For years, I’ve been influenced by the timeless, elegant music of Richard Hawley. His voice reminds me of walking out of a cinema into rain and sodium light. His lyrics have a universality, but there’s always something unmistakably Sheffield about them too. When I wrote my first collection ‘Division Street’, I was influenced by the way Richard Hawley titles his albums after evocative local street names and place names: Hollow Meadows, Coles Corner, Lowedges. This morning, I listened to him in conversation with Keggie Carew on Radio 4 and was struck by his passion for slowness. Richard quoted from his grandfather who once told him that ‘you have to let grief come at you slowly’. Riffing on this theme, he explained:
“The only way to…deal with grief and loss is to slow down. And we’re not allowed to.”
As I drove back from work yesterday, I was listening to a feature about getting over heartbreak. The phrases that recurred most often were ‘moving on’ and ‘getting over it’. I was thinking about how often we can mistake distraction for recovery. In his conversation with Keggie, Richard went on to describe how the screen is the enemy of creativity, how the need to be constantly stimulated, constantly in touch with others interferes with our ability to make art. As he put it so succinctly: “your greatest asset as a writer is boredom.”
We all know this intuitively. My poems often arrive when I’m driving, running without music or sitting in meetings. They don’t come when I’m anxiously checking my phone, filling my head with sound. Even if we didn’t know it, a plethora of psychological studies back up Richard’s observation. Writing for Newsweek in 2010, P Bronson and Ashley Merryman cited work by Csikszentmihalyi:
“Having studied the childhoods of highly creative people for decades, Claremont Graduate University’s Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and University of Northern Iowa’s Gary G. Gute found highly creative adults tended to grow up in families embodying opposites. Parents encouraged uniqueness, yet provided stability. They were highly responsive to kids’ needs, yet challenged kids to develop skills. This resulted in a sort of adaptability: in times of anxiousness, clear rules could reduce chaos, yet when kids were bored, they could seek change, too. In the space between anxiety and boredom was where creativity flourished… It’s also true that highly creative adults frequently grew up with hardship. Hardship by itself doesn’t lead to creativity, but it does force kids to become more flexible and flexibility helps with creativity.”
Why is it so difficult to allow ourselves to be bored? Perhaps it’s a perpetual fear-of-missing-out, triggered by the sense of parallel time social media gives us access to. Perhaps it’s because we try to fit too much in, developing a sense of our leisure as something that has to be used productively: every moment counts. Perhaps its the pressure to be constantly contactable, to respond as quickly as we can. I’ve been more than guilty of an anxious kind of productivity and distractibility over the past few years and I’m very aware of the ways it encroaches on writing time.
Tonight, I’m going to take a moment to do nothing except listen to John Berryman’s masterpiece Dream Song 14 with it’s stark declaration: ‘Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so.’ You can hear Berryman (drunkenly, perhaps) reading the poem here.