On boredom and why creatives need it

Yesterday saw the publication of the first column from Lekeisha Goedluck, the talented new IdeasTap columnist who beat 570 hopefuls to win the coveted 3-month long paid placement. I was one of those hopefuls and here was my entry, it didn’t make it to the shortlist. It didn’t even make it to the longlist, but I thought I’d share it anyway. I hope you enjoy it more than the judges did!

P.S. IdeasTap is an arts charity sponsored by Sky that aims to help young creatives get their careers started. They often have some really interesting workshops, paid writing and arts briefs and helpful articles in their magazine. If you’re not aware of them, you should have a look. 

Two Cleaning Women, Degas

Two Cleaning Women, Degas

It’s summer and I’ll admit it, I’m bored. I’m the freshly graduated, thin-on-the-ground freelancing chairman of the bored – rich in time, low on money and available friends. While it feels like everyone’s off at festivals or throwing acid-bright powder all over themselves, I’m sitting at home doing, well, nothing much. But I’m going to let you in on a little secret: boredom is a creative’s best friend and we should all consider spending a bit more time enduring it.

Of course, ennui is one of our least favourite moods. Its lexicon is one of ever greater negative extremes: it drives us to ‘tears’, to ‘stick forks in our eyes’, to ‘die’ of boredom and a recent study in the US found that it really can drive us to hurt ourselves. Psychologists placed 42 study subjects alone in a room and asked them to do nothing but sit and think for 15 minutes. In front of them was a button they knew would administer a mild, but painful, electrical shock if pressed – just under half pushed it anyway. In fact, one maverick, seemingly terrified by his own company, went for it 190 times. That’s roughly once every 5 seconds.

In the real world, most of us resort to Netflix or mojitos or teh interwebs to distract ourselves from the clawing agony of tedium. However, this headspace we seem so eager to avoid is, according to Peter Toohey, author of Boredom: A Lively History, the precondition to creativity. Doing nothing, or filling time with ‘mindless’ menial tasks, allows the mind time to meander through the liminal subconscious and mine it for creative gold, making interesting connections or tying up loose plot lines. That’s why eureka moments so often occur at the strangest times – Picasso for example, like Archimedes, often found inspiration while bathing.

Graham Linehan – creator of Black Books and the IT Crowd – called boredom an “essential part of writing.” And Søren Rasted, frontman of saccharine Scandipop act Aqua – whose late-nineties hit, Barbie Girl, is still, somehow, the biggest selling single of all time in Scandinavia – credits his best songs to placing himself in a “bubble” of nothing, a creative environment free from distractions.

Author Neil Gaiman would agree, too. Last year, he announced he’d be taking a temporary sabbatical from Twitter in order to concentrate on his writing. In a press release he said: “ … The best way to come up with ideas is to get really bored.” Watching his daughter’s school plays, he admitted, without books or social media for entertainment, freed up enough brain space that he was able to piece together both of his guest episodes of Doctor Who (2011 & 2013). A little harsh, however it seems that, despite what your mother used to say, interesting people do get bored. Deliberately, even.

So far this summer, tedium has given me the chance to mull over ideas so that I could finally make a good go of entering a certain online magazine’s columnist competition. And for that, if nothing else, it has to be something worth enduring.