When was the last time you were bored?
During my childhood, those who dared utter the forbidden phrase “I’m bored” were saddled with a chore or two (or three). Boredom is often viewed as idleness, and the solution is to fill that void with productivity.
What if I told you that, as a writer, boredom holds an advantage?
No one enjoys boredom, and we instinctively avoid the discomfort by searching for something to do. For writers and artists, this results in increased creativity. When a writer has nothing to occupy his attention, his imagination flourishes.
But our digital age poses a problem. Most of us carry the antidote to boredom in our pockets. Smartphones put gigabytes of information and entertainment at our fingertips.
Boredom is like a hunger signal from your mind. Hunger drives you to eat. Boredom drives you to create. If you constantly sate your boredom, your creativity will suffer. Writers need to protect and cultivate their ingenuity. Boredom is key to that growth, and you can capitalize on it in three ways.
Tip #1: Don’t Immediately Pull Out Your Phone When Life Gets Boring
Imagine yourself standing in line to get a sandwich at the deli. It’s a busy Friday afternoon. You’ve been grocery shopping since 7 a.m., your stomach is growling, and the customer at the counter is placing a large order. How do you pass the time? Most people, myself included, scroll through social media or play a game on their phone while they wait.
In 1990, the train from Manchester to London encountered a delay. While stuck, one of the passengers brainstormed an idea for a book. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone emerged from that inconvenience.
A writer’s imagination thrives on blah moments. Instead of checking your phone, study the setting around you. Watch the people coming and going. It won’t be easy or comfortable, and the first time you try it, your creativity may not surge—or even trickle. These moments, however, can train you to be innovative if you live them.
Tip #2: Let Your Mind Wander While Doing Mindless Activities
When distractions and demands dominate our time, our minds can’t explore new depths. Stimulation from music, social media, texts, and videos keeps us skimming the surface, focusing on the here and now. Boredom helps us sink to a level of thinking where inspiration floats free.
In From Where You Dream, Robert Olen Butler describes the deliberate act of allowing your mind to wander as “dreamstorming,” and he insists it’s essential to writing well. He also believes all fiction should flow from “the zone,” which I think is unrealistic, but the basic point is still true. When your conscious mind spaces out, creativity escalates, and great ideas are born.
My own thoughts wander the most when I’m running or cleaning the house. While engaged in these monotonous tasks, I’ve discovered crucial plot points, backstory leading to rounder characters, and enhanced connections within my stories overall.
Seek out menial chores that involve repetitive action. If you’re inside, wash windows, make your bed, vacuum, fold laundry, or paint a room. If you’re outside, mow the lawn, pull weeds, rake leaves, or go for a walk. You’ll be bored, your mind will wander, and you’ll be more creative because of it. As a bonus, your house and yard will gleam.
Tip #3: Embrace Silence
The shower has long been a place where the best ideas appear. This is because it is one of the few remaining sanctuaries of silence and solitude in our clamorous world.
For thousands of years, silence was pursued as a spiritual discipline because it has a radical effect on human beings. Silence forces you to confront your own thoughts, especially ones you’d prefer to ignore. When the environment is serene, your mind goes wild. For a writer, this is a creative feast.
Silence is difficult to achieve and terrifying when you succeed. I first experienced true silence in sixth or seventh grade during a trip to Kentucky’s famous Mammoth Cave. The tour guide asked us all to sit and hush, then she turned out the lights. In the eerie minutes that followed, my mind began to race.
Now that I’m a writer, I crave that silence. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, I’m either in my closet or car. The calm and the quiet feeds my imagination like nothing else does. If I relax and avoid blasting music or talking to myself, the boredom brings creativity with it.
Find a spot to be still and shut out sound. Start in your car, shower, or closet. Don’t talk. Don’t sing. It’s awkward, and you’ll need time to adjust. Play with the thoughts that spring to mind.
Further up and Further in
Remember that boredom is not your ultimate goal; it’s merely a means to plumb your creative potential and produce excellent writing. You can’t loll around forever, bored and zoned out. That’d be ridiculous. You have to live and write. But you also need to unplug your mind and exercise your imagination to tone the muscles behind your work.
Set down your phone, be bored, and then return to your desk invigorated.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on November 7, 2019. Updated July 11, 2022.
Rose Sheffler is a Kentucky native who began her writing career in the seventh grade by hijacking a simple assignment and turning it into an elaborate creative piece. Her teacher reprimanded her for not following the instructions and said, “You should be a writer.” She studied English Literature in college, with a focus on creative writing, and returned to teach seventh grade English at the same private school. Her favorite genres are fantasy, historical fiction, and fairy tales.
This summer she completed a manuscript of new fairy tales and hopes to have them traditionally published. Until then, she homeschools her three kids, feeds her philosopher husband, grades papers, engages daily with her church community, talks to herself, updates her blog, reads too many children’s books, considers the brevity of life in the face of eternity, and takes bookish photographs for Instagram.