Pining for boredom
Plus: this week in culture
I am not a particularly jealous person, but one thing I find myself endlessly coveting is other writers’ imaginations. My favourite thing to ask them is where a story comes from: what day was it, what prompted it, how did it grow? I obsessively read interviews with authors about their processes, from Maya Angelou playing solitaire to distract her “Little Mind”, while her “Big Mind” thinks of ideas, to Jeffrey Deaver facing off a blank page by touch-typing for ten hours every single day in the dark, until his laptop keys fall off.
As a child, I used to marvel at the intricate maps many fantasy authors would draw to accompany their novels, from Harry Potter to Lord of the Rings and Eragon, stunned that someone could build entire worlds inside their heads. Wouldn’t characters begin walking out of their ears?
I was obsessed with dragons and fairies and talking creatures but my own stories were rather mundane: an ode to my cat, a poem about my grandfather, a haiku about being angry. Mostly, I would write in my diary, dissecting what had been said, felt and done, before scribbling out all of the secret parts, and footnoting clues and codes that might allow an “older” me to figure it all out. In fact my diaries were constantly addressing an older version of myself with contempt: “Eleanor, PLEASE tell me you have a boyfriend now?” or “Do NOT tell me you’re no longer friends with ‘x’”.
Since becoming a journalist and editor, the “imaginative” side of my brain has gotten duller. I trade in facts, real people, short sentences and strict word counts. Last year, I enrolled in a three-month fiction course with a friend as a New Year’s resolution, hoping it might fire up that side of my brain a little. We had to write 300w stories as homework, based on themes, questions or limitations in form.
I had grand ambitions of spending entire Saturdays without my phone, thinking up brilliant characters with a steaming mug of tea in a small cafe, but the reality is that I would frantically write something on the tube after work on the way to the class. It would feel like the stub of an idea that hadn’t been given any water or light.
I used to think that creativity lives inside you no matter what, but recently I’ve begun to find that if you don’t give your creative side enough attention, it starts to sap. And, as we become ever more addicted to our phones, as our attention-spans become tinier, as we go through the motions while time seems to shrivel, our minds can begin to feel rather grey.
I have tried to fix this through stimulation: more books, more articles, more music, more podcasts, more galleries, more cinema. But my mind just ends up swimming with other people’s thoughts, when actually what I need is space for my own.
At school, I was constantly berated by teachers for daydreaming. “Eleanor has her head in the clouds”, “Eleanor is always staring out of the window”. I can’t remember the last time I looked out of a window and my mind floated up out of it.
On holiday, it’s usually the day before my flight home – day seven – that my mind finally untethers from the running list of daily anxieties and, rather than flitting between past mistakes and future plans, hangs deliciously in the present. Everything slows down. Thoughts become frivolous and sometimes surreal. Everyone becomes more interesting. All seems possible. It is a wonderful kind of boredom.
As my life gets busier, I long for daydreaming and boredom – the luxurious emptiness of an afternoon where absolutely nothing needs to be tended to, where silence and space can unlock what Angelou calls “The Big Mind”.
Recently, a colleague of mine took himself off to a cabin in a remote part of the UK, where there was no Wi-Fi or signal. He didn’t even take his phone, writing out his train journey on a piece of paper, a detail that, when he told me, made me feel jitterish with anxiety. What if there was a cancellation! What if he had had an emergency! But it all went smoothly, and he spent his days with a notebook and pen, writing and thinking. Of that, I am deeply jealous.
This week in links
I’ve been reading Mic Wright on whether the media is wrong to dedicate so much coverage to the story of the four boys who died after falling into an icy lake this week. Mic argues that ITV interviewing a 13-year-old girl who was there at the scene, as well as publishing private Facebook photos of one of the boys with their father, has turned what should have been a local one-time news story into a rolling spectacle of tragedy and grief. He interviews journalists who have regretted doorstepping families of people who have died, known as “the death knock”. Yet he also spoke with journalists who have said they are still in touch with families they have interviewed post-tragedy, and who know their work is appreciated on a community level. It’s a very nuanced and interesting read – find it here.
Also, I am fascinated by the story about the ‘star’ Grey’s Anatomy writer Elizabeth Finch, who based several celebrated storylines around her own experiences of rare spinal cancer, even writing op-eds for Elle, only to be exposed as a liar in March this year by her ex-wife. Turns out that she never had cancer, despite wearing a (fake) catheter and shaving her head. In this interview with the same reporter who broke the scandal, she suggests her fabulism was partly down to the pressures of Hollywood’s obsession with ‘lived experience’.
And I loved this longread about the reality of maintaining or forming relationships behind bars through the surreal experience of conjugal prison visits, told with beautiful vulnerability by current inmate and writer John Lennon for Esquire.
I’ve been listening to First Aid Kit, the Swedish sisters who make beautiful country music. I interviewed them for my podcast this week and they were hilarious and down-to-earth about everything from touring as children (with their dad in tow) and outrageous things journalists have said to them to the biggest misconceptions about themselves they want to correct, such as being seen as “pretentious”.
I’ve been watching the new season of I Hate Suzie, which is out 20 December. Hardly anybody I know is watching it, which is criminal, because it is literally up there with Bad Sisters and White Lotus as one of the best shows of the year. Starring Billie Piper as Suzie, a fallen B-list star trying to rehabilitate her image with the help of her best friend and agent, it is a darkly comic, brilliantly spot-on excavation of a fame. It’s co-written by Lucy Prebble, who co-wrote Succession, and the script is flawless. Watch season one on NOW or Apple TV. And here’s a good Guardian interview with Billie Piper about it.
I can’t stop thinking about a line I read in Popbitch last week about Daniel Bedingfield. Apparently, he was so known to be so unhinged in interviews that his team would do his phone interviews for him. Might I have once unknowingly interviewed a sneaky PR thinking it was a celeb? I am thrilled by the possibility.
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