The benefits of boredom

having become bored out of her gourd the artist started working

Leslie Barker, a writer at the Dallas Morning News, got in touch with me way back in October and asked me about a subject I consider myself an expert on: the benefits of boredom.

Here’s what I wrote in Steal Like An Artist:

the benefits of boredom

By the way, “Stare at a spot on the wall” was something I stole from psychologist William James of all people. I later turned it into an exercise in The Steal Like An Artist Journal:

stare at this dot until you get an idea

When it comes to the benefits of boredom, I’m certainly not the first to write about the subject…

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What to leave out and what to leave in

creativity is subtraction

Lots of writers — myself included — have stressed the importance of subtraction, or knowing what to leave out.

Mark Twain: “A successful book is not made of what is in it, but of what is left out of it.”

Dizzy Gillespie: “You spend a lifetime playing music to learn what not to play.”

Elmore Leonard: “Try to leave out all the parts readers skip.”

edit out the boring parts

But what if you leave out the wrong stuff? How do you know what to leave in?

Here’s David Mamet, in Three Uses Of The Knife:

I used to say that a good writer throws out the stuff that everybody else keeps. But an even better test occurs to me: perhaps a good writer keeps the stuff everybody else throws out.

Peter Turchi told me when he’s teaching writing workshops, he’s careful not to try to “fix” a student’s story too quickly:

[W]e have to recognize that the thing that looks most flawed, might, in fact, be the most interesting thing in the work. So we’re not looking for the thing that functions best, because to do that is to only reward the most conventional and most familiar moves the work makes. But to try to recognize the thing that excites us the most, or intrigues us the most, which may be something the writer doesn’t even understand.

“Life is selection,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson. “The work of the gardener is simply to destroy this weed, or that shrub, or that tree, & leave this other to grow.”

But which weed? Which shrub? Which tree?

Exactly. That’s the art.

You probably don’t deserve it

what you owe: all you took and more

“Creative work is very hard,” wrote Sidney Lumet in Making Movies. “Some sort of self-deception is necessary simply in order to start.”

In the beginning, you have to trick yourself into believing you have something worth saying.

So when you’re first starting out, you surround yourself with people who will provide you with helpful criticism, but who will also be cheerleaders — people who will root for you and tell you to keep going, even if you’re not any good yet.

BUT! If you achieve success, it’s CRUCIAL that you have people in your life who will be real editors, keep you grounded, and push you. People who will support you, sure, but will also be honest with you about the quality of the work you’re doing.

It’s also crucial to be honest with yourself. No matter how far along you are, maintaining a certain amount of impostor syndrome can be a healthy thing.

“I think most of us feel like fakes,” wrote Lumet. “At some point ‘they’ will get onto us and expose us for what we are: know-nothings, hustlers, and charlatans. It’s not a totally destructive feeling. It tends to keep us honest.”

You probably don’t deserve what you have. So keep moving and earn it.

The noun and the verb


Lots of people want to be the noun without doing the verb. They want the job title without the work.

“Forget about being a Writer,” says novelist Ann Packer. “Follow the impulse to write.”

Let go of the thing that you’re trying to be (the noun), and focus on the actual work you need to be doing (the verb).

Doing the verb will take you someplace further and far more interesting than just wanting the noun.

10 things I learned while writing my last book

working in the garage
My third book Show Your Work! came out a year ago. I kept a diary while writing the book, but it’s too painful and embarrassing to share in full. So here’s a list of lessons I learned while writing it, adapted from a series of tweets

1. Don’t try to write a book while taking care of a newborn baby.

I drastically underestimated how much physical, mental, and spiritual energy it requires. (Sarah Ruhl writes really well about the distractions of parenting.) Those first two months are just brutal — take them off if you can. Keep a pocket notebook and take little notes for later.

2. Write outside of the house.

Get an office, or go to the coffee shop, or ride the train around. At the very least, find a room in your house with a door that closes. Set up a bliss station.

I wrote Show at the top of the stairs in an open loft, wearing headphones to try to block out the cries of the baby. Let me tell you: Headphones are not a replacement for a shut door.

3. Stop researching, start writing.

“There’s an awful temptation to just keep on researching,” says David McCollough. “There comes a point where you just have to stop, and start writing. When I began, I thought that the way one should work was to do all the research and then write the book. In time I began to understand that it’s when you start writing that you really find out what you don’t know and need to know.”

4. Once you’re in the middle of writing the book, talk about the book as little as possible.

I’m an extreme extrovert, which is really great after I write a book and I have to go out into the world and talk to people about it, but not so great when I need to sequester myself long enough to actually get some real writing done.

I do most of my thinking “out loud,” which means that ideas don’t really come to me until I’ve expressed them. If I express them through speech, I’m less likely to turn around and say them in writing. (This chart might help.)

5. Stick to an outline until you’re between drafts.

This has screwed me so many times. Don’t try to change structure during a draft. Power through until the draft is done. (Get The Clockwork Muse, which covers this subject brilliantly.)

6. A book can be a pain-in-the-ass to write as long as it isn’t a pain-in-the-ass to read.

People are surprised when I tell them what a horrible time I had writing this book. Which means I did my job!

7. Your partner or spouse is so, so sick of you.

Seriously. Do something nice for him/her, or at the very least, don’t talk about your book. Schedule regular time together when you don’t talk about work.

8. Don’t use childbirth as a metaphor.

There is only one way that writing a book is like giving birth: After it enters the world, the pain is mostly over, but the work has only begun.

9. Don’t squander your momentum.

After you finish one book, start writing something else as soon as you can. Chain-smoke.

If you’re truly burnt out, quit for a while. Read. Travel. Talk to people. Go away so you can come back.

10. Know what you’re getting into.

Best case scenario: You write a good book that sells. Then everyone will want you to write another one. “What next?” is a never-ending question for the writer… so beware!

You can get a copy of Show Your Work! right here.

The So What? Test

The So What Test

The act of sharing is one of generosity—you’re putting something out there because you think it might be helpful or entertaining to someone on the other side of the screen.

I had a professor in college who returned our graded essays, walked up to the chalkboard, and wrote in huge letters: “SO WHAT?” She threw the piece of chalk down and said, “Ask yourself that every time you turn in a piece of writing.”

It’s a lesson I never forgot.

Always be sure to run everything you share with others through The “So What?” Test. Don’t overthink it; just go with your gut.

If you’re unsure about whether to share something, let it sit for 24 hours. Put it in a drawer and walk out the door. The next day, take it out and look at it with fresh eyes. Ask yourself, “Is this helpful? Is it entertaining? Is it something I’d be comfortable with my boss or my mother seeing?”

There’s nothing wrong with saving things for later. The SAVE AS DRAFT button is like a prophylactic—it might not feel as good in the moment, but you’ll be glad you used it in the morning.

This post is an excerpt from my book, Show Your Work!

The work goes on


Judith brought this newspaper clipping to the little book release party my wife threw for me after my first book came out. An artist herself, she blacked out the caption of the photograph to read: “create more a    r  t.”

I had it hanging on my bulletin board for a few years, then took it down and threw it in a box when I moved my office out to the garage.

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