Hi Captain Awkward (or any other lovely affiliated blogger kind enough to take this letter on),
I’m a very boring person. I used to think I was creative and interesting, but I find that all I really do is mindlessly consume media. I read online constantly (articles, blogs, forums, etc) but almost never post anything myself. I used to write a bit, but now I just guilty delete the 750words.com reminder email every morning. I read books, watch Netflix, listen to music, whatever, and I’m so sick of it. I’ve read all about “the top 10 ways to meet new people” and “best hobbies for 20-somethings” and I just can’t bring myself to feel anything but apathy for most things. Occasionally, something will spark my interest briefly, but I’ll only pursue it for a few days, if that.
I have a lot of spare time because my (mind-numbing, totally awful) job (that I despise) pays extremely well and doesn’t require more than a dozen or so hours of work per week. I could work more hours to make more money, but I prefer not to. I know I should fill my free time with fulfilling activities of some sort, but very little sparks any interest for me whatsoever, and my follow-through is pitiful.
I’m married and I have a few friends and family who I guess I’m close to, but they all seem to be a bit bored of me lately, and I can’t blame them. Who wants to hang out with someone who says and means “absolutely nothing” when you ask them what’s new? Most people seem to think I’m funny and intelligent, so I can have some non-awkward conversations, but I’m starting to feel a bit self conscious about my interactions with people now. I’ve (ineffectively) addressing this by reading endless articles about building social skills and being a good listener, which has the result of making me seem, well, kind of fake to be honest.
Captain, I’m sure you’re bored of me already (if you’re even reading this). How do I turn a human-shaped lump into someone worthwhile and interesting?
Oh and I suppose I should note that I’ve seen a doctor and a therapist. I tried a vast assortment of prescription medication for depression and ADHD (which I was diagnosed with 5 years ago) over the course of the past couple of years, none of which had any effect on my general well-being or motivation.
I don’t know where you live, but if the photo below resembles what’s been happening outside, have you considered just chalking this up to “Generalized Februaryness” and waiting it the fuck out from under a blanket somewhere?
That is to say, you’re not alone in feeling generally “meh” and “blearggghhh” right now. From your last paragraph, it sounds like you’ve already considered that losing interest in things that used to interest you, feeling generally un-energetic, and assuming that it must be because you are inherently _______ (insert negative quality here) ticks off some ticky boxes related to treatable stuff, so, good. You’ve got medical resources you can call if you need to, I won’t belabor that aspect of your question and we can skip ahead to the existential crisis part.
This is by no means a perfect test, but there is sort of a way to tell if you might routinely be boring other people when you talk to them. If you feel like you never quite get to the end of a story (or answer to a work question from a colleague), if it seems like everyone around you jumps in to finish your stories or changes the subject the second you pause for breath, if you and others can’t tell when you’re done talking about something and it all… kind of… trails off …into ellipses…
...there is a chance your stories are too long or made up of too much “middle.” The great Suzette Haden Elgin suggests the Boring Baroque Response as a deliberate verbal self-defense technique to make people who are trying to pick a fight with you go away; unfortunately sometimes it’s not so deliberate. Telling a story where you include enough detail to be vivid and engaging, but not so much detail that you lose your way to the point or make the entire room silently plead, “Bring it home, Treebeard” is an actual skill that can be acquired with practice. From reading your written question I don’t think any of this is the case with you, but if you feel like multiple people in your life (vs. one or two really interrupt-y folks) are routinely tuning you out, try making your stories shorter and telling them quicker and see if it makes a difference.
Have you considered that your social circle is not interesting to you right now, and that’s part of what’s wrong? Maybe your interests have grown beyond what your habitual topics of conversations are, maybe you need to seek out more adventures together or otherwise change it up, maybe you need to look outside your usual haunts and activities for stimulation. This doesn’t have to be a solo activity, where you forsake or “escape” from your current friends. “Hey, want to take curling lessons with me?” instead of “Hey, want to grab brunch at the usual spot?” might do it.
I read your letter with great fascination, especially about your attempts at improving your conversational skills, because it taps into something I’ve been thinking about for a while. I’d write that linked piece differently now, and get deeper into the ways that the aspirational nature of self-improvement narratives are deployed to capture the attention and money of more privileged people (who should all be reorganizing our closets to create a perfect capsule wardrobe of 33 flawless clothing items) and to oppress and shame less privileged people (Why don’t you just grow your own food, poor people? Why do you “waste” your money on expensive clothes, poor people?).
