“It is difficult to keep the public interested… the supply of new ideas is not endless,” complains the narrator of Donald Barthelme’s “The Flight of Pigeons from the Palace.”
For every writer, whether they pen literary fiction or produce streams of online content, the fight to stay interesting is an ongoing one.
Interesting to the reader, interesting to ourselves as writers, and interested in the process of putting words on a page. It is all too easy for overfamiliarity to seep in, causing mind-numbing boredom first in the writer, and in turn, the reader.
This is never more the case than when you find yourself writing numerous pieces on the same topic, whether they be TV episode scripts, multiple chapters in a long book, or many articles on a similar subject.
In a world where many writers make money through online content creation, this is likely to be an issue that afflicts us at some stage. How do we avoid boring ourselves and others? How do we keep fresh eyes when our subject niche starts to feel decidedly wilted?
Overfamiliarity Kills Appreciation
In his brilliant essay, “On Defamiliarization,” Charles Baxter asks, “What is the real relationship between familiarity and contempt?” Familiarity is good, up to a point, he argues — we need some familiarity as readers to feel comfortable and trusting. Too much, however, and we will anticipate every word before it comes, leading to boredom and contempt.
It’s not just writing that’s hard to keep fresh. I find it can be pretty difficult to keep appreciating anything when it’s in my face all the time. After too much time in my house, I stop appreciating its sweet, rainproof embrace and need to go on a holiday to make it fresh. After too much time with one person, I start getting annoyed by them and need some time alone to appreciate their wonderfulness again.
In all areas of life, there’s a slow slide where things change from a wonderful, interesting surprise into something that’s taken for granted.
Writing is no different; I may love writing about food, but if I churn out multiple articles on food all the time, my pen and palate will inevitably become somewhat jaded.
What can we do about this?
Well, there are a few approaches we can try in our endeavour to reinvigorate our subject matter and feel enthusiastically inspired once again:
- Take a break
- Keep learning
- Defamiliarize yourself
- Get out of your head
Take a Break
This is probably the most obvious solution, and the one we turn to most readily. Turn off the computer, walk away from the cluttered desk, and go for a swim, a bike ride, or a coffee. Being immersed in water is a particularly effective way of shaking things up in my experience, but you’ll have your own favorites, too.
The trouble is, this is always a temporary solution (unless we want to stop writing forever and get a job in a bike shop, in which case, go do that!). I hate to say it, but the writing is still going to be there when you get back.
Even if you do return refreshed and reinvigorated, needing to not write in order to write is a major part of procrastination, and not the greatest productivity strategy.
Taking a healthy break every now and then can easily turn into a trip to the fridge every five minutes “to find my inspiration.”
If we don’t want to conclude that the act of writing itself is tedious, and that the only solution is to stop doing it, then there are other techniques we can utilize in the search for freshness.
The quickest way to make my writing boring is to think I know everything. No matter how specific the niche within which I write, I will never know everything relevant there is to know. How boring would that be?
This isn’t cause for frustration; rather, we can celebrate that there will always be more interesting things to find out. By cultivating curiosity, we can continue to weave new strands of interest into our wordplay all the time.
A sign of insecurity in a writer is needing to come across as knowing everything. The problem with this stance is it hides all the interesting questions our writing could be asking.
When we’re confident enough to admit that we don’t know everything — that however knowledgeable we are, it’s barely scraping the surface of the wealth of knowledge out there — we can become interested in what we don’t already know.
Baxter describes how writing becomes tedious when “[a]ll the arrows point in one direction: a characteristic feature of public rhetoric” whereas in fiction, “the arrows point in all sorts of directions.” The act of trying to be too sure, too complete in our knowledge, makes all the arrows point the same way. Admitting we don’t know everything introduces some wayward arrows, increasing the tension and interest of a piece of writing.
It’s also very appealing to a reader when a writer has the vulnerability to admit the limits of their knowledge. It makes the world seem larger, more generous, more human, and more full of possibilities. Baxter suggests that a piece of writing, no matter what its function, should always be an experience for the reader, not a vehicle for the writer’s opinions.
The things we know can be kind of interesting, but the things we don’t know are even more fascinating. I enjoy cooking dishes I’m familiar with, but I also really enjoy picking up some unusual vegetables at the market or a recipe book with a new kind of cuisine from the library.
This is not to say we should just force ourselves to research random topics purely for the sake of novelty. Novelty doesn’t solve boredom — as Baxter puts it, “At the outer edge of experimentalism innovation tends to put new lingerie on the banal”. To put it super classily, you can’t polish a poo.
No, real curiosity has to arise on the basis of our attraction towards something, be it our subject matter, the act of writing, or the activity of learning itself. It’s kind of like falling in love — we get very very interested in everything about a person. We don’t have to force ourselves to learn more: we naturally want to.
“But look what happens then,” you may say. “We get sick of the person, just like we get sick of our writing.” Good point! This shows how cultivating fresh eyes is a crucial life skill in general, not just for us wordsmiths.
So, what do we do when our eyes are so jaded we don’t care anymore about learning new things?
We can try our next technique, which involves taking the already familiar and making it new again.
When we’ve been around a person a long time, we can gain a lovely sense of security. We know where we stand, and we can find a comfortable solidity when there appears to not be too many major surprises lurking. The price we pay for this security, however, is overfamiliarity.
