inhale and exhale, each mysterious scritch and scratch or stray car horn, becomes part of the musical experience. Expectations are flipped as listeners explore an absence that is also a presence. Mysteries abound in the time we’re not “entertained”.
By focusing on disruptions rather than the connective tissue of a musical narrative, Cage obviated the crescendos and diminuendos of music, and his work actually became an odd meditation on what is absent. The listener creates his own harmony in the space, just as our minds must fill boredom with a story or observations or memories — to escape the boredom. “One could say that all sounds make love to one another, or at least they accept one another, in any combination,” Cage said.
I recently tested accepting boredom myself. I took a vow to not pull out my cell phone when boredom hit to see if I would experience the sounds and sights and smells of the world “making love” to one another. It was difficult at first because I questioned everything I’ve just written to you (yes, my cell phone is quite a seductive siren). But as I sunk into boredom, as I let my mind slouch on its couch of emptiness, the world started to fill up with intriguing details.
One day, while waiting in line for a coffee, I noticed a man biting his lip as he waited, wincing his eyes and nervously swaying on his feet. A little boy tried to blow bubbles with his spit as his mother stared at her phone. Two women laughed about the inept advances men had made to them on Match.com. Suddenly, my little boring coffee shop had turned into a symphony of stories. The humans around me were vastly more interesting in real life than anything happening on my gadget. (And I ended up including snippets of the women’s conversation in a story).
“You get ideas from daydreaming. You get ideas from being bored. You get ideas all the time. The only difference between writers and other people is we notice when we’re doing it,” said Neil Gaiman.
That’s the secret — to notice your boredom, notice the thoughts and observations it sparks. I bet your smart phone doesn’t deliver ideas in such a rich, nourishing way.
Grant Faulkner is the author of Pep Talks for Writers: 52 Insights and Actions to Boost Your Creative Mojo and the co-host of the podcast Write-minded. His essays on creative writing have appeared in The New York Times, Poets & Writers, Writer’s Digest, and The Writer.
For more, go to grantfaulkner.com, or follow him on Twitter at @grantfaulkner.