The importance of boredom in writing

everybody-should-sit-by-a-little-stream

When was the last time you were bored – or even just waiting alone by yourself for a spare moment – and didn’t instantly spring to bridge that feeling of boredom or fill that moment of waiting by checking Facebook or Twitter or Instagram (or even LinkedIn if the boredom were really acute)? And how about the last time you were out for a meal with your partner, and didn’t reach for your smartphone the minute they left to use the bathroom?

What we are doing, when we do these things, is recoiling from the dull. But why? Why do we do this? Perhaps this desire to flee boredom and escape from it is created in our minds because boredom is intrinsically painful – we describe it, after all, in linguistical terms that imply this pain: ‘deadly dull’; ‘excruciatingly boring’; ‘bored to death’. And studies even suggest that people prefer painful experiences to being alone in a room with their own thoughts for fifteen minutes.

Our lives, however, are completely entwined with experiences of boredom. We can all recognize that feeling of suspended anticipation in which things are started and nothing begins; that mood of diffuse restlessness which contains that fiercely strong desire for action, for movement.

An ode to boredom: a force for good

Yet, although boredom is an intrinsic part of life for everyone; it needn’t be destructive – and it certainly needn’t be painful. In fact, there’s a growing consensus that boredom should be embraced – and that avoiding boredom is potentially far more destructive and dangerous.

Indeed, consider the words of British Philosopher, Bertrand Russell, “A generation that cannot endure boredom will be a generation of little men… of men in whom every vital impulse slowly withers, as though they were cut flowers in a vase.”

Meanwhile, Soren Kierkegaard – perhaps the world’s first existentialist – explained that “the unhappy man is always absent from himself, never present to himself.” In this, he hints at what lies behind our decisions to constantly reach for the smartphone; for the device that distracts us. It is an unconscious desire to be “absent” from ourselves and from the world: an insidious form of escapism.

And in acquiescing to our fear of boredom, of sitting quietly and thinking hard about things for thirty minutes instead of thirty seconds, we deny ourselves the opportunity to become greater than we are: we deny ourselves the opportunity to better understand who we are, at our very deepest levels, as human beings.

Boredom is important, then, because it opens channels. It expands our potential and helps us to grow – to better understand ourselves and the world. We can find new ways of thinking about life in those moments when boredom forces us to think about things other than the latest post about cats on Facebook.

On writing

Boredom, of course, is not just a ‘real life’ issue, which affects us intermittently depending on the flows of our lives. It is, instead, a very real part of the writing process. Writing is, after all, essentially the attempt to elucidate thoughts and ideas: the very things boredom helps us dwell upon and create.

It’s perhaps little coincidence so many inspiring thoughts are had in moments of quiet solitude – sitting beneath apple trees or relaxing in a bath. These are the moments in which we are able to think carefully about ideas and draw unexpected conclusions we are otherwise unable to in a world of constant stimulation – of music and television everywhere you go; of constant out-of-office emails and work patterns; of incessant digital background babbling.

Certainly, there seems a feeling among certain writers that boredom is essential for writing and creative thinking. For example, comedy writer Graham Linehan said, in a recent interview for the Guardian: “I have to use all these programs that cut off the internet, force me to be bored, because being bored is an essential part of writing, and the internet has made it very hard to be bored.”

It is the fear of boredom, and the ease of distraction from boredom – enabled by the internet and smartphones – that is dangerous to writing. Little wonder Kingsley Amis said “the art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.” We have to be willing, as writers, to embrace boredom and resist that desire to flee its embrace.

The boredom paradox

One of the issues with suggesting that we need to embrace boredom in order to become creative and to think in new and unexpected ways, is that, once we start being creative and thinking in this way, we stop being bored. Very few people hit upon an idea that absolutely inspires them and are able to retain a detached distance from it in which conversations about their work proceed something along the lines of:

“So I’ve discovered the meaning of existence.”

“Oh, really? That’s incredible!”

“Yah. Yah, it’s okay I guess. I dunno. I guess it’s fine to be getting on with for the time being.”

