Thursday, January 21, 2010

I haven't been bored since 1960

Children get bored. Hugely, complainingly bored. I was no exception. Except that I can't remember being bored very often or to any great extent after I learned to read. Which in my day, young whippersnappers, took place in first grade, when we were 6. From that point, under the unkindly tutelage of my teacher the fearsome finger-pointing, earlobe-grabbing Miss Von Fintel, and of course having already spent much happy time from infancy on being read to on my mother's and grandmother's laps, I was off and running. Books opened a million doors, everyone knows how that happens, many heartwarming essays have been written about the worlds children enter through the world of reading, but also, I think, books closed one big fat door. Boredom was a land I would never enter again.

Now, almost 50 years later, I'm hard pressed to remember the last occasion when I came even close, even glimpsed the territory, for even as much as 10 or 20 minutes. I am never ever bored. I am in fact ever less bored. Some of this has to do with the crazy way time keeps speeding up as I age--yes, everything they say about this is true, the way days are just devoured each one by the next, weeks streak by, months march forward--but time's fleetingness isn't the whole story, I don't think.

And it has nothing to do with technology, with all the screens and speakers, all that stuff flashing at us all the time. Good lord, that stuff flashing at me -- don't get started about how there's now a blaring TV forcing itself on us everywhere we go, in doctors' waiting rooms, banks, coffeehouses, stores -- is a source of brain shut-down, at least for me. And sure, I do my share of web surfing, Youtube watching, and so on. But all this, for me, is deadening, not enlivening. It drags me back down the dreaded road to that long-left-behind place where tedium reigns. And so when I catch that telltale click as my brain starts shutting down, I flee. Back to a book, most likely.

Or simply to silence. To staring out the window, at the wall, into space. In recent years, I seem to have developed more and more the ability to do nothing at all -- and do it damned well. Of course, in reality I am not doing nothing. I am thinking. Most of the time, I am thinking. Deep Thoughts ... well, thoughts anyway. There's so damned much to think about! How can anyone not grab any spare minute that presents itself?

And when I'm not thinking conscious thoughts? When my mind drifts? That of course is where writing begins. For clearing some mental space so that whatever is gurgling around there down below is permitted to rise to the surface is, as every writer knows, crucial to the creative process.

In this coming Sunday's New York Times Book Review there's an end-page essay by Jennifer Schuessler headed "Our Boredom, Ourselves." Some of it touches on the connection between doing nothing and creativity, as here:

But boredom may itself be a highly useful human capacity, at least according to some psychologists and neuroscientists, who have begun examining it not just as an accomplice to depression and addiction but as an important source of creativity, well-being and our very sense of self.

Researchers have discovered that when people are conscious but doing nothing ... the brain is in fact firing away, with greater activity in regions responsible for recalling autobiographical memory, imagining the thoughts and feelings of others, and conjuring hypothetical events: the literary areas of the brain, you might say.

I find it strange, an odd misread of the very research she's reporting on, that she conflates "boredom" with "doing nothing." The whole point is that doing nothing is not the same as boredom. The mind can be, and in my experience pretty much always is, very busy. At base, I find the whole concept of boredom unfathomable. What does that feeling feel like? If you're working at your job, or writing a leaflet or walking a picket line; if you're reading a book or writing a book; if you're cooking or shopping, doing laundry or bathing the babies; if you're listening to music or singing; or walking in the park or sitting at the beach--your mind is always aswirl, is it not? I'm not claiming that mine is an especially interesting mind, but it keeps me occupied.

If it did not, that I'd think would be the foundation of boredom -- which I know because there's really only one circumstance in which it occurs: when I'm reading a boring book. Schuessler touches on this experience too in her NYTBR piece, but I wish she'd taken it further. For is there anything more excruciating? When a book bores me, I get the most gruesome feeling, at once inside my head and along my spine and creeping up and down my arms and legs, a feeling of desperation, of being trapped, of needing to scream. It might come highly recommended, it might even be admirable for artistic or political reasons, but I cannot keep reading a boring book.

Fittingly, Schuessler closes with talk of the upcoming publication of David Foster Wallace's posthumous novel The Pale King, whose subject apparently is, in part at least, boredom. Um. Oh dear.