It may seem counterintuitive, but boredom is crucial to creativity. New ideas arise from stillness. Out of chaos comes meaning. From formlessness emerges form. Recent research studies back this up, but as both a lifelong creative writer and a mother of a young child, I’ve experienced it firsthand.
We must train ourselves to stop thinking of boredom as a dirty word, as an undesirable state of emptiness that must be avoided. In truth, the sources of boredom range from fatigue to lack of external entertainment, with a wide continuum in between. As a latchkey kid with two working parents in my childhood, I was well acquainted with many of its forms. And yet I can also vividly recall summer afternoons spent sitting before my grandfather’s ancient green typewriter, the springs of its keys coiled beneath my fingers as I stared out at the shimmering bay from their home on Shelter Island, New York. Oma passed time folding delicate origami animals; Opa read for countless hours. Entertaining me would never have crossed my grandparents’ minds. In the silence of this adult realm, I conjured written worlds on pale pink typing paper.
As an only child with no adult supervision during the after-school hours while my parents worked, I had three options: read, write, or play outside. And of course, within “play outside” were entire realms of possibility that ranged from composing plays on the spur of the moment in my craggy back yard to biking to the local creek.
I have no doubt that boredom fostered the writer I have become. Yet I live in a culture whose economy is increasingly fed by keeping its people distracted and entertained; boredom has become a problem to solve rather than a means to becoming more creative. Modern parents load their kids up with electronic gadgets—iPads, Wiis, and Xboxes—so that during those rare moments of down time in their largely overscheduled lives, they won’t have to hear them whine that age-old refrain, “I’m booooored.” We adults bring our iPhones to bed instead of books, tune out to TV shows after hours.
Born to Gen X as I am—the last generation to remember life without household computers, much less handheld cell phones and video games—this trend troubles me. I wrestled with the lure of the smartphone five years ago when the price point reduced enough to make buying one a viable option. I had a sense—call it a premonition—that a smartphone might all-too-easily fill that empty space I’d cultivated for creativity with games, texts, and apps that I really didn’t need. But I was also a new mom, and tired all the time, so I gave the iPhone a go.
Sure enough, within that first year I noticed my productivity and creativity take a sharp decline. My new phone also had a negative impact on my IRL (“in real life”) friendships; as it provided me with constant information and interaction, it was like an undemanding best friend who just gives and gives. So where I used to lean into the silence of an empty mind, allowing ideas to slowly germinate like seeds deep in the ground, I found myself picking up the sleek black box instead.
Ironically, it is children, those for whom we most often try to prevent boredom, who are natural masters at using boredom to feed their imaginations. I’ve found that it takes my six-year-old son about ten minutes to switch mental channels after a show or game. One minute he’s slumped glassy-eyed on the couch with his Kindle in his hand, then in a heartbeat he emerges from its passive hold, whining and cranky, and dashes around the house gathering supplies, his conjuring nothing short of magic.
I was thus pleased to read a study from researchers at the University of Wisconsin that showed daydreaming may strengthen the brain’s working memory, its capacity to “hold and manipulate information in the mind for a period of time.”
The more we can cultivate brief periods of nonfocused attention—by gazing out at a landscape, walking in nature, doing a few gentle yoga poses, or simply driving in silence—the more we open ourselves to the unlimited mysteries of our own creativity, which rest in wait like new galaxies about to explode into being.