Embrace the Boredom!

Boredom is useful for writers. I need a certain amount of boredom to get work done. But I also need to do other things besides sit at a desk and write…. You need other kinds of work, and you also need significant periods of stillness in order to have time to think.

Kelly Link, Locus, Nov. 2007

This quotation, from award-winning author Kelly Link, immediately caught my eye because I work the same way.

My writing process is extremely lengthy. I usually spend 4-6 weeks outlining a short story, including the world, the plot, the characters and their arcs. During semesters when I’m not teaching, that’s 4-6 weeks of working all day, so that’s 20-30 days of outlining, before I write a single sentence.

A lot of that time is spent just sitting in a chair thinking about things–characters, the opening, plot points, the flavor of the world. Sometimes I’ll look up at the end of the day and realize I only have one page of new notes from that day–one page for 8 hours of work! But thinking through things this way is invaluable for me. It helps me spot inconsistencies or logic gaps before I’ve wasted time writing them. I think it also helps spontaneous ideas bubble to the surface. I was struggling for an ending to a piece recently; then I suddenly wondered, what if the character had his face melted off? It turned out to be perfect for that story. This pondering seems the same thing that Kelly means by “boredom.” For me it’s not ennui or anything; just that state of “stillness,” as she calls it, while I think through all these components of the story.

As she also mentions, I too find doing other things to be a great “recharger.” I build furniture and electric guitars, so I spend lots of time doing detailed woodwork. My workshop has no clock–each task takes as long as it takes, and it’s done when the results are acheived. It’s relaxing because it’s manual work rather than mental. The work is also done only for me, not for commission or for some editor to arbitrarily judge. I find all of those differences very refreshing. Sometimes when the weather is nice, I’ll take 2-3 or even 4 days off from writing and work on a guitar.

From Kelly’s quotation, it sounds like she works a similar way. I spoke to her at ReaderCon a few years ago. Her fiction isn’t exactly my cup of tea, but I respect that she’s established herself while writing in a new subgenre of fantasy, so she really had to establish both that and herself at the same time. I also love that she’s giving back to the field in general and to that new subgenre with her small press, publishing books and a magazine. So it was rather cool to find out that she works the same languid way that I do, by embracing the boredom as the silence before the creative storm.

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One Response to “Embrace the Boredom!”

  1. Justin Says:

    Scott –
    Here’s a trio of Bertrand Russell quotes you might find of interest. The last two seem very apt to your topic at hand:

    “To all the talented young men who wander about feeling that there is nothing in the world for them to do, I should say: Give up trying to write, and, instead try not to write. Go out into the world; become a pirate, a king in Borneo, a laborer in Russia; give yourself an existence in which the satisfaction of elementary physical needs will occupy all your energies. I believe that after some years of such an existence, the ex-intellectual will find that in spite of his best efforts he can no longer refrain from writing, and when this time comes his writing will not seem to him futile.”

    “A boy or young man who has some serious constructive purpose will endure voluntarily a great deal of boredom if he finds it is necessary. But constructive purposes do not easily form themselves.”

    “A generation that can not endure boredom will be a generation of little men, of men unduly divorced from the slow processes of nature, of men in whom every vital impulse slowly withers, as though they were cut flowers in a vase.”

    Patrica Highsmith, a suspense writer I am very fond of who dabbled a bit in spec fiction, often suggested taking the day off when things got stuck and doing some kind of manual labor. She talked about working in her garden or building a table. Invariably, she said it would give her some idea how to overcome the block in the work.