As the Easter school holiday approaches, we may dread the wails of "There's nothing to do. I'm bored!" as timetables and everyday structure disappear. But according to popular script-writer, comic and novelist Meera Syal, Turner Prize-winner Grayson Perry, acclaimed poet Felix Denis, and eminent neuroscientist Susan Greenfield, boredom is an important trigger for creativity. Their thought-provoking views were revealed to myself and my colleague Esther Priyadharshini, during interviews conducted for a project in which we aimed to get a better understanding of the effect of boredom on creativity.
Boredom as a child is something that Meera Syal now appreciates as an important wellspring of her creativity. She remembers how, in the small mining village where she grew up, there were few distractions, and how she often escaped from boredom into books, enjoying a trip to the library in a local town as a day out. Lack of things to do also spurred her to talk to people she would not otherwise have engaged with, and to try activities she would not, under other circumstances, have experienced. So she learned to bake cakes from the old lady next door and heard all sorts of stories from other elderly villagers.
Boredom is often associated with solitude and Syal spent hours of her early life staring out of the window across fields and woods, watching the changing weather and seasons. But importantly - boredom made her write. She kept a diary from a young age, filling it with observations, short stories, poems, and diatribe. And she attributes these early beginnings to becoming a writer in later life. "Enforced solitude alone with a blank page is a wonderful spur", she said.
Multi-faceted artist Grayson Perry pointed out the benefits of boredom for adults too. He said: "As I get older, I appreciate reflection and boredom. Boredom is a very creative state".
Meanwhile for Felix Dennis, the boredom induced by lying in a hospital bed sparked his career as a poet, when he was already in middle-age. His life had previously revolved around lucrative magazine production, and in the normal course of things, he would never have had the time or intent to write poetry. But he became so desperate after just three hours' inactivity, that he helped himself to some nurses' post-it notes. "You can't write a novel or a business plan on a post-it note", he said. "I had to make do with the materials I had. I know that this was the reason I began to write poetry". Propelled by the frustration of boredom, he found himself drawn to a creative art form which was dictated by the post-it-sized possibility he found within his grasp. Since then he has published six volumes of poems, and performed readings on tour with the Royal Shakespeare Company in Britain and America.
Baroness Susan Greenfield, neuroscientist and expert on brain degeneration, remembers a childhood in which she was thrown on her own resources, in a family with little money, and no siblings until she was 13. She happily entertained herself with making up stories, drawing pictures of her stories and going to the library.
Even now, Greenfield does not experience boredom, just welcome occasions of "quiet time". They are times for reflection and letting thoughts flow. She actually relishes long flights, for which she is always prepared with a pad of paper and a pen, never a laptop.
Recollections such as these can help us to realise that periods of "having nothing to do" may be required for the development of a capacity to generate and pursue ideas. To be creative we need time for thought, free of the bombardment of attention- grabbing external stimuli to the eye and ear. Such times are rare in the era of mobile, smart technology when, if at a loose end, one can always go online.
Distraction from our own inner processes is one way in which online technology can be seen to be inimical to creativity. Another is its lack of structure. The importance of stories, Greenfield believes, is that "a story gives you a narrative of a beginning, a middle and an end, where actions have consequences". And relationships with your characters have significance. "That's what you don't get if you're just in cyberspace accessing things at random". Grayson Perry has a different concern about the virtual world of social networking. He believes it is contributing to a generation of people becoming more and more externally referenced in their feelings. He said: "It's not so much how they feel about something - it's how they think it might look to others".
This self-consciousness seems to block the possibility of sitting with an idea or a problem which Perry sees as an important part of the creative process. The products of creativity, in his experience, often start from flimsy beginnings and may have to be sat with while they work their way through mistakes and disappointments. Syal's experience has led her to a similar view. "You begin to write because there's nothing to prove, nothing to lose, nothing else to do", she said, "It's very freeing, being creative for no other reason other than you freewheel and fill time".
For the sake of creativity perhaps we need to slow down and stay off-line from time to time.
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