Boredom is the mother of imagination. How many of us began to be writers--even if it was telling stories to ourselves or other children--because of a lonesome childhood, or a childhood of sickness, or long afternoons in a house of grownups and grownup books, or later, endless tedious classes, where one's own imagination was the only escape.
Boredom is endangered. We live in an age of passive entertainment, and the mind is seldom if ever allowed to wander in search of its own self-made pleasures.


While not fanatic about it, we try to keep our 3-year old's tv watching to a minimum--maybe a half hour a day, and some days with none at all of course. (I find it most useful when I am trying to fix dinner.) But whenever he gets sick, the amount creeps right up again, and it is a battle to bring it back down. I am not anti-television--I actually think some of the best writing going on today is in television, we're living in a sort of golden era--but I would much rather our kid invent his own games and enjoy books. And it is pretty obvious that the two things are in inverse proportion. I think that is because the images flickering on the screen actually fill the mind and the mind's eye to the extent that the mind does not feel the need to produce images of its own; maybe the mind thinks it is "image"-ining. Even if the tv show we are watching is, we would declare, "boring," in fact the mind registers that it is entertained.
And it is not just television. I feel this looking at the internet or even at a lighted screen. I can write a poem directly on the computer, but I feel that the quality of my imagination is different from when I am walking about outdoors or sitting in a corner with an un-lit blank page. How many more poems I might write, I sometimes wonder, if I just got up and walked away from the e-mail and the google news and the blogosphere. A month long writer's retreat in a castle in Scotland (Hawthornden) in 2004 showed me just how much I could accomplish unplugged from e-mail and the internet. Maybe I need to set limits on it for myself just as I do for my toddler!
The opposite of the aesthetic is not ugliness--it is the anaesthetic.

Originally Published: February 3rd, 2008

A. E. (Alicia) Stallings studied classics in Athens, Georgia and has lived since 1999 in Athens, Greece. She has published three books of poetry, Archaic Smile (1999), which won the Richard Wilbur Award; Hapax (2000); and Olives (2012). Her new verse translation of Lucretius (in rhyming fourteeners!), The Nature of Things,...

  1. February 3, 2008
     Mary Meriam

    Nice aphorism! Maybe this one is relevant:
    Humanity cannot bear very much reality.
    TS Eliot
    Break my heart! You turned down an offer to translate Sappho?! Who else could do or has done it as well as you - I've read 'em all - you're the one.
    ALICIA! forget about answering my questions or translating Sappho. TURN OFF THE COMPUTER AND MARCH YOURSELF INTO YOUR CORNER THIS MINUTE AND WRITE A POEM!

  2. February 3, 2008
     Susan McLean

    As a child, I was bored a lot. Most television shows didn't interest me and I had no friends, so reading was my way out. I had a lot of time to fill then, and there was such a wide range of books available that I could always find something to my taste. They were portable, too, so I could take them anywhere I went--and I did. As other offerings have expanded (more channels on television, more movies available on video and DVD, more sources of information and interaction online, I have found that I am reading books less. But books are still what I travel with and I still fit them into my spare time. For writing, I pick a spot that has no distractions, so I can lose myself utterly in my imagination. I feel sorry for the younger people who seem to need to be wired wherever they go--to a cell phone, an iPod, a video game, a laptop. I wonder what time they have to sink into their own imaginations. But I suspect that I am just seeing the average person and that there are a lot of less visible loners out there who also are bored with the shallowness of easy offerings and who get their greatest pleasure from literature and their own imaginations. Perhaps literacy has peaked and most people are headed away from words now, so that the number of verbally literate will be outpaced by the number focused on images.

  3. February 4, 2008
     Steve Mackin

    Anaesthetic! You nailed it. There is something about the mechanism of a screen, TV or computer terminal, the motion of electrons across the surface to create the picture, that is actually hypnotic.
    I didn't start writing until the advent of the word processor. I used to hate the act of rewriting. Drove me nuts. But then I discovered Word Perfect. Loved it! Loved the ease of editing on the screen, of bloking and copying and pasting. But when I started seriously writing poetry (very late indeed, in the steep slide to 40, before that it was always just a flirtation device), I discovered that the physical act, the tracing of pen across paper, was a stimulus to the senses, and a conduit between them and the imagination. I actually believe I hear better when I write, pen to paper. And for me it's all about music, the syncopated beat and the sequence of vowels. Because of this psychic stimulation I find the shapes of the things present themselves with greater variety and finality. The pen for poetry.

  4. February 4, 2008
     Mary Meriam

    Last poem I wrote:
    first line chimed a few times in my head while I was doing other things,
    first two stanzas scribbled with pen on scrap paper in bed at midnight,
    third stanza written on computer at work (couldn't wait for pen and paper),
    last line revised on tape recorder while driving in car (couldn't wait for anything).