Tuesday, 29 March 2011
In Praise of Boredom - guest post by Melissa Harrison
I was perpetually and vocally bored as a child. ‘There’s never anything to do around here,’ I’d whinge almost daily during the school holidays. Mum would tell me brusquely to go out and play, and, sulkily, off I’d go: to the attic if it was raining, but more usually to the garden, the street or into the woods (the world wasn’t heaving with imaginary paedophiles back then).
Before long my imagination would inevitably kick in, and before long I’d be piloting our apple tree through the deepest reaches of space, hiding in a spies’ lair behind the old air raid shelter, building a house for a toad or in secret training for the rollercycle Olympics. In other words, I’d be making stuff up. I’d be telling myself stories.
Lucky is the child these days who has the luxury of being bored. For many kids, life outside school is a whirl of play-dates, extra-curricular activities and carefully supervised play. Risk is minimised, and even indoors many are surrounded by devices designed to keep boredom at bay: TV, games consoles, the internet. Yet it is boredom that stimulates the imagination; boredom, I believe, that leads to true creativity. I wonder sometimes where tomorrow’s novelists will come from, with little need for many children to make up stories for themselves.
I do my best writing when I’m really bored. To that end, I try to take myself away from all the interesting (and not-so-interesting) other things I could be doing. When I can, I borrow friends’ houses: I’ve house-sat; I’ve dog-sat; I’ve even chicken-sat. Once – luxury of luxuries – I rented a tiny cottage, off-season, for two whole weeks. I use a free computer programme called LeechBlock to ban myself from all the parts of the internet that sap my time: Twitter, shopping websites, even the news. I switch the radio off after breakfast, and don’t watch TV until evening, if at all. It’s not my house, so there are few chores to procrastinate with. Day after day stretches out, empty. There’s nothing whatsoever to do except feed myself at regular intervals. It’s deadly, deadly dull. I climb the walls. I talk to myself. Eventually, I begin to write.
It’s harder at home, with so many things clamouring for attention, but it can still be done. A quiet room; a shut door. No music, no television, no internet. The to-do list on temporary hold. Like a skittish horse my mind will shy away. It wants to fill the void with something, anything: that’s the way we live these days, with not a moment unfilled, surrounded at every moment with distractions. I pace. I refuse all the blandishments. I refuse and refuse. Eventually, the writing comes.
When I was six and seven and eight I raged against what I thought was my mother’s indifference. ‘Go and play,’ she’d say, feeding another sheet of paper into her typewriter, the typescript of her own novel growing beside her. And so I would, the sound of the clacking keys drifting out from the house to the garden where my childish mind would be reluctantly, then eagerly, making up yet another story. How grateful I am to her now for giving me nothing at all to do.
Melissa Harrison lives in South London with her husband, Anthony, and rescue dog, Scout. Her first novel, Clay, will be published by Bloomsbury in 2012.