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The Efficacy of Boredom

· Blog,Writing,The Writing Life,Boredom,Flaubert

Gustave Flaubert

Soyez réglé dans votre vie et ordinaire comme un bourgeois, afin d’être violent et original dans vos œuvres.

This advice from Flaubert has been translated as: Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work.

I’m fonder of the punchier version that reads: One must live like a bourgeois but think like a demigod.

Either way, this has always struck me as good advice for writers. Certain kinds of writers.

Not my kind.

I have been bored before but never like this, living on a small island during the rainy season when it stubbornly refuses to rain.

Even my husband can’t stand it. This is a guy who revels in boredom, or wallows in it, depending on your point of view. He grew up here on Lamu, an island off the coast of Kenya where there are no cars, only donkeys and fishing dhows. When he is out of his comfort zone, which means when he is in Tucson or Dakar, or basically anywhere but Kenya, unless he’s working long hours and going out to dinner a lot, he sits and stares and smoke cigarettes, not merely for hours, but for days at a time. Sometimes there might be a music video in the background. This behavior, as you can imagine, alarms me.

In the U.S., we call it depression. He calls it meditating. In the 1700s, a period I’ve researched for the novel I’m working on, slave traders called it “the lethargy” the near-catatonic state of captured Africans who were convinced they were going to die, possibly by being eaten by their captors. I've never been brave enough to mention the similarity to him.

The lethargy is a form of self-protection, I suppose. Not my style. When I’m out of my element, I do something else: I get hyper. When I can’t find half a dozen projects to take on, I resort to being a drama queen.

My husband and I have both figured this out. We have also decided that the price of being amused in this way is too high, so we have an unspoken pact to avoid fights.

I need something else to do. I must resort to actually working.

In my current painfully bored state, I am realizing how many writers, including myself, are prevented from writing, or writing more significant books, because we cannot tolerate boredom. I have very dear friends who either can’t finish their books or never attempt a major novel, because they are simply too “bright.” These people have the kind of darting minds that require constant stimulation.

I’ve grown weary of the American tendency to pathologize what is often merely eccentricity, but I don’t think anyone could argue with the supposition that the usual artistic maladies: narcissism, bipolar disorder, ADHD, and, more metaphysically, the archetypal desperation to outrun mortality, can act as both spurs and hindrances to art.

Narcissism may be the most productive disorder for artists: it requires no medication (and indeed, is incurable) and keeps the focus squarely on oneself. (Think John Updike, who writes with rueful self-knowledge about his narcissism in his later books, notably the underrated Until the End of Time.) Bipolar disorder, the classic diagnosis for artists, is both a blessing and a curse, as we know. Attention deficits, which may not be a disease but merely a genetic adaptation, according to the farmer vs. hunter theory I rather like, are similarly double-edged, but lack the drama of the manic-depressive.

Perhaps the trouble with many of us is that we are intelligent enough to impress certain people, but not of sufficient genius to finish writing a book like War and Peace, Disgrace, or The Infinite Jest in a reasonable amount of time. (I’m taking Infinite Jest on faith; I’ve never had the patience for DFW’s profuse language in anything longer than a magazine article, which probably tells you something about my brain chemistry.)

“I like the donkeys, too, but they wouldn’t be enough for me,” wrote one of my friends, a novelist, journalist, poet, and professor (you get the picture) in response to me rhapsodizing about life on Lamu when the Peponi Hotel was still open and I could spend the day writing, and adjourn at sunset for drinks on the verandah.

Another superbly talented writer I know hasn’t finished her memoir because of men, houses, and the occasional drinkie poo. She’s currently in Istanbul. Can’t complain about that. Except I wonder if she’ll ever complete her book, which I loved and thought was a serious contribution to literature written by women, a stunningly beautiful amalgam of Bridget Jones, Rubyfruit Jungle, and Jane Eyre.

There is a reason these people are my friends. We amuse each other. We understand each other. We are alike, or at least like-minded.

Like an alcoholic who must fight the impulse to drink every day, I must fight the compulsion to do something else.

I walked on the beach today, cursing the high waves, but leaping into them to get my heart rate up. I thought about going somewhere else. In the water, I composed an email to my mother, who is seventy-eight and in the process of pissing away all her money. I thought about a memoir I might write someday about my parents, called The Villains. The title, of course, is ironic, referring to the necessity of holding one’s parents accountable, and the peril of blaming them.

I thought of the name for this blog entry. The Efficacy of Boredom.

Under normal circumstances, I cannot think of titles.

I realized that the day before, when I had walked on the beach too late in the afternoon, when the water was turbid and dirty and I hardly swam at all, I thought of a new ending for my novel.

Boredom is the price we pay for thinking better. Compared to Honore de Balzac, a florid, passionate, engaging writer who failed at half a dozen businesses (that’s his photograph above) and Emile Zola, who took on political battles as a journalist, Flaubert worked consistently on his fiction, never married, and spent most of his life suffering from syphilis and other venereal diseases, which he contracted from prostitutes.

He invented the modern novel.

Would I be able to do justice to the profound questions inherent in my novel if I weren’t taking five years to write it (and counting), long enough to get bored at times, unbearably bored, so bored I want to pick a fight with Gabriel, jump on a plane to Paris where George R. might let me stay at his apartment in the 16th, or, closer to home, at least for God’s sake take the 500-shilling Tawakal bus to Malindi to buy parmesan and prosciutto at the Italian supermarket?

Original. Violent.

I’m trying.

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