You’ve got to go by or past or through boredom, as through a filter, before the clear product emerges.
~ F. Scott Fitzgerald
Whenever I sit staring at the blank page, waiting for inspiration to come, I prefer not to think of it as a writer’s block, but an opportunity to sit with the tension and possibility of waiting. An opportunity to be bored rather than stress about how unproductive I am.
Sayings like ‘bored to death’, ‘bored to tears’ or ‘bored stiff’ give boredom a bad reputation. Philosopher Soren Kierkegaard saw boredom as “the root of all evil” and poet William Wordsworth described it as a “savage torpor.” Yet there is value in having nothing to do. Studies in psychology, history, social science, and neuroscience reveal the positive role it plays, such as being a pre-condition for curiosity, stimulating creativity and fostering innovation. Boredom can also lead to contemplation and reflection, which are also connected to the creative process.
In a September 2016 article in The Conversation, Teresa Belton, a Visiting Fellow at the University of East Anglia, writes about interviewing creative people and hearing how crucial a state of waiting and nothingness is to their lives. For some, childhood boredom provided fertile ground for imagination and ideas. For others, it had become a regular part of their creative practice.
Boredom was my friend while writing ‘Not Doing: the art of effortless action’, co-authored
with Steven D'Souza. Whenever I would feel stuck, I would seek it out, allowing myself periods of time-wasting. I trusted that boredom would create a refreshing spaciousness, allowing nothingness to flow through me until creativity emerged. My best ideas would come when I was lying in bed, before falling asleep, letting my mind wander.
For composer John Cage a boring process of composing induced ideas. “They fly into one’s head like birds,” he noted. However, we don’t have to be engaged in artistic pursuits to benefit from boredom. “Just letting the mind wander from time to time is important, it seems, for everybody’s mental wellbeing and functioning”, says Belton. “A study has even shown that, if we engage in some low-key, undemanding activity at same time, the wandering mind is more likely to come up with imaginative ideas and solutions to problems.”
As I write this, I am conscious that spare or empty time, as an essential pre-condition to boredom, is a privilege. Those who are working to make ends meet, or toiling in a subsistence economy, do not have the luxury of feeling bored. I am grateful for the privilege I have to do nothing and be unproductive in the service of creativity and writing.