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From Phyllida's Desk

In Praise of Boredom

A friend, one of those rare, almost mythical beings who reads fiction but has no desire to write it, once asked me if was true that a writer needs to have a boring life.

I said yes.

In the past couple of days there have been several articles in the NY Times that reminded me of that unhesitating response. In "The other side of boredom," Mary Mann discusses the same idea: whether boredom leads to creative thinking, as Gertrude Stein and F. Scott Fitzgerald believed.


The day before, Lily Tuck, in "Reading with imagination," says that "the glut of blogs, emails, texts and tweets" has overwhelmed our ability to read for pleasure. We "tend to read everything the same way, pragmatically."


Worried friends (others, not my boredom questioner) have been pushing and cajoling me over the past couple of years as they fear I have not only stopped writing, but worse, have stopped trying to write. They're afraid that, like Christina Baker Kline's mother in "Why should cancer make me want to knit?" I will fritter the rest of my life away on … well, life, instead of buckling down and cranking out that next novel that I have been making excuses for not producing since Pride/Prejudice came out (yikes!) five years ago.


There's some truth in their fears, but it's not quite that simple either. For one thing, the next novel will be very different from my previous work. My focus has necessarily changed over time, especially as I was lucky enough to write exactly what I wanted to and got it published. I need to say things in a new way, in another form.

But the boredom factor--or lack of it--is huge. When I wrote my first published work, Phyllida and the Brotherhood of Philander, my life was extremely empty, in a good way for writing. I had almost no social life and my part-time day job engaged only a small part of my brain, just enough to keep me pleasantly occupied, while my creativity could gambol and percolate away undisturbed. At the end of my short work week, I could sit down at the computer and spill out all the thoughts that had been developing during my few days away.

But over the years, there have been some enormous changes. Yes, my job is still part time, but it's different work. There is a weekly deadline to meet, and the amount of thought I must put into the task is exponentially greater. Cataloging isn't rocket science, but it requires the entirety of my attention during the entirety of my working hours. There's no sitting around waiting for someone to ask a question, and now there are no idle neurons, free to frolic in creative meanderings. It's all hands on deck, for the duration.

The thing I've hated most about my job was that it was 100% silent and non-collaborative. Sit at the computer and focus is the only way to do it. Even talking to oneself is counterproductive; in the open office, it disturbs others who are similarly sitting and focusing. Anybody who knows me knows how toxic and antithetical to my personality this is. I have been lamenting that, given my physical circumstances of deformed hands and wrists and forearms, I felt emotionally unable as a young person starting her career to pursue my natural vocation: teaching. (Not university, ivory tower, publish-or-perish academese and dreary, silent research, but kids, teenagers, the dreaded high school.)

And suddenly, through a strange sequence of events, I have an intern! She is lovely, the niece of a friend, smart and funny and quick to learn. Like a gift from the gods of education whose shrine I was forced to neglect for so long. On days when she is there I often come home with a sore throat from all the talking and whispering of instructing a neophyte in the peculiar rituals of cataloging by the rules of the Library of Congress.

After work, on many evenings there are "events:" book clubs, writers' groups, the occasional reading from my work, and the simple, necessary, dinner with a friend. Once home, my fried brain can only handle the chores to prepare for the next day--and television. I was solitary and poor before, and it helped me write. Now I am rich: the people I met through my writing, the groups I participate in--and all of it the outgrowth of that first creativity conducted in solitude and "boredom."

There are many people who will claim that if you really want to do something you will "make the time for it." But life has never been like that for me. I believe, against Christina Baker Kline's argument, that creativity and energy are indeed finite. We each have only so much and, at sixty, I know mine are running out.

Even if I could afford to, I would hate to give up my day job. I need something to get me outside during daylight hours, and I am a social animal, like all humans. I need to talk, to converse, to teach.

But I do also want to write this next book, this chimera of a project that has been changing shape as I figure out what it is I need to say and what form I need to say it in. And that's part of the problem too. What I wrote when I first started is very different from what I am writing now. And I do write, a little, in spurts, as ideas come to me. I even, not that long ago, felt genuinely visited by a muse and wrote a short piece that is the best thing I have written, ever.

Conventional wisdom has it that in order to write we must sit down at our desk and do it, every day, for a set number of hours, like a job. And for a while I did that. I can't write every day (see above, fried neurons) but I did make an effort to write regularly on my free days, and in pursuit of this goal I made fake deadlines with a writing partner. As far as I was concerned the operation was a success; the patient died. I wrote, as was the plan. What I wrote sucked, most of it.

Between all these reading groups and writers' groups, these ersatz partnerships and scolding friends, the truth has been emerging, ever so slowly. What I write can't be the product of a few minutes of free time between work and grocery shopping and laundry. It requires the "boredom" of under-, not overstimulation. In my writers' group (for some reason heavy with poets) I inadvertently hurt some feelings when I answered the lament that so few people read poetry with, "It's harder to read than fiction." But sorry, poets: Yes, it is. Reading and writing are work, and poetry makes us work harder.

When we read good fiction (and poetry) we use our imagination to fill in the details for which the writers and poets have given us only dots. I think of the pleasure of reading "difficult" but well-written novels as much like the "work" cats do. Hunting and killing are their greatest happiness as well as their livelihood. A healthy cat can't see the flicker of a tail or hear a faint squeaking and not chase it. People who have acquired the taste for reading for pleasure are like healthy cats. We can't not read a good book that appeals to us.

I've often called writing the hardest work I had ever done purely for the pleasure of doing it. That is, I had had jobs that I enjoyed (and despite all my protestations, I enjoy my current job), but I would not do them if I were not being paid.

Writing is work. Producing good writing is extraordinary hard work. It requires energy and time. As Lily Tuck says (quoting another), "reading should be an encounter of imagination with imagination." I hope I'll live long enough to write my novel in progress, but I'd rather die and leave it unfinished than produce something false, something easy, that cheats readers of the work--and pleasure--of using their imagination.
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