Thursday, April 30, 2015

Writing the boring way

A couple of weeks ago the NYT Sunday Review published an essay that I've been clinging to as summer creeps slowly into view. Mary Mann's "The Other Side of Boredom" makes the case that boredom--in her case, a do-nothing job that left her surfing the internet for hours--can be a spur to creativity. She's not just talking about being at leisure, but actual boredom: that restless but thwarted desire to be doing something more meaningful.

Mann's argument is that boredom forces us into creativity, either as an escape from the tedium (I'm thinking about anything but this hellish airport lounge, this interminable flight delay, and these awful people around me) or as a way of transforming it (I'm making up stories about my fellow travelers--or perhaps even getting to know them). As Mann says, "Sometimes boredom serves as empty ground on which to build new ideas, while other times it acts as a guide to our true desires. You have to wait and see; above all, boredom is the master of the long con."

This seems right to me. But then, boredom is an essential part of my writing process.

One kind of boredom is the boredom of procrastination--a boredom that I seem to need to generate in order to push it aside. Even when I've cleared my entire calendar, I can never get down to writing immediately. I plan to start on a Monday, but I just get out my notes and look at them for ten minutes. On Tuesday I fuck around on the internet for most of the day. Wednesday I might write a paragraph, but otherwise continue to do anything in the world but write. At some point, though, I'm so bored and disgusted with all my strategies of avoidance that the only option is to plant ass in chair.

That's when the second kind of boredom sets in. As I've written before, my first (and often my second) drafts are hideous and awful and painful to write. If the first kind of boredom leads to a self-loathing that leads to writing, the second is a boredom of gritted teeth and the determination not to dissolve into a pool of self-loathing. I can avoid that by pounding out my daily 1,000 words.

Then, for a while, there's no boredom. As my ideas emerge and my paragraphs seem increasingly like they might have been written by a human and a native speaker of English, I find myself more or less engrossed and more or less convinced that actual thoughts are being thunk.

Inevitably, though, there's a third kind of boredom that sets in late in the process, when I feel done but something isn't quite working or I've gotten suggestions for revision that I don't know how to implement. The boredom here is the boredom of over-familiarity, the inability to think of the piece in a new or fresh way.

This, I think, is the kind of boredom that F. Scott Fitzgerald is talking about in a line that Mann quotes: "you've got to go by or past or through boredom, as through a filter, before the clear product emerges." Forcing myself to really pay attention, or revisit old and seemingly settled ideas, is a struggle, but coming out the other side is exhilarating.

So I'm eager for summer. I need to get my boredom on.


Fie upon this quiet life! said...

I completely agree. Boredom makes me do so many good, creative things.

Contingent Cassandra said...

Sounds familiar. Enjoy it (or something).

scr said...

This sounds wayyyyy too familiar.

Flavia said...

Glad to know I'm not alone!

Bro, I'd be interested to know how this manifests in your line of work...

undine said...

This rings very true. Only after I am bored with the internet (e.g., every Mad Men review ever, most of which are terrible) can I get to work. Boredom leads to creativity.