The way to get ideas is to do something boring… They fly into one’s head like birds.
Astra Taylor, whose essay Unschooling was one of the very first things that got me interested in unschooling, recently published a piece about unschooling your kids in the time of Coronavirus. I love what she wrote about boredom:
That doesn’t mean unschooling is always easy or that boredom isn’t a challenge, but unschoolers tend to see boredom as something to be passed through, a pit stop on the way to figuring out what fascinates you. (“When you’re bored, you’re boring,” my mom would respond whenever we’d whine.)
I’m reminded of John Berryman’s “Dream Song 14: “ “my mother told me as a boy / (repeatingly) ‘Ever to confess you’re bored / means you have no / Inner Resources.’ I conclude now I have no inner resources, because I am heavy bored…”
Taylor’s mom is now unschooling a new generation:
I asked my mother what it was like to suddenly be unschooling her grandchildren. “Right now, it’s more like I’m deschooling them,” she clarified, a term unschoolers often use to describe the period of transition from the structures and expectations of school to something more relaxed and self-directed. The kids love their small elementary school in New Mexico and are accustomed to being in a regimented situation, so my mother suspects they will all need some time to find a rhythm, figure out how they like to spend their time, and establish new guidelines and boundaries. “How much television and how much computer and what is okay in terms of letting them do it, and see if they just get bored or whether we’ll need to switch gears,” she said.
Five years ago, I wrote a post about the benefits of boredom, and since then, I’ve collected all sorts of stories of creative people who’ve talked about how essential boredom is to their work.
Agatha Christie, for example, made an explicit link between her occupation, her lack of formal education, and childhood boredom:
People often ask me what made me take up writing. Many of them, I fancy, wonder whether to take my answer seriously, although it’s a strictly truthful one. You see, I put it all down to the fact that I never had any education. Perhaps I’d better qualify that — by admitting that I did eventually go to school in Paris when I was 16 or thereabouts. But until then, apart from being taught a little arithmetic, I’d had no lessons to speak of at all. Although I was gloriously idle, in those days children had to do a good many things for themselves. They made their own doll’s furniture, and they made Christmas presents to give to their friends. (Nowadays, they’re just given money and told to buy their presents in a big store.) I found myself making up stories and acting the different parts and there’s nothing like boredom to make you write. So by the time I was sixteen or seventeen, I’d written quite a number of short stories and one long dreary novel.
In her autobiography (my wife’s favorite book), she writes about how her idle childhood meant that she was always able to entertain herself:
I have never, all through my life, suffered from the tedium of ‘nothing to do’. An enormous number of women do. They suffer from loneliness and boredom. To have time on their hands is a nightmare and not a delight. If things are constantly being done to amuse you, naturally you expect it. And when nothing is done for you, you are at a loss.
I suppose it is because nearly all children go to school nowadays, and have things arranged for them, that they seem so forlornly unable to produce their own ideas in holiday time. I am always astonished when children come to me and say: ‘Please. I’ve nothing to do.’ With an air of desperation I point out:
‘But you’ve got a lot of toys, haven’t you?’
But you’ve got two trains. And lorries, and a painting set. And blocks. Can’t you play with some of them?’
‘But I can’t play by myself with them.’
‘Why not? I know. Paint a picture of a bird, then cut it out and make a cage with the blocks, and put the bird in the cage.’
The gloom brightens and there is peace for nearly ten minutes.
The Autobiography was published in 1977!
Trent Reznor, the leader of Nine Inch Nails, said this about growing up in Pennsylvania:
There weren’t a lot of things to distract you, so you’d end up turning inward. I can’t help but think about that lack of access. The side effect was that when you could get something, whether it be an album or a magazine that looked like a portal into a new world, you pored over it, because it wasn’t one Google search away all the time. I think I turned out the way I did because I was so bored.
Neil Gaiman’s advice for writers? “Get bored.”
[Ideas] come from day dreaming, from drifting, that moment when you’re just sitting there… The trouble with these days is that it’s really hard to get bored. I have 2.4 million people on Twitter who will entertain me at any moment…it’s really hard to get bored. I’m much better at putting my phone away, going for boring walks, actually trying to find the space to get bored in. That’s what I’ve started saying to people who say ‘I want to be a writer,” I say ‘great, get bored.‘
Clay Shirky on why reading is so valuable in our age:
The reading experience is so much more valuable now than it was ten years ago because it’s rarer. I remember, as a child, being bored. I grew up in a particularly boring place and so I was bored pretty frequently. But when the Internet came along it was like, “That’s it for being bored! Thank God! You’re awake at four in the morning? So are thousands of other people!”
It was only later that I realized the value of being bored was actually pretty high. Being bored is a kind of diagnostic for the gap between what you might be interested in and your current environment. But now it is an act of significant discipline to say, “I’m going to stare out the window. I’m going to schedule some time to stare out the window.” The endless gratification offered up by our devices means that the experience of reading in particular now becomes something we have to choose to do.
And Nicholas Carr, expanding on Shirky’s idea:
We don’t like being bored because boredom is the absence of engaging stimulus, but boredom is valuable because it requires us to fill that absence out of our own resources, which is process of discovery, of doors opening. The pain of boredom is a spur to action, but because it’s pain we’re happy to avoid it. Gadgetry means never having to feel that pain, or that spur. The web expands to fill all boredom. That’s dangerous for everyone, but particularly so for kids, who, without boredom’s spur, may never discover what in themselves or in their surroundings is most deeply engaging to them.
It’s so hard to let our kids — and ourselves! — be bored… but we must! And now’s the time, if any, to let yourself be bored.