Neil Gaiman’s Creativity Hack Is Simple, Free and Grossly Underrated

The 62-year-old English novelist is an expert in idea-chasing

Neil Gaiman on stage at a talk in New York City.
Neil Gaiman stares out windows better than most.
Getty Images/Paula Lobo/Contributor

If you haven’t checked it out, Neil Gaiman has an excellent 19-episode MasterClass on the art of storytelling.

The 62-year-old novelist has been teaching at Bard College since 2014, and has clearly developed a professorial ease. A typical lesson weaves in anecdotes about Jerry Garcia with memories of telling his kids bedtime stories.

Neil Gaiman has lots of ideas on the nature of ideas — where they come from, how you find them, and what makes a good one. The third episode of the storytelling series, “Sources of Inspiration,” features a fascinating riff in this vein. We’re fans of this quote in particular:

“A lot of [ideation], right in the beginning, can just be boredom. It can be looking out a window. I love going to junior school and middle school kids’ drama. You cannot escape. You are stuck there. You can’t take out your phone. You can’t read. You have to watch. And yet the need to be elsewhere is such that you can absolutely go off and come up with some fantastic ideas for things.”

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Boredom is a good thing

With apologies to seventh-grade Shakespeare productions, Gaiman’s right. Sitting through a middle school play is somewhat amusing, but mostly boring. The same could be said for sitting through a work meeting, or sitting at a religious service, or sitting on a train for hours on end.

In all of these situations, you’ll probably reach for your iPhone to keep the weariness at bay. In some of them, you might even be able to get away with it. But Gaiman urges his writing students to embrace (and maybe even proactively seek out) situations where you’re stuck with your own thoughts.

Why? Because boredom is lighter fuel for creativity. If you want incontrovertible scientific proof, then here, flip through a double-blind study. (TL;DR: Neuroscientists agree that pursuing and appreciating boredom improves cognitive function, focus and self-control.)

Let creativity come to you

Chances, are, though, you’ve practiced what Neil Gaiman is preaