How Being Bored is the First Step to Being Brilliant

Take their Gameboys away, and you don’t think they’ll come up with something interesting to do?

I ran across a great blog post this morning from The Passive Voice that I thought was worth noodling about. The premise is “How Boredom Promulgates Creativity.” Aside from the fact that the headline uses the word “promulgate” which will surely give tingles of delight to all word lovers, the idea behind the post is that boredom can create the right atmosphere for creative thought or action.  Edward De Bono, who wrote the book, Serious Creativity, which prompted the original post, uses bored children who operate on their teddy bears as one example of how humans hate a vacuum and might come up with ways—desperate and mad genius ways sometimes—in order to fill it. While this thought might not feel new to you, the upshot (or punch line) that made me sit up straight when I read it was the idea that our technology today may shield us from so much boredom, that the opportunity or driven need to create in order to remedy the boredom no longer exists. Trust me, playing Angry Birds or Solitaire on your smartphone may painlessly while away the time it takes to wait at a traffic light or your child’s visit to the orthodontist—but so does a coma. Neither of them is going to lead to anything special.

When we are forced to tackle boredom via creative means, we push ourselves, our abilities, and our minds forward. We go places we aren’t normally compelled to go. We explore. When we have the means to comfortably anesthetize ourselves against these spates of nonproductive, dull times, we are no longer motivated to do any more than just breathe in and out. My husband argued that we’ve always had mindless television to aid in combatting boredom for an extremely nonproductive outcome and that this post’s supposition is nothing new but I disagree. When I was a teenager—and like most teenagers, prone to being terminally bored with just about everything—I would watch any number of mind-numbing and idiotic television shows: Hogan’s Heroes, Gilligan’s Island, I Dream of Jeanie. But these shows didn’t dope me against the monotony which drove me to watch them. As I watched—even the really stupid shows—I soaked up plotting, I registered tension and denouement, I experienced character arcs—even in cartoon characters—and I walked away with a sense of a story told with a beginning, a middle and an end.

A little bit of boredom and a stick of chalk can add up to something very interesting…

For a budding writer, lowbrow television was a training ground for something that would come later. It was establishing dormant triggers which would lay beneath the surface and focus a light on interlaced connections between people at their most basic levels. And someday they would emerge as developed characters wrestling with conflict in an attempt to deliver a fundamental human message.

You can’t say that about Angry Birds.

What do you think? I’m not sure I’ve convinced my son, for example, about the new perniciousness of our portable technology as it relates to creativity. Thoughts?

Daily Creative Habits of the Rich and Famous

I read recently that there are three things that nudge your creativity to start percolating. Some of you may already do these things without knowing why. When I read them I thought: Wow. I do that!

  1. Unique. There should be some part of your daily routine that you don’t associate with other activities. For some it’s a certain music that you put on just before you sit down at the keyboard. I only drink coffee  when I write.  If you do this special thing at other times, it loses its magic.
  2. Emotional Intensity. This is that wonderful thing called flow that we all experience when we’re so immersed in our work, we forget time and place. As it happens, this intensity is necessary for true creative work. Losing yourself in the endeavor is the result when you give all of yourself.
  3. Repetition. Not to get too analytical here and kill the buzz, but when you can put your finger on the thing or combination of things that helped create magic for you in your work, you need to repeat it.

I read once that Alexander Solzhenitsyn use to sequester himself away in a little writing cabin down the hill from his home 365 days a year—no exceptions. Here are a few successful writers and their routines for your entertainment and information. Afterward, please take a moment and shoot me a comment letting me know how you wind yourself up (or down) to get down to business. A post following this one will be about less famous writers and their methods.

Stephen King: “There are certain things I do if I sit down to write. I have a glass of water or a cup of tea. There’s a certain time I sit down, from 8:00 to 8:30, somewhere within that half hour every morning. I have my vitamin pill and my music, sit in the same seat, and the papers are all arranged in the same places. The cumulative purpose of doing these things the same way every day seems to be a way of saying to the mind, you’re going to be dreaming soon.”

CS Lewis: “We…settled into a routine which has ever since served in my mind as an archetype. I would choose always to breakfast at exactly eight and to be at my desk by nine, there to read or write till one. If a cup of good tea or coffee could be brought me about eleven, so much the better. A step or so out of doors for a pint of beer would not do quite so well; for a man does not want to drink alone and if you meet a friend in the taproom the break is likely to be extended beyond its ten minutes. At one precisely lunch should be on the table; and by two at the latest I would be on the road. Not, except at rare intervals, with a friend.”

Joyce Carol Oates “I try to write in the morning very intensely, from 8:30 to 1 p.m. When I’m traveling, I can work from 10 p.m. to 3 a.m. Alone, I get a lot of work done in hotel rooms. The one solace for loneliness is work. I hand write and then I type. I don’t have a word processor. I write slowly.”

John Grisham said he would write for two hours before he had to turn to his job as a lawyer, and once there, there were “enormous amounts of wasted time” that would give him the opportunity to write.  He said “these little rituals that were silly and brutal but very important. The alarm clock would go off at 5, and I’d jump in the shower. My office was 5 minutes away. And I had to be at my desk, at my office, with the first cup of coffee, a legal pad and write the first word at 5:30, five days a week. I was very disciplined about it. Now I don’t have to.”