There is nothing wrong with wanting to improve yourself, get better at things, make your life happier and work better for you. And readers, I want that capsule wardrobe like burning. I want to be the kind of person who can curate a personal style and be effortlessly put together, and I think the author of that piece is fly as hell and is doing the same exact thing I am here – sharing some cool stuff she learned with the world in the hopes that it will help someone, somewhere.
But, I also think that “self-improvement” as a dominant cultural narrative and as a product means that we’re drowning in “tips” and “lifehacks” and ways to “optimize” our shit in ways that distract and separate us from deeper engagement with the people and the world around us. And I think that the people who rule this Late Capitalism/Disaster Capitalism/Crony Capitalism/Corporatism/Rule By and For the 1%/Austerity/Eroding of Safety Nets and Public Institutions Like Schools and Roads & Shit What Helps Society Work – whatever you want to call what’s going on in the current political and economic landscape - prosper at our expense when we turn our gaze all the way inward toward what we can do to change & improve ourselves. Because if we blame struggling people solely for their own struggles, and insist that they just need to try harder in order to succeed, we don’t have to face the idea that our own successes were built on more than just our personal exceptionalism. We don’t have to engage with the fact that certain basic shared assumptions about how the world should work are unjust and unsustainable.
Sorry for the tangent, Letter Writer, you’ve tapped into something that’s A Thing for me right now at work as I struggle to climb out of adjunct limbo at the day job in an impossible labor market that cannot sustainably employ thousands upon thousands of people who have bought long and hard into the idea that lifelong learning and self-improvement via education is a worthwhile thing even as we sell that thing at a huge markup to the next generation in our classrooms, and at Work as I try to figure out how to help students and readers improve their ability to communicate without falling into the trap of self-improvement vs. self-care or self-discovery or self-expression or self-exploration. As my excellent colleague Megan Stielstra rants here: teaching someone to execute a form without regard to expression or meaning or context does actual damage to their abilities! And damage to the world!
“In the introductory paragraph to this essay about essays I will tell you that you don’t need an introductory paragraph, at least not of the1) topic sentence 2) structural methodology 3) thesis statement variety that we were all taught in high school. What you do need is That Thing; maybe a question, a fear or a fury. It makes your blood boil. It’s all you can talk about when you sit down with your friends over a glass of wine or two or five, or maybe you can’t talk about it with anyone, just your own heart, alone with the impossible architecture of words. As Cheryl Strayed wrote in her introduction to The Best American Essays 2013, “Behind every good essay is an author with a savage desire to know more about what is already known.” I want to talk about essays. I don’t have a topic sentence or a thesis statement, just a savage desire to know.”
Go read the whole thing. Megan is the best teacher I know.
As a teacher of filmmaking, I can tell you that knowing about the Rule of Thirds and the 180 Degree Rule will help you level up in setting up shots and shooting footage that edits together, just like getting better at listening and other social skills will boost your confidence when meeting people. You’ll have a better framework for communicating your ideas, and the safety net of knowing that at least you are meeting some basic expectations of craft. It also gives you concrete stuff that you can practice, which is something you can control. Time spent learning those skills and concepts and practicing the fundamentals is not wasted time.
But shooting a sequence of well-composed frames that cut together seamlessly isn’t the same thing as telling a story. And having a couple of good anecdotes, or saying “Please” and “Thank you” and “And then what happened?” and “It was lovely to see you, too!” at the “correct” intervals isn’t the same thing as having a conversation that lights you up. Skills can be acquired and improved, but they will never take the place of That Thing. That savage desire to know and to be known. I have many students who, like you, Letter Writer, are pretty sure they are not interesting, that they have nothing interesting to say, that if they did no one would be interested anyway, so can’t we skip all this “story” stuff and just learn lighting?
Sure, let’s learn lighting. Let’s light something! But before we get out the gear, answer me:
- What are we going to light?
- What’s happening in this scene?
- Who are these people?
- Where are these people?
- What time of day is it?
- How do they feel about each other?
- How are we supposed to feel about them?
- What kind of movie is this (genre, style, tone)?
