Creative Boredom

Today’s entry at semi-twee site, The Writer’s Almanac notes the birthday of illustrator Saul Steinberg.Link
I’ll go ahead and quote the whole entry (maybe because I’m bored). Really, however, all you need to read, is the last quoted sentence below:

It’s the birthday of Saul Steinberg (books by this author), born in a little village near Bucharest, Romania, in 1914. He came to this country and became a longtime artist at The New Yorker magazine. He painted many covers, including his most famous, “View of the World from 9th Avenue,” which shows a New Yorker’s view of the country with New York City huge in the foreground and the rest of the country off in the distance, little bumps of details.

Saul Steinberg said of his childhood, “I got high on elementary things like the luminosity of the day and the smell of everything – mud, earth, humidity, the delicious smells of cellars and mold, grocers’ shops.”

His mother was a cake decorator. His father designed specialty cardboard boxes. As a boy, Steinberg liked to rummage through his father’s supply of paper and rubber stamps and colored cardboard and blocks of type. He also loved to read, and he later said that he would have become a writer if he had inherited a better language, but instead he learned to draw.

He studied architecture in Italy, got a degree, and at the same time started contributing satirical drawings to humor magazines. He got out of Europe just in time – 1941– and he sailed for America from Portugal, carrying a passport that he had doctored with his own rubber stamps. Through the intervention of the editor of The New Yorker, he was allowed to enter the United States in 1942. He enlisted in the Navy, went off to fight in World War II, and then came back to draw cartoons and covers for The New Yorker magazine. He parodied most of the popular styles of painting of the 20th Century, cubism and abstract expressionism, even children’s art. His work was always playful and funny. He put in Easter bunnies and the Statue of Liberty, the Chrysler Building, Santa Claus, Mickey Mouse. He once drew Uncle Sam as a bullfighter, fighting a turkey instead of a bull. He loved to make elaborate counterfeit documents – currency, passports, licenses, and especially diplomas.

It was Saul Steinberg who said, “The life of the creative man is led directed and controlled by boredom. Avoiding boredom is one of our most important purposes.”

I’m not entirely sure that that is the case, that boredom drives creativity, but I like the idea of it. All of those little short short stories I wrote in my bedroom in South Carolina–was I bored? Possibly. We’re talking about South Carolina, after all. Come to think of it, yes, I freaking bored. Bored out of my mind.

But was I writing to avoid boredom–fighting it creatively, rather than through (say) regular doses of TV? Not so sure.

In any case, does boredom as a driving force, apply to me today? Perhaps, but these days, what I think really drives me: time keeps moving anyway. Why not spend it wisely?

Where I go to write, The Writers Room, has magnificent skyline views. One window-wall looks out onto the Empire State Building (and also, sadly the building in which I work). At night, it’s all very inspiring–it’s a typical movie establishing shot that says, this is New York, City of Wonder.

The other window-wall, however, looks out onto a massive beige, Sixties-style apartment building, a hulking monstrosity. I prefer that mundane, typical New York view. Why? Because I can see into dozens of apartments simultaneously.

Basically, I see privileged people shuffling around in their socks, watching TV. And that’s inspiring to me, because that view offers a concrete option: I could be unproductively bored in front of my own shiny-new flat screen TV (that sometimes, I’ll admit calls to me like a siren).

But no, I’d rather look at a computer screen and try to write. God knows what those people in that beige building think of me as I sit in a dark room under a single pool of light, staring at a computer screen. They probably look at me and think, Lok at that guy. I could be over there, working. Instead, I’m watching TV in my socks!

But I don’t care.

My necessary fiction (more on that at some other point): those shuffling people are drugged by TV and are unproductively bored. I’m single in this city, often bored, but at least I’m doing something I count as worthwhile, no matter what. And that’s not boring at all.

But still–none of this disproves Steinberg–not at all. It’s actually compatible with his statement; something of an elaboration. Watching TV is boring, after all. It’s what sends me to The Room to write. Nonetheless, I prefer my own notion: we must fight the encroaching morass. We must avoid the ever-present, mind-numbing TV that imprisons the be-socked masses in their tiny beige apartment buildings all over the world.

About Meakin Armstrong

Fiction writer, fiction editor, journalist, and copywriter.
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