Sunday, February 28, 2010

Ellen Steinbaum: Boredom, I Hardly Knew Ye

Sometimes you just have to admit you’ve been wrong. So, here I am, boredom, ready to apologize for the disrespect I’ve shown you all these years.

There were so many times I put you down. “Only boring people are bored,” I would tell my children. “Surely you can find something to do.” And I really believed it. I thought that anyone with a lively willingness to be engaged would find ready candidates for attention. Enough with the whining, that petulant kvetch.

Not so much any more. Boredom, I’m willing to acknowledge you have qualities I never recognized – let alone appreciated – until recently. Now that I have 482 e-mails in my inbox, a desk pocked with Post-it notes of well-intentioned intentions, and something I didn’t write down and can’t quite remember that I think I’m supposed to be doing this afternoon. Now that I have a constant level of tension, tongue pressed to the roof of my mouth, shoulders up around my ears, shallow breath.

Now, boredom, now I lay myself at your feet. Now I am ready to admit that you are exactly what I need. Who else could give me the time for poking through the bookshelves for an overlooked good read? Or time to take a walk on what may turn out to be the last warm afternoon for months? Or time to just think ... maybe about the poem I wanted to write....

I used to think that creativity and boredom were mutually exclusive. Now I wonder if they’re not inextricably entwined.

I may be wrong – heaven knows it’s possible – but I’d guess that boredom began looking less reprobate around the time Google became a verb. No excuses any more. No need to wait a minute more wondering who was the original Beth in the movie of “Little Women” (don’t bother looking – it was Jean Parker in the 1933 version , but there were silent versions in 1917 and – oh, never mind) or what year Congress first considered health care legislation (1943). All of a sudden we needed every piece of information that could possibly occur to us and we needed it now. We also needed to send send immediate answers to crucial questions like, “you free for lunch a week from Tuesday?” or “do you know a good recipe for chocolate chip cookies (ok, that one is important!) Suddenly we didn’t have time to get bored – we were busy – BU-SY!

But busy isn’t always the same thing as productive. It certainly isn’t the same thing as creative. In fact, if creativity is what you want, it could be that a little boredom is what you need. A chance to distance yourself from the million little pieces floating through your head. Read, Think. Kick back and ponder. Do we even use that word anymore, with its connotation of time stretching out in some way without a specified limit? That’s what creativity takes, that time to clear your head. Drift a little, aimlessly, through an hour. Or more. Dare to waste time. I know, I know – time is all we have and it’s too precious to waste. Yada yada: I’ve said it, too, and it’s true. But maybe time is also too important to fill with minutiae of the nanosecond. It’s this realization that’s brought me to my new and improved attitude toward boredom.

My aunt Alice, who was a very wise woman, often told me, “whatever you’re doing is more important than whatever you’re not doing.” Not that she knew at any given moment that I was actually making the best use of my time. But her lesson was that because whatever I was doing had seemed important enough to do, it deserved attention undiluted by thoughts of something else.

Sometimes what seems important to do is nothing. Ideas come when we invite them, leave space for them. Not when we crowd them out with the white noise of constant distraction. We need some silence to find our way into our own thoughts. We need to find the ideas that only we can have, that simmer just below the surface waiting for us to notice them. We need to respect our ideas enough to give them time to grow, respect our time enough to occasionally waste” it.

If we want to be creative people, we’re going to have to spend some unstructured time. Time staring out the window. Breathing. Unwinding. Unplugging. Just being. We may get bored. Sounds like a good idea to me.

Ellen Steinbaum is a poet and journalist, the author of two books and a one-person play. Her poems have appeared in journals including Prairie Schooner, Bellevue Literary Review, Saint Ann's Review, and Fulcrum, and on Garrison Keillor's "The Writer's Almanac." She is a former literary columnist for The Boston Globe and writes a blog, "Reading and Writing and the Occasional Recipe," which can be seen at

1 comment:

Ashley said...

So true. I look forward to the weekend mornings when there's nothing to do, or the occasional "sick day" when I can sip my coffee and just think. Part of the reason I moved from my hometown is to have more time for that and less time for people to try and occupy because I appear to be available.