- Where are they going to stand and how are they going to move around in the space?
Shit, son, if you can figure out all that, you just told a story. You did it like a painter, with light and bodies in space and colors instead of words, but you did it.
There’s no way to perfectly and reliably generate only perfect, fantastic, interesting, award-winning ideas and to know ahead of time that everything is going to work or guarantee they will all connect brilliantly with other people. The messy, vulnerable, failure-prone process of getting them out – in conversation, on paper, on a cocktail napkin, in a photo, in a tune you can’t stop humming – is how you figure out if they are any good. Megan said it perfectly, in the essay about essays linked upstream: “As E.M. Forster wrote, I don’t know what I think til I see what I say.”
“She looked steadily at each of the three children in turn. “You will need help,” she told them, “but all I am allowed to give you is a little talisman.Calvin, your great gift is your ability to communicate, to communicate with all kinds of people. So, for you, I will strengthen this gift. Meg, I give you your faults.”
“My faults!” Meg cried.
“But I’m always trying to get rid of my faults!”
“Yes,” Mrs. Whatsit said. “However, I think you’ll find they’ll come in very handy on Camazotz.” - A Wrinkle In Time, Madeline L’Engle
The stuff that makes you vulnerable and imperfect is the stuff that makes you interesting. Relatable to others. Perfectly yourself. When you are with your friends, are you working so hard to be “good” at interacting with them that you are forgetting to be yourself, however you are really feeling at that moment? This is probably the source of that fake feeling you describe after trying out all the communication skills tricks.
What if the next time someone close to you asks you how you are, you said “I’m feeling weird and bored and boring lately, and I don’t know quite what to do about it”? It’s no thrilling tale of adventure, but it’s the vulnerable truth. Is that allowed in your social circle? What if the stuff you are struggling with right now is the stuff you actually talk about with other people who love you? What if those failures and worries are the interesting bits?
You are good at your job, good enough to keep everything together and fake it enough to make it. You are smart. You are funny. You have friends, family, a husband who love you. You have enough time and a little bit of disposable income you could put toward hobbies & interests if you wanted to. You have enough access to medical care to treat any brain chemistry stuff that could be going on. If you are in the northern hemisphere, the sun is starting to come back. So let’s talk about why “interesting” a thing you need to be.
Who is the intended audience for your interestingness? Who would need to find you interesting or confirm your interesting for you to believe in it, to feel that it’s true? Your friends? Your husband? Yourself? A stranger behind you in the checkout line, admiring the way you put your items on the conveyor belt or the way your coat suits you perfectly, a stranger imagining wonderful things about you wishing you well? A judgmental stranger who hates your shoes and sniffs disapprovingly at the contents of your cart? Is “interestingness” something you feel you owe other people?
Once I went to a bunch of art & history museums in Paris and watched a particular shade of blue creep around the ancient world and slowly bleed into the modern, from stone to bowl to mosaic tile to earring to fountain to dress to abstract painting, and I’m still thinking about it now, 7 years later. Is that interesting? Is the interestingness in the foreign travel, or evidence of crisscrossing trade routes and thousands of minds in a visual conversation of inspiration with each other across history, or in the thought, or in the tale I’m telling you, or the shade of blue itself? The trip was a gift from a friend, so maybe the interestingness is in the luck & friendship that brought me to that place to be part of that blue story.
Sometimes we fall into the trap of thinking that ordinary life is boring and excitement is interesting. Once I walked out my door and heard the sound of glass breaking. I turned my head toward the sound and saw bottle smash across the hood of a car. The man in the car got out and shot the men who threw the bottle (one fatally, one not). While I stood there, frozen, he got back in the car and drove past me very slowly. He made eye contact with me for some very long seconds as he drove past, and I watched him make the calculation and the decision not to shoot me, too. I would give a lot to trade that interesting day for a (P)interesting one of finding new recipes and figuring out the best way to hang up art in my apartment. For lots of people the privileges of boredom look an awful lot like “Great! Sign me up!”