In fact, in a way it perhaps seems strange that we recoil from boredom at all: because why would we fear the opportunity to be creative, to think stimulating thoughts and break down boundaries? Perhaps there’s something else here. Something deeper. That it is not boredom itself that we fear: but rather, the things we might discover in ourselves, within that boredom.

The late writer, David Foster Wallace, touched upon this in questioning why we held in ourselves “This terror of silence [when faced with] nothing diverting to do. I can’t think anyone really believes that today’s so-called ‘information society’ is just about information. Everyone knows it’s about something else, way down.”

It is that something else, perhaps, which truly frightens us. Because perhaps what we fear most is understanding who we actually are – or allowing ourselves to realise and acknowledge those things we spend so much time trying to ignore: that we are mortal, and never ever more than a breath away from death. That we are alone in a vast, spinning, and infinite world; that we exist in a universe in which we are totally and utterly and completely insignificant.

These thoughts truly are terrifying. I don’t know about you but I am literally screaming at the top of my lungs as I write this and think these thoughts, eyes wide and pupils dilated. But in all that terror, there’s also something deeply, intensely interesting.

In fact, in a way, it’s incredible, really, that we allow ourselves to become bored, anyway. After all, there is an infinite amount to be thought of; an infinite number of ideas to be had. We live in a universe full of wonders, so impossibly vast that we can’t comprehend it, even with our minds, which are themselves infinite and vast and go on forever.

What is to be done?

So what do we do, then, other than taking all our mobilephones, our laptops and computers and throwing them in the nearest ocean? Perhaps we could become hermits, and live alone by ourselves in perpetual solitude. Although I hear this is a dying trade and an industry in great decline.

Once again, Bertrand Russell offers the following thoughts: “A happy life must be to a great extent a quiet life, for it is only in an atmosphere of quiet that true joy can live.”

How about that, then. Perhaps we should just start talking a little more quietly. I know this can be difficult, especially in the digital age of ‘social media’ – which so often just seems to be an echo-chamber in which communities of like-minds write ALL IN CAPS as their empty theses, condensed into 140 characters, are lost in a cacophony of data and trending #hashtags.

Indeed, this is a problem of social media highlighted by Mark Fisher in his work, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? As he suggests the internet “facilitates communities of solipsists, interpassive networks of like-minds who confirm, rather than challenge, each others’ assumptions and prejudices.”

If true, what this suggests is that rather than broadening our horizons, as is necessary to think deeply and hard about subjects and ideas – a crucial act in writing – we are instead simply shouting loudly over the top of other people saying the exact same thing. In such scenarios, a break away from technology; from these communities, can only be a good thing for our minds and our writing. So perhaps the first step in embracing boredom is to step away from that which tries so hard to distract us from being bored – the internet. Perhaps the first step is to turn off the power and start to think.

Coda

The greatest irony with all this, of course, is that I have written this post on my smartphone while waiting in a queue to watch The Minions movie, because I couldn’t bear to stand by myself doing nothing. Indeed, in writing this, then, am I myself escaping the reality of boredom? That necessary reality we must embrace in order to live a happy life? And here I was hoping those little yellow bastards would help distract me for 90 minutes from the ultimate reality that we are all slowly being drawn toward that sweet caress of death.

But wait, this isn’t just me, is it? You’re probably reading this on your iPhone, while sitting on the toilet, aren’t you? What are we to do?

Pfft. Everything’s just too meta these days. And too meta meta, as well. Meta2, if you will. Oh the humanity. I’m off to find a little stream where I can sit quietly and listen. You should too, if you want to, maybe.

12 thoughts on “The importance of boredom in writing

  1. “…oh give me the silence of your libraries!” addressing to Solitude, regardless of whether Bertrand Russell’s thoughts are right or not. In my view, the view from the one who never gets bored, some people today overdid their internet activity.. Sorrowful yet curable.
    Thank you for sharing your interesting thoughts, professorwu !

    Liked by 1 person

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