The Power of Boredom
Boredom. It’s a state of being we try to avoid. Every year, tourism and entertainment industries make millions off our efforts. And, of course, there’s the internet and social media. Fifteen minutes watching Tik Tok videos and it’s obvious what people will do to avoid being bored.
When I say boredom, I don’t mean the despondency you feel halfway through an eight-hour shift, or during another visit to the playground with your kids, or when you scroll through endless shows online and can’t settle on anything to watch. I am referring to the kind of boredom British psychologist, Dr. Neel Burton talks about in his essay, The Sunny Side of Boredom. He calls this “a deeply unpleasant state of unmet arousal. We are aroused rather than despondent, but for one or more reasons, our arousal cannot be met or directed.”
I grew up in rural Newfoundland; a community called Black Duck Siding. It was as boring as it sounds. There were no playgrounds, no stores, no street lights, and very few kids my age. The closest town was a thirty-minute drive, but my parents couldn’t afford piano lessons or dance classes or even soccer cleats. I rode the bus to school every day, then came home to my community that didn’t have a store. Boredom was a constant state of being, and as much as I complained I was going to die from it, I never did. Instead, I read heaps of books and wrote stories about portals to other worlds where there were plenty of things to do. Some writers are born, the rest of us are forged in boredom.
In university, my life picked up speed. I continued to dabble at writing and published a couple poems in a local anthology, but there were new friends, and studies, and bills, and part-time jobs. After my undergrad, there were more degrees and more jobs. A career. Travel. Then there was a husband and kids and houses and dogs. Family vacations. Convention. I was lucky in so many ways and had managed to ruthlessly excise boredom from my life. But I had also stopped writing. Stopped creating. Stopped, in many ways, being me.
Until everything changed. Five years ago, I was feeling pretty burnt out, and when my husband wanted to pursue a job opportunity on the Northern Peninsula I agreed to go. I put my full-time career and part-time PhD studies on hold and returned to a place I never thought I would ever return: rural Newfoundland. There were moments when I regretted that move, but living in a small community where I didn’t know anyone, suddenly a stay-at-home mom, my mind started to wander. I got bored. After being busy for so many years, boredom was a strange yet oddly familiar feeling. Idle yet comforting. Freeing. I started reading again, heaps of fiction like I used to do. I stopped watching TV. I stopped browsing social media. I let the boredom in. Welcomed it. My brain started to turn inward, probing itself, dragging me with it. I was lost in my head for the first time in forever. And it was wonderful. I started writing again.
There is plenty of research into the importance of boredom on child development. In The Art of Boredom, clinical psychologist Caley Arzamarski argues that the state of being bored allows children the opportunity to practice mindfulness, obtain a deeper understanding of themselves and the world around them. Michael Ungar, Family Therapist and researcher at Dalhousie University, goes so far as to suggest that parents make a point to schedule boredom into their children’s daily routine. Boredom is as important to the development of an emerging writer as it is to a growing child. Isn’t this what we aspire to do: achieve a deeper understanding of ourselves and the world around us? When Neil Gaiman was asked what advice he had for new writers, he said: “You have to let yourself get so bored that your mind has nothing better to do than tell itself a story.”
My life, inevitably, has returned to a busier state and finding time to write is a constant challenge. But I will never again forget the power of boredom. When I feel my space is becoming too cluttered I cut things back. I’ll cut out TV for a few weeks, or social media, or both if I really need to. I schedule weekends where I get away on my own with no expectations but to follow the rabbit holes of my own mind. We, human beings, are wired to reject boredom. When we are bored, the need to do something is overwhelming. If you take away all our go-to’s for entertainment, creative people will start to create. Quilters will quilt, painters will paint, writers will write.
In an interview with WMFA host, Courtney Balestier on Lithub, Jennifer Haigh talks about sensory deprivation as a writing technique. She says, “you have to make the world around you so bland and uninteresting that the internal world is more interesting.” We all can’t hide out in rural Newfoundland forever, but we can do what we can to welcome boredom into our writing lives, and sensory deprivation is a great start.
This brings me to my challenge: schedule an hour into your day, every day, to sit quietly with nothing but your thoughts. Ok, if that caused one of your eyebrows or the twitchy muscle in your left butt cheek to spasm, try this instead: a day with limited internet. No casual browsing or scrolling. Limit yourself to the essentials like a quick news check-in, or important zoom meeting, but no shows or movies or podcasts. How about doing that for a week? How about two? Two full weeks where you allow boredom to seep into your life like it used to do when you were a little kid. Two weeks. Just try it and see what happens.
"The Power of Boredom" by Shelly Kawaja. Photo credit: Shelly Kawaja.
Shelly Kawaja is a creative writing student in UBC's MFA program. Her work has previously appeared in The Dalhousie Review, WORD Magazine, Post-Colonial Text, CBC online, and GritLit.ca. Shelly lives in Norris Point, Newfoundland and Labrador.
Twitter handle: @kawajashelly