“Boredom, and Other Cures for the Modern World” (by Antony Mann)

Antony Mann is an Australian writer who grew up in and currently lives near Sydney. His work first appeared in EQMM in 2002. After a long absence he will be returning to our pages in the May 2015 issue with the story “The Greater Good.” That tale, like much of his work, reflects an offbeat and very distinctive way of seeing the world. In this post, Antony talks about creativity, and it’s appropriate, for he’s one of the most original writers currently working in the mystery short story field. His stories (one of which won the U.K. Crime Writers’ Association’s Short Story Dagger) have appeared in many different periodicals, and his short-story collection, Milo & I, published in the U.K. by Elastic Press, recently found a new audience when it was reprinted in Japan.—Janet Hutchings

I grew up in a house of books, in a city of libraries. It was my father who was the insatiable reader. Every Saturday morning the whole family would drive the two or three miles to the nearest shopping centre, buy our groceries at the supermarket, then head for the municipal library next door.

These were the days pre-computer, so you didn’t have much choice when you ventured into a library—you could come home with a book, or you could come home with nothing. I would gather up my Moomintroll stories, or novels about giant exploding fungus pods threatening to obliterate all life as we know it (I think I read that one four times), and Dad would grab his stack of WWII histories and his Rex Stouts and Agatha Christies.

It’s a cliche to say it, but back then, in the 1960s and 1970s, life was simpler. In the times before the advent of the personal computer, there were fewer distractions. I was by no means a bookish child, and I would always have rather been out playing football or riding my bike or exploring the bush with my friends, but life was also made up of a lot of empty spaces. There were no such things as play dates. Either your neighbourhood friends were around, or they weren’t. If you were left to your own devices when the day was sunny, you’d be out in the back yard, pretending to be that year’s football hero or practicing throwing darts at trees. If it was raining and you were stuck indoors, you could watch TV until your mum or dad kicked you out of the room, and then you had to fend for yourself. You could play a board game until your bickering with your siblings drove your parents mad, or you could find somewhere quiet and read a book.

It was in these quiet times that I read my Moomintrolls and my exploding fungus epics. Then, as I grew older, I began to take a passing interest in the books that my father was bringing home. I’ll tell you for free, I have a good working understanding of the causes and the course of the Second World War. But it was in these years of growing up that I also found Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin, Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple. There was Ellery Queen himself, of course, and Lew Archer and Sam Spade.

There is no doubt that these heroes of mine have in some way informed my own crime writing, giving me a solid platform on which to at least try to build. But I wonder also about the other quiet spaces of my childhood, the ones in which nothing was happening. We had the time for nothing back then, you see. We could afford to be bored—or perhaps it was that our parents could afford to let us be bored. There was no expectation that every hour of every day would be filled with . . . something.

Nowadays, it feels sometimes as though we’re missing those empty times and spaces from our lives. There is always some new thing to occupy the hours, be it obsessively checking our e-mail or surfing the net, responding to texts, or playing those addictive little brain-sucking games on our tablets or smartphones. Our children must be entertained with the latest blockbuster film or DVD, or pacified by the newest electronic toy, or educated and enthralled by endless after-school activities lest their very brains atrophy through disuse. Our culture loathes the idea of a vacuum, and we are the creators of our culture. Which is a little frightening, because it was during those empty times and spaces that people used to learn how to create.

In 1958, Professor E. Paul Torrance began testing American children for creativity, in the same way that intelligence quotients had been measured for decades previous. Though assessing creativity remains an inexact science, the results are measurable. A high score on the Torrance test is an accurate predictor of growing up into an industry where innovation and creativity are crucial, be that entrepreneur, doctor, software developer, or writer.

In 1990, while IQ scores continued their inexorable rise due to enriched learning environments, for the first time Creativity Quotient scores began to trend down. They’ve been decreasing year on year ever since. Blame has been laid at the foot of overstuffed school curricula which leave no room for creative thinking, and the insidious intrusion of all-consuming technology into the lives of ourselves and our children.

Findings such as these correlate with other recent studies which reveal that being bored is actually a spur to creativity. It is these empty spaces where we have nothing to do which give rise to the ideas which, for we writers at least, are so important to our daily work.

Sadly, in today’s world there is no longer any need to be bored. We can always find diversion if we want it, and want it we do. We crave novelty, moving without pause for reflection from one bright thing to the next, never satisfied by the sparkly baubles of modern life. I feel it myself, the pull of this easy distraction, eating into my time. It almost seems these days that we must find a way to impose a kind of artificial boredom on ourselves, a way to provide the space in which ideas might percolate into our consciousness. The demands of modern life decree that we mark out and defend a quiet realm for our writing, but also for our reading and, indeed, for unadorned thinking. If we don’t, then like the children of the Torrance tests, our creative life will surely be diminished.

Those of us born before the computer age have an advantage over our children. We’re fortunate in that we learned back then what we need to remember today—how to make our lives simpler, how to be less the slaves to the frantic pace of the modern era, which threatens constantly to distract us from the things which matter. We have lived this simplicity —this boredom—before, and so we can find it again if we make the effort. It takes discipline, but it can be done.

Our children, though, the writers and readers of the future, are born into this new and frantic world. They have never had the experience of living in another time. It’s up to us to help them, provide them with an environment in which their creativity will blossom. And in doing so, we’ll be sustaining and nurturing our own creative impulses as well.

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2 Responses to “Boredom, and Other Cures for the Modern World” (by Antony Mann)

  1. Adicus says:

    A related point is the use of encyclopaedias. I used to pore over them as a kid and every time you looked something up you’d happen upon a whole lot of eclectic collateral knowledge due to the alphabetical organisation. Kids these days don’t get that mind-stretching collateral stuff because their internet searching is targeted. This must mean that both their knowledge and brain structure is different from those born before (say) 1980.

  2. Antony Mann says:

    That’s so true. I remember Dad saving up to buy us a set of Encyclopaedia Britannica. In those days it was a huge purchase. And I did use to just lie there on the living room floor and read them, along with other assorted ‘Did You Know’ type books about science and dinosaurs and what have you. I’ve put an eclectic assortment of non-fiction books on our living room shelves – art and history and science and so forth – but the kids don’t really look at them. I know that my son Zac does all his high school assignments direct from the internet.

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