On creativity and the death of boredom

07.15.11

First published in Kill Your Darlings, Issue Four.

I’m not sure exactly when I first decided that boredom needed to be eradicated from my life – my late teens perhaps – but one day I simply found this thought had germinated, pulsing silent and adamant in the background of my project of post-school personal reformation. I hadn’t, as others seemingly had, been instructed by my parents that ‘only boring people get bored’. It was a conclusion I arrived at independently, borne of the agonising lonelinesses of adolescence and made possible by a degree of social acuity only achieved post matriculation. And perhaps it was going to university that did it. And perhaps it was getting rid of my once beloved, never quite cool fluorescent orange, three-quarter length shorts. Adolescence: it’s a strange time.

But as soon as the thought had formed, I became possessed by it. Brimming with certitude (if not confidence), I started saying “yes” to everything – every social occasion, every extra-curricular activity, every technological innovation, every new style of music. The opportunities I had craved in high school were suddenly open to me. I accrued friends with zeal, wrote and performed in plays, worked in a bookshop, went to a four day rave in a Serbian fortress, did a semester on exchange in Canada, read/listened to/watched/looked at everything I could find that seemed to be of cultural consequence, had sexual liaisons, had a sexual liaison that ended with me having to climb out a window to avoid the girl’s grandmother, developed a tolerance for drink, developed a tolerance for drugs, joined the Student Guild Council, moved cities, moved universities and, on occasion, studied. It was a blaze of activity for activity’s sake, years spent, quite consciously, in the pursuit of anecdote.

Technology facilitated the process no end. As the internet began diffusing into every last crevice of our lives, even my resting moments became “active”. If I kept moving, the logic seemed to run, the mere fact of my motion will stop the spectre of boredom from ever again encroaching upon my life. I’ll be free. I’ll be interesting. I’ll have heaps of friends. Both real and on Facebook. In 2007, my love affair with the internet roaring toward its apex, I recall  actually uttering to my best friend, ’I just can’t imagine being bored anymore’. And I couldn’t. I had succeeded. I had become incapable of stasis.

Three years down the track, however, and I have begun to wonder whether perhaps I had been a little hard on boredom. Or that, at the very least, I confused two very different qualities.For me, boredom was the unavoidable correlative of loneliness. And if my teenage years had been writ in anything, they had been writ in loneliness. Not that he was always consumed with it, mind – the video games and endless reams of fantasy- and science-fiction were on hand to provide a certain buffer against the void – but it was always there nonetheless.

But for all their occasional companionship, boredom, I suspect, is constructed from different matter altogether. Because I look back further, toward my childhood proper, and I realise that so much of it was spent not in activity or adventure or in loneliness – although I was often alone – but rather in a remarkable fugue of boredom. Vast, arcing chasms of boredom that stretched, seemingly boundless, to the visible horizons of my world.

There were the hours spent following my mother around furniture auction rooms or accompanying her to aerobics class, although she maintains I often partook in the latter. I maintain I was so bored I seriously considered death. Or there were those afternoons sitting quietly in my father’s office, waiting to be picked up by mum, looking at the accumulated books and files and papers and wondering, first what this possibly had to do with the man’s medical practice (there being little administrative work or research required in the board game, Operation), and second how he could possibly own that much printed matter and none of it be in comic form. Then there were the days where my older brother was away and I was left alone to build fantastical and solitary worlds out of the constituent components of my backyard. We had a trampoline so at least I was always able to pretend I could fly. And, inevitably, crash.

But the pervasiveness of this sense of boredom makes me wonder whether it is, in fact, this feeling that accounts for much of what we glowingly recall as our childlike imagination. That beyond wonder, beyond fear, or perhaps in combination with them, it was that feeling of comprehensive, consuming boredom that provided the grist and impetus for the adventures of childhood. If you’re desperate enough an antique furniture auction room becomes a veritable wonderland of Narnian portals. Pushed to it by inactivity, I’d read my father’s incomprehensible medical transcripts and try and fit the words together into a meaningful lexicon. I’d jump on the trampoline and find myself bounding over a mountain, magical broadsword drawn, my furious, five year old hands ready to slaughter the oncoming orc hordes. Because at that age my career aspiration was, seriously, barbarian.

