It happens in the first weeks of July, after the summer semester has ended—the final projects graded, the last email conversations to students concluded, my normal work day wrapping up neatly within the confines of banker’s hours—I find myself at odd moments during a quiet evening or slow paced weekend experiencing an unfamiliar and almost forgotten sensation: boredom.
Boredom is a rare species. It is unfocused restlessness that rides on the hands of a creeping clock. It hovers, unseen and unnoticed, over your shoulder when you are deeply engaged. Boredom—or the doldrums—carries with it the stigma of negativity and images of unhappy, sour-faced children waiting impatiently on the world of adults. As a child, boredom is rainy afternoons. It is the hour before a friend comes over. It is tasks that you don’t want to do, like cleaning your room. It is a lack of excitement, stimuli and adventure.
As we grow up, grow older, and take control of our own time, we often forget what it is like to be bored. We entertain ourselves, distract ourselves, and make plans. We consciously and subconsciously rail against boredom, eliminating it from our lives.
We forget that boredom can have a certain magic to it. It means a slowness of time. It is carbonated with possibility.
Which is why, in those moments in the summertime when my world has slowed down and I am undecided what to do next with the time that lies before me, I revel in the foreign feeling of being bored.
Boredom is transformational. It is that rainy afternoon from your childhood—when you picked up a soon-to-be-favorite book. It is the task of cleaning your room—and finding a treasure trove of forgotten toys. In C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe boredom (and a rainy day) is the precursor to the exploring of the house and discovery of the wardrobe in which Lucy finds Narnia.
Boredom inevitably gives way to discovery, which makes it very important to creativity. At the beginning of every semester of my Creative Thinking class, I have the students read the July 2010 Newsweek Article, The Creativity Crisis. In discussion, they always comment on the paragraph which talks about the work of renowned psychologist and creativity expert Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Gary G. Gute, of Northern Iowa University, who in studying creative adults found that creativity flourishes in the space between anxiety and boredom.
Author Mark McGuinness, in the article, Why Boredom is Good for Your Creativity, that appeared on The 99 Percent the other week (and right when I had started my thinking on this post—synchronicity!), writes about battling resistance disguised as boredom, at the beginning of a project. He uses special tools to shut off the Internet and even writes at the library to help him stay focused. “The British Library is a beautiful building, and purpose-designed to be one of the most boring environments on Earth - there are no enticing distractions, and the 'wall of silence' peer pressure from your fellow readers makes it hard to do anything other than sit still and keep quiet.”
All of this is not to say that boredom doesn’t have its dark side. As McGuiness explores in his article, and The 99 Percent’s founder, Scott Belsky, also discusses in his book Making Ideas Happen, becoming bored with ideas, right at the time that they need the most work to become tangible, is something that most creatives struggle with. This is why many ideas never happen—they are abandoned because the work and dedication part is not as exciting as the inception.
Also, boredom by nature should be a temporary feeling. As a creative, you should know boredom for what it is: an awkward, quiet moment before you embark on another idea or project. It is a doorway, not a room. If you identify it as resistance and procrastination--push through! And if you sense that it is beginning to feel like the Sargasso Sea, then I encourage you to add some Artist Dates or new challenges to your work or routine in order to set a spark to the transformation from dullness to exciting endeavor.
All of this is inspiration for the third Summer Creativity Challenge: Boredom. This challenge is open to interpretation. You can use it to meditate on boredom—when you last experienced it; what role it plays in your creative process; how you feel when you are bored—or you can use it as a spark of inspiration for a short story or recapture a memory of being bored as a child. If it has been a while, you can even set up a nontraditional Artist Date to reacquaint yourself with the experience of boredom. And ultimately new discoveries.
With this as your touchpoint, record your impressions, writings, memories, or meditations in your sketchbook or notebook. Record in your sketchbook any inspiration, ideas, illustrations, or thoughts—then share here on The Paper Compass.