Writing is no different; it’s wonderful to know enough about our subject matter that we can pour information out of our brains with ease and confidence. But that very ease and confidence can leave us feeling jaded with our area of expertise. What we need here is an element of shock — just a little.
The Russian formalist school of critics, whose members wrote in the early twentieth century, were very interested in the question of how to avoid numbness and boredom in life and literature, and they came up with the concept of “defamiliarization” (ostraneniye, or literally “making strange”). Critic Viktor Shklovsky coined the term as a technique in literature whereby the strange is made familiar and the familiar strange.
Shklovsky described how when we’re exposed to something over and over again, it can become overfamiliar and mechanical. This is how clichés lose their impact and how once-fascinating material (or people) can become unspeakably tedious.
Writers must shake things up, he argued, and not allow words and ideas to stagnate in ready-made symbolism. Defamiliarization is about stripping things of their normal meanings, because too many well-established, tired meanings can make a piece of writing feel dead.
How do we utilize the technique of defamiliarization?
Well, first of all we have to be very careful with what we think we know. Say I write large volumes of online content for a gourmet food website. There are certain concepts and phrases that will be very familiar to me and will easily flow from my pen, for example: “meltingly tender,” “intimate dining,” “cooked to perfection,” and “homemade.”
Now we slow waaay down. Was the food really melting? Was everyone dining naked? Was it actually, literally perfectly cooked, more than anything else you’ve eaten? Was it honestly made in someone’s home?
We can make the familiar strange by pausing for a moment and pedantically taking some of our slip-off-the-tongue phrases completely literally. Only then will we hear how odd these ‘normal’ phrases really are.
Once we’ve appreciated the strangeness of familiar phrases, we can look at the fundamental strangeness of our experiences themselves. Poet Paul Valéry wrote that “[s]eeing is forgetting the name of the thing one sees.” If we slow down enough, we can start to describe our world and subject matter without automatically resorting to our usual phrases and concepts.
For example, if I look up at the moon, phrases may spring to mind like “the silver light of the moon.” Yawn. But what if I slow down and consider how the thing I perceive as the moon is fundamentally a piece of rock floating in space, reflecting a whole bunch of light from a distant ongoing explosion (aka the sun) into my eyeballs? What would come out of my pen then?
Not a cliché, that’s for sure.
No matter how boring your subject matter, slowing down and making your experiences wonderfully strange again will help restore freshness to tired eyes.
This brings us to one final suggestion…
Get Out of Your Head
Reality itself is always fresh. Everything is always constantly changing and shifting in a beautiful swirling tapestry of vital life. Our cells are changing, our breath moves continuously, and every moment is fundamentally fresh by nature.
This means if things appear boring, I’m engaging with a mere concept of them. If I bore myself, it’s because I’m engaging with a concept of myself rather than a living, breathing reality. Concepts get tired. They get dry and stale. To stay fresh, we have to from time to time constantly get out of our heads and live more directly.
Yet as writers, we deal in concepts. As soon as an experience is translated into language, it becomes conceptual, to some degree. That’s why it’s so easy for us to lose freshness. To get it back, we have to reconnect with the multiple, ever-changing realities before the concept.
All experiences are fundamentally indescribable, but it is our job as writers to fail well and in new ways. The world is bigger, stranger, richer, and more exciting than any description of it, and our words struggle to grasp onto the sheer immersive fullness of reality.
For example, I may need (for whatever reason, no lit-snob judging here!) to write several articles a day on the experience of buying a car. If I stick purely to concepts, everyone is going to get very bored, very quickly. I need to return to the fundamental experience: what it really feels like to go through the process. Once I start from a feeling, or a physiological sensation, then I can build up a collection of words from there, rather than from my existing concepts.
Think of it like cooking: if you always started cooking with leftovers, would the results turn out fresh and tasty? Probably not.
We need to return to our raw experiences in order to get tasty new materials to write fresh words with.
This way of refreshing ourselves can prove difficult in the western, modern culture most of us live in, because we’re encouraged and taught to live in an extremely conceptual way that makes us numb from the neck down, unable to engage with our experiential, felt reality. Many of us have ideas about our lives and ourselves, rather than actually experiencing it.
The experience of feeling bored, or writing boring things, is a sign that we’re living in an overly conceptual way, unable to tap into the infinite well of freshness that lies in raw, unmediated experience.
It’s not our fault; we’ve gotten used to being overly conceptual as a result of our overly conceptual culture. It’s not a personal failure, and there’s nothing in particular we need to do to fix it. Reality is always there for us, as us, before we conceptualize it. The harder we think about it, the more we obscure it, so we just need to relax and make some space in ourselves.
Refreshing our gaze can be as simple as standing up, making a sandwich, enjoying some sunshine for a few minutes, and then coming back to our writing.
Or we can reinvigorate a jaded perspective by learning new things and remembering what we loved about our subject matter.
But to really refresh ourselves so that we bring the spark of wonder back to our words, we need to relax out of our tight, conceptual worlds, and make room to remember how wonderfully strange the world really is.
As a way to conquer boredom and rediscover our appreciation of ourselves, our readers, and our subject matter, this definitely beats looking for inspiration at the back of the refrigerator.
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