Monthly Archives: October 2013

About Boredom

Believe it or not, from time to time, I cite Kurt Cobain’s incisive assessment of his generation: “Here we are. Now, entertain us.” It’s an expectation that I see growing ever more pervasive, and many university students think it’s a professor’s job to entertain them. It isn’t. And anyway, the issue isn’t strictly attached to generation. Everybody can be bored. But fewer and fewer children are learning how to respond to boredom. The problem isn’t that we should never be bored. The problem is that many don’t know what to do when bored.

In the last few months, I’ve seen in the news a story about a trio of young men who were bored so they killed a passing jogger. I’ve seen in the news a story about a bored young man building pipe bombs. My mother must have dealt early with any suggestion that there was nothing to do. There was plenty to do, and we had to go outside and do it. Or go upstairs and read. How can a person be fully bored when there are books?

There are parents who hand out chores when the kids say they’re bored. Not a bad idea. It’s a way of showing that there is something to do. Show the way, but don’t do it for them. If we are bored, it isn’t because there’s nothing to do. It’s because we enjoy inertia. It has something to do with physics. Once we start doing something–even daydreaming–we can keep doing something. We can read a treasured book or a brand new one. We can write one. We can do word puzzles. If I’m stuck in a fit of inertia, I often will snap out of it or pass the interminable five minutes doing Free Rice. It makes me ashamed of myself that I’m bored at the same time that it makes me feel good to be using my boredom to make a difference.

I should spend more time thinking about getting off my ass and doing the dishes or dusting. My mother always called to us as we headed up the stairs, “Don’t go empty handed.” There was always something sitting on the bottom stairs, folded laundry maybe, that needed to go up. I think more of us could use lessons in how to deal with boredom on our own. Like most other things in life, nobody’s going to do it for us.

Leave a comment

Filed under On Reading, On Thinking, On Writing

The Thing About Literary Awards

Everyone knows that Alice Munro has won the Nobel Prize. I feel somewhat vindicated because I have been telling students for years that if a Canadian writer deserves the Nobel, it’s Alice Munro. Mostly, response to the announcement was gracious, and then, feeling very left behind, Bret Easton Ellis says that Munro is overrated and now will always be overrated. How embarrassingly petty and petulant.

The thing about literary awards is that, while we know they have aspects of the political (doesn’t everything?), the pool is so deep that hacks don’t win them. Literary awards are not like the Teen Choice Awards, where persons devoid of talent sometimes win. It isn’t even like the Academy Awards, where the pool is sometimes pretty shallow. We know the Nobel Prize is Eurocentric, we know it is androcentric, but look at that list–every European and post-European male who has won is a notable writer, someone whose work is worthy of being read.

The pool for the Nobel Prize is never shallow. Every once in awhile, the committee remembers that there is Asia and Africa and the Americas and even Australia, once. We can and should prod the committee to broaden its line of sight. But don’t let’s diminish the greatness of those who percolate to the top. The thing to lament is not that Alice Munro won, but that now it is less likely that William Trevor will be awarded. That makes me sad.

But when I see the shortlist for the Booker Prize or the announcement of the Nobel Prize, I know the recognition is deserved. I never wonder what on earth were they on in the committee room. I always think that my things-to-read list just got longer. It’s how I encountered Jaroslav Seifert and Wislawa Szymborska and Imre Kertesz and Jose Saramago and Naguib Mahfouz. What I should do is set myself the task of reading at least one book by every Nobel laureate.

I’ve read some Alice Munro. But there are 110 literature laureates (only 13 of them women), and I bet I’m halfway through, if I’m lucky. Maybe a third. Think how much bigger our worlds would be if we read through the Nobel list.

Leave a comment

Filed under On Reading, On Writing

What Happens To Us When We Don’t Write

The great and noted Irish writer Edna O’Brien said this week that if she found out today that she couldn’t write anymore, she’d die tomorrow. I don’t think she means that she’d take matters into her own hands. I think she just means that it would be the end of her. There’d be nothing so dramatic as a heart that suddenly stops beating. But, it is a heart sickness.

Any of us who has a passion for something will become heartsick if we can’t do it. And if we’re being honest, most of us are probably heartsick most of the time. The day-to-day drudging, the demands of whatever, sucks up all the energy, all the imagination, all the time. It happens slowly enough that we don’t really notice. We just get tireder and tireder. Sicker and sicker. Sadder and sadder.

When I cannot write because I’m so busy making a living, I begin to tell myself that I’m not really a writer after all. I tell myself that if I were really a writer, I would pop off tomorrow from despair. Ergo, it matters not that I am not writing. It’s a sick thing that the mind can do to a person.

But when I manage to shove everything else, with some force and violence, out of my way, and begin to coax and plead with the words to come back, I begin to feel my heart healing. When I can keep at it, I begin to wish I could feel like that all the time. I remember that it is possible to feel productive and happy and solid. It happens when I do the thing I do.

I’m not so arrogant as to say that I was born to write. But I know that writing is my thing that I do. The planets align for me when I do it. We should all do what makes our planets align.

Leave a comment

Filed under On Thinking, On Writing