I don’t want to shame you about being bored, or about wanting your life to be more interesting. Boredom happens at the extremes of choice, where you have so many you can become paralyzed by a need to make the “best” choice, or you have so few choices and so few resources that the stakes of making a mistake are so high that the status quo is at least the Devil You Know. In the “too few choices” case, an influx or cushion of resources can make all the difference in ending decision fatigue and opening up new possibilities for someone. The months I spent as a temp shredding documents in a (literal) closet, not allowed to wear headphones or read while I did it because my sadistic fuck of a manager would sneak up behind me and then write me up to the temp agency because “team players don’t wear headphones” were among the most depressing and boring of my life. I couldn’t leave, because I needed the job. I couldn’t think my way to a new situation because document shredders are loud and the shame and exhaustion of being a smart person “who can do anything you put your mind to!” who couldn’t figure out how to NOT be shredding documents for $11/hour and who had to carefully budget and plan every penny of that $11/hour in order to survive was louder. It got better because I was assigned to a better-paying and less ear-and-soul-shredding gig, which gave me a little energy to start working on people’s movies, which led me to going to grad school & making my own movies. Without that stroke of luck, who knows?
You’ve got some cushion against catastrophe, so while you’re standing in the existential jam aisle you’ve got the shame-y buzz of “You can do anything you want to!”/”GREAT BUT I DON’T KNOW WHAT TO WANT” going strong in your ears. So what are some ways to throw a jam jar - any jam jar – in the cart and flee the feeling of standing in a Gursky tableau for at least a little while?
Take a trip somewhere. It’s something to do, and something to talk & think about and look forward to on a temporary basis. You probably can afford to travel with a little planning, so why not treat yourself in that way? It’s not going to make anything worse, is it?
Apply for 5 other jobs in your field that you might be qualified for and see if changing up something about that – which company you work for, some aspect of the work – gets better. If you get offered the jobs, and you decide not to take them because the current money/free time tradeoff is better, that’s a valid choice! But the process of looking at listings, crafting a letter and resume, and thinking through the decision might shake some things out.
Make an FU-fund. You say that if you worked more, you would earn more. What if you decided to work extra hours for the next 6 months to sock away some money that would give you more choices? Like taking some real time off from your job? Or quitting for a while without pressure to find something else immediately?
Volunteer. Maybe ignore the whole question of “interesting” for a while and work on “useful” for a bit. Somewhere in your community, someone needs to be fed, or read to, or listened to, or have a strongly-worded letter written on their behalf. Somewhere there is a political candidate who sucks less than the others who needs you to make calls or knock on doors for them.
Be bad at something fun/good. You are tired of reading & watching, and writing isn’t flowing right now, so what about something physical and/or dirty?
- Choral singing
Good guidelines: Whatever it is has to meet regularly, involve other people, be fun, not be something you are already good at or feel pressure to perform well at. Be a beginner. If you don’t like whatever it is, quit and do something else.
Observe people…with love. Frustrated writer, take yourself to a public place and people-watch. Eavesdrop. Observe. Fill in the rest with imagination. How are the people interacting with the place you are in? Are they comfortable/uncomfortable? Are they happy in themselves and their companions? Do they dress to be noticed or to blend in? What do you think their houses are like? What do you think they were like as children?
Take a notebook and record things, but the reason for this Freshman Creative Writing prompt is not to necessarily trick you into doing any writing projects if you aren’t into it right now. The thing I want you to do is to look at people (not creepily stare, just, you know, sort of check them out sidelong). Write down things that you like about them -their faces, their hands, their expressions, the way they interact with their kids/dogs. Wish good things at them or for them. If they catch you looking and are puzzled by it, give them a smile and a compliment. “I’m sorry, I was just admiring your coat/shoes/reusable shopping bag/adorable dog/cute child/cool glasses/remembering how much I liked that book you are reading. Have a good day!”
Observe the people you love…with love.
Your husband…what did you love about him when you first saw him? When you first knew you liked him? When you first knew you loved him? When you first knew he loved you? What’s something you loved about him last week? Yesterday? This minute? Your friends and family, what do you love and admire about them?
You have all these love stories in your life, and each one has its own beginning and its own shape. If you’re at a loss for what to write about in your journal in the morning, write those.
It might be hard to let yourself do observation things initially because they are a cheesy, sentimental and not actually subtle way of getting you to see that people are interesting in themselves, they are worthy of love and compassion all by themselves, just for being themselves, and just possibly, so are you. Does knowing the secret behind the trick make the trick not work anymore?
“I tried your suggestions and they all suck” would be an interesting story, at least.