A few years ago, I was on a retreat in Montana. Big Sky—the land of rattlesnakes and grizzly bears alike, fuel of the intrepid wanderer and dirty vagabond. When I think of Montana, I have the Alexander Supertramp image of a beaten up roadside couch, an upturned thumb, dusty hair, and blue sky framing the whole shot. Admittedly, this makes no sense, considering none of the narrative takes place in Montana, but still, that’s my image.
It was a good retreat, hosted on a beautiful ranch with an excellent cook and unbeatable scenery. We had the unfortunate responsibility of sitting in on leadership workshops resplendent with team building opportunities and the cat-calls of responsibility. But, waking up early one morning, I saw my first moose, lumbering across the river. My temporary companion insolently stepped over fences that would have required my scrambling, impressing me with his long limbed nonchalance.
On the second to last day they dropped us off on a high desert hillside, not quite a mountain, with the explicit instructions to sit and think for the next eight hours. Eight hours of solitude. We were allowed nothing more than a sheet of questions, to encourage our pondering, and a water bottle, to encourage our hydration. Of course, I cheated. Wrapped in a flannel (“in case the weather turned”) were my moleskine, pen, and a copy of Thoreau’s Walden. And yes, I think even then I was aware of the overwhelming cliché of the environmentally-minded English major smuggling Walden, wrapped in a secondhand flannel, to a mountain. I was attempting to be the lone transcendentalist, on the mountain to live deliberately—for eight hours, that is.
What I didn’t attempt was the assigned exercise. I couldn’t comprehend, and often as a writer still can’t comprehend, the importance of existing for a while in the confluence of nothing. The importance of leaning into boredom. Whenever I catch myself without a pen, I think of the Billy Collins poem “Madmen,” where he writes of a poem flying away, inspiration fleeing through the front door. Collins’ poem is lost because it was shared too soon and encountered another’s perspective. Mine is lost because I didn’t have the pen to write it down. There is a tangible anxiety that this is THE big idea. The big break. If I lose it, I’m forever doomed to obscurity and an unintelligible babble. So my pen stays with me.
Sometimes, at traffic lights, I find myself reaching for my phone. Instinctively, my thumbs move in a preordained pattern, and my Instagram feed is in full view. Sometimes, I catch myself mid-reach, like a sleepwalker awaking from a dream. I never made the conscious decision to reach for the phone, but nonetheless I’m holding it in my hand.
I have an operating theory that boredom proceeds greatness almost as often as the phrase “hold my beer.” I think in a culture of convenience we never challenge ourselves to wait. I reach for my phone during traffic lights. I find myself unable to drive my morning commute without the radio. Some nights, falling asleep is difficult without the comforting sounds of Jim Dale, the preeminent Harry Potter audiobook narrator, lulling me to sleep within the confines of a familiar story.
I have another operating theory: people who allow themselves to be bored, just for that crucial minute, hour, or morning, develop into self-interesting people. Not self-interested—that’s created by a barrage of social media and Netflix binges. But self-interesting. Mythical creatures who don’t flee for the phone or the pen the moment idleness crosses their path, but rather greet it warmly, like an old friend, and wait for it to pass on its own accord.
When I think about this too deeply, it unsettles me. I don’t do this well, this waiting. Boredom is unsustainable by its very nature. It’s a phase that encourages and begets action. But, in an era of instant gratification and Buzzfeed, the chances of boredom leading to actions of substance are increasingly slim in my own life. The phone replaces the pen, and the pen replaces a moment of internal wrestling, which replaces the morning of prayer.
I do think boredom is necessary for creativity. I want to create a space for it: the equivalent of a blank word document with the blinking indicator. Instead of typing a load of nonsense into the monitor and waiting for the inspiration to strike, I want to sit comfortably uncomfortable in the short term of a blank page, an eight-hour mountainside retreat.
And then, as long as my phone is out of reach, attempt to do something of substance.
Matt Medendorp (’14) graduated with a writing degree held together by duct tape and a few trips abroad. Currently he lives in Grand Rapids, works for Chaco, and claims to be producing a book of writing and photography from his time in Alaska.