In Search of Boredom

Our society has an antipathy to boredom. It seems we dare not be alone with our thoughts for a moment, that we must fill every second with distraction. I see people walking down sidewalks, reading their text messages. I see people give their order at restaurants and then immediately whip out their phones to check their messages. I see people playing games on their phones while waiting for dental appointments and oil changes. SUVs come with DVD players in their backseats because heaven forbid that a child be forced to look at the passing scenery on a road trip. And just today, I learned that some police departments offer Xbox to victims while they are waiting to file reports.

Fine and good. If you’re thinking I’m about to step on my soapbox–yet again–to rant against the evils of our technology-driven world, you’re wrong.

Well … sort of.

I just want to make the case that writers need boredom more than they need phones, games, streaming video, and Instagram.

One of the best things my parents did for me in my childhood was plant me in some of the most boring situations ever. As an only child, I spent a lot of time hanging out in their business after school–being quiet and staying out of the way. Because they dropped me off at school in the mornings on their way to work one hour before school actually started, I had time to think, imagine, and dream. They hauled me on long twenty-hour road trips, and although I was an avid reader I couldn’t read in the car because of my severe astigmatism. Ergo, I moved into my imagination and invented stories for myself. Could I have done that while watching a DVD as we drove across Texas all day?

Today, my phone dings with text messages, emails, alerts, Facebook notifications, and reminders. Helpful, but distracting. When I sit down at my computer for a cherished hour of writing time, can I resist the news feed on my browser? Can I resist peeking at my emails? If I want to actually use my writing hour for writing, I had better resist everything.

Once upon a time, I remember when my weekends were empty–with nothing on my to-do list but household chores and writing. Now, the daily list runs across multiple pages with far too many intriguing events calling enticements to me. Errands go on and on, and choices are endless. There isn’t even time to pursue hobbies.

When did this happen? How does it happen? And what do we do about it?

Last week, while driving to work, I grew weary of the early-morning chatter of FM radio hosts and punched in the local classical music station. Sublime Bach filled my car as I crawled through near-gridlock traffic. Just minutes previously, I had tuned my radio to a station playing the latest Taylor Swift ditty. And I had to wonder about how we’ve gone from musicians proffering us the complexity of Bach to pop tunes featuring five notes and a repeating chorus. Could Bach hear himself think today in our cacophony of busy lives, busy tasks, more, more, more? Or would he be too distracted by the chance to watch Netflix to compose serious music?

Beware, fellow writers, the siren’s lure of distraction. It calls us into the land of Lotus Eaters, where we forget how swiftly our writing time passes or how near our deadlines loom because we are too busy thinking of too many things to write.

Find the boredom. Seek out nothing to do. Let silence fill your head and drive out the chatter-clatter of daily life. Sit quietly until you’re past the wiggles and impatient looking for your phone, for a magazine, for the remote, for something to push, peer at, listen to, watch. Sit quietly until the quiet drives you deep into your imagination. Then the muse will come.



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7 responses to “In Search of Boredom

  1. Bill M

    Remember back to about 1967 and the Tremelos? Silence is Golden.
    Today it may be retitled to something like no digital distractions is golden. I love my alone time and your post could almost be my exact thoughts. I am not a writer. I program. I do find though when I am programming or working on an engineering problem at work that when I get away alone in the woods behind our building for about an hour alone to think, all goes better than staying in my office or around distractions. I miss my free hour before school. I was one of a few students on the fist bus and we arrived an hour before anyone else. Quiet.

    • Yes, indeed. That blissful quiet when we can truly concentrate is becoming a rarity–a prize commodity.

    • I think it can be easy to forget–or fail to realize–how much quietness can help when you’re focusing on one task. Today’s society is very oriented toward multi-tasking, but in my childhood a multi-tasker was often considered disorganized or inefficient. Times have changed, but I still enjoy settling deep into my creative groove and concentrating on what I’m doing … nothing else.

  2. A you say, it’s not necessarily a bad thing — but it is a thing, and being able to tolerate boredom is a skill worth learning.

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