Toni Morrison: “Recently I was talking to a writer who described something she did whenever she moved to her writing table. I don’t remember exactly what the gesture was–there is something on her desk that she touches before she hits the computer keyboard–but we began to talk about little rituals that one goes through before beginning to write. I, at first, thought I didn’t have a ritual, but then I remembered that I always get up and make a cup of coffee and watch the light come. And I realized that for me this ritual comprises my preparation to enter a space I can only call nonsecular… Writers all devise ways to approach that place where they expect to make the contact, where they become the conduit, or where they engage in this mysterious process. For me, light is the signal in the transaction. It’s not being in the light, it’s being there before it arrives. It enables me, in some sense.”

John Updike: “I do try to stick to a schedule. I’ve been maintaining this schedule off and on — well, really since I moved up to Ipswich in ’57.  Since I’ve gone to some trouble not to teach, and not to have any other employment, I have no reason not to go to my desk after breakfast and work there until lunch. So I work three or four hours in the morning, and it’s not all covering blank paper with beautiful phrases. You begin by answering a letter or two. There’s a lot of junk in your life. There’s a letter. And most people have junk in their lives but I try to give about three hours to the project at hand and to move it along.”

Ernest Hemingway: (Tell me you can’t hear the Hemingway of Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” in this quote!) “When I am working on a book or story I write every morning as soon after first light as possible. There is no one to disturb you and it is cool or cold and you come to your work and warm as you write. You read what you have written and, as you always stop when you know what is going to happen next, you go on from there. You write until you come to a place where you still have your juice and you know what will happen next and you stop and try to live through until the next day when you hit it again. You have started at six in the morning, say, and may go on until noon or be through before that. When you stop you are as empty, and at the same time never empty but filling, as when you have made love to someone you love. Nothing can hurt you, nothing can happen, nothing means anything until the next day when you do it again. It is the wait until the next day that is hard to get through.”

Truman Capote: “I am a completely horizontal author. I can’t think unless I’m lying down, either in bed or stretched on a couch and with a cigarette and coffee handy. I’ve got to be puffing and sipping. As the afternoon wears on, I shift from coffee to mint tea to sherry to martinis. I don’t use a typewriter. Not in the beginning. I write my first version in longhand (pencil). Then I do a complete revision, also in longhand.”

When William Styron settled in his Connecticut farmhouse and began a family, his life became every writer’s ideal: productive yet relaxed, sociable yet protected. On the door frame outside his workroom, he tacked a piece of cardboard with a Flaubert quotation: ”Be regular and orderly in your life, like a good bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work.”

So, assuming you have to be creative pretty much daily—whether because you have a daily word count or a day job that doesn’t suck and requires you to use that part of your talents—how do you get your best creative day kick started? Please, leave a comment and let me know your routine to get the juices going. Sometime next year, I’ll put your schedules right up there next to Baryshnikov’s and JK Rowling’s!

7 Counter-Intuitive Ways to Improve Your Creativity

While I’m as big a believer as anyone else in the “just do it” mentality when it comes to getting my daily word count in, I have to admit I’m always on the look-out for an edge in the quality aspect of  “just doing it.” To that end, I’ve discovered a great article (via Behance in case you haven’t discovered them yet—an awesome resource for creative and compulsives alike) and recapped it here!

Enjoy and after you put that barbell down and finish playing with the dog, get back to work!

  1. Eat breakfast. I know, I know. I always suspected Kellogs invented this one but it turns out it’s probably true. At least a quarter of all Americans skip breakfast (me, included.) But studies show increased productivity, lower weight, etc. if we eat breakfast (and not, of course, beignets and Fruit Loops.)
  2. Sit less. Okay, a little tricky when you are writing at a computer, I know but a report on a recent 14-year study showed that there was a 20% increase in the death rate (40% for women) for those people who sat six hours or more every day. So! Motivation to get off your ass? CHECK!
  3. Exercise helps your mental performance and overall productivity. Turns out hitting the gym during the day will help you problem-solve and write better, longer. Who knew?
  4. Get a dog. Well, it doesn’t have to be a dog. Any kind of a pet will do. The reasoning behind this is that having an animal while you work increases trust and team cohesion. On the other hand, if you work alone, and collaboration is not an issue, skip the dog and get back to work.
  5. Kill the commute. If you write in your back bedroom, go ahead and skip to the next item on the list. If you have a job that forces you out of the house and that job is not close by, a new finding has shown that a commute of much duration is a total happiness killer. It significantly decreases your quality of life. My suggestion on this one? Find another house or find another job or just accept you won’t be as happy as you could be.
  6. Use all your vacation days. This was never a problem for me. In fact, I struggle to understand people who don’t take paid days off from work. I’m not making this up. An article from the Harvard Business Review said that “More than half of all Americans now fail to take all of their vacation days.” Okay, since I really can’t understand people who would do this, I can’t speak to it. (OTOH: if you really want to work so damn bad, donate your vacation days to me.)
  7. Get pissed. And I mean that in the American sense, not the British. New studies show that being angry (sad works too) is a key driver to creativity. And if you’ve ever knocked out some of your best work right after you were dumped, fired or lost your best dog, you’ll understand. Anger, it seems, fuels idea generation while sadness, perversely? drives us to work harder.

So there you have it! Seven easy ways to boost your creativity and get the most out of your writing environment. If you’ve tried any of these ways—or have issues with any of them—I would love to hear from you!