As a child, boredom isn’t necessarily coupled with loneliness, it’s coupled with inquisitiveness, a need to discover or to create in order to fill the nothing moments in our lives. It is, to put it another way, the motivator of play. It’s only as we grow older that boredom becomes afflicted with this existential anomie, the state of terrifying aimlessness that we go to such lengths to expel.

Not that there’s anything particularly novel about this idea of the loss of boredom. The increasing demands of age seem almost purposefully designed to eliminate periods of idle thought from our lives. However, I wonder whether this is a necessary product of maturity or actually the product of a particular cultural, and increasingly technological moment. Certainly, the concept of boredom animated the thoughts of a number of early twentieth-century philosophers. Heidegger, for instance, one of the foremost existentialist philosophers of boredom, saw the act of waiting for a train as the archetypal location of this (anti-)phenomenon. And you can see how the train station must have once acted as the free man’s prison; a defined point in space, inescapable and static, a release from which was subject to a suite of external forces that one had no capacity to see or influence. Nothing to do but to rest with one’s thoughts. Not that Heidegger enjoyed the prospect; for him, boredom was a ‘silent fog’.

Eighty years later, and I recently decided to undertake a small personal experiment: to go a full thirty minute tram ride without using my iPhone. No Twitter, no Facebook, no email, no music. Four minutes later, having unthinkingly removed the phone from my pocket four times, I managed to school my hands and turn my attention to the semi-panicked frenzy unspooling in my mind. As I felt my thoughts clatter and fizz and circle in on themselves, frantically searching for some semblance of stimulation, I realised that this was close to the first time that I had let my mind be at ease in a public space in well over a year. Showering, I realised, is essentially the only point in a given 24-hour period where I am both awake and only focussing on a single thing – and so it’s unsurprising that it’s also where I have my best ideas. There’s no links to distract me there, no pressing emails, tabs or finicky bits of personal administration. Just a cosy, contained space, my thoughts and a severe dent in Melbourne’s water catchments.

To my mind this correlation between inactivity and creativity exists because the impulse of boredom is, roughly speaking, exothermic. It’s productive, rather than receptive, the brain’s being forced to grasp for something outside of itself. At its extremes – like those reported by prisoners in solitary confinement – this impulse is capable of conjuring phantoms, sounds and entire conversations with non-existent humans. A sign of creeping madness, sure, but also indicative of a defence mechanism designed to ward off the injuries of a chronically under-stimulated mind. It’s creativity at a terminal point, where the brain shows itself capable of creating entire worlds before it collapses into incomprehensibility.

Although the malignancy of such a degree of boredom is self-evident, I do think it’s suggestive of  what we might be missing in its erasure. While only a brief  and non-solitary tenure, Bertrand Russell also found prison to be a time of immense intellectual fecundity. Jailed for his opposition to the First World War, Russell used the opportunity to write his Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy, a burst of creativity spurred by his freeing from the pressing concerns and aspirations of everyday life. And while I feel no particular attraction to the principles of mathematical philosophy, nor, for that matter, to jail time, I do worry about the fact that I have allowed the internet to invade my life to the point where I actually have to retreat into the shower in order to gather my thoughts. That it’s not entirely unknown for me to check Twitter while sitting on the toilet, just to see if anybody has retweeted that hilarious video of a cat humping a dog that I posted 70 seconds ago. That I have to try, and think, and put in effort merely to be by myself.

Which isn’t to say I begrudge the internet its place in my life. It has provided me with inordinate opportunity and joy over the years, and remains the centre of my social, intellectual and professional being. That is, without it I would have neither a social life, an education nor a career. Nor am I in any way that caricature of a digital addict, stuck at home night after night because of an inability to confront the world without the aid of a laptop screen. I am gregarious, in all likelihood, to a fault. But, still, I fear my immersion in these online worlds may be causing my mind to become endothermically geared, a mere sponge for the information onslaughts of the digital age, dopamine squirts masquerading as useful data, the majority of its creative flux simply directed towards the procedural compartmentalisation of endless stimuli rather than being left to pursue its own ends.

In short, I long for ideas again. My ideas. The shining purity, sudden serendipity and occasional madnesses of undiluted thought. But I think that in this future finding such is a task we have to actively consider in our day to day lives. To realise there are limits to what we can create solely through the mirror hall of reflected ideas that is the digital world. To learn to prize proper, absolute solitude again. And to know when you might just really, really need to have an extended stint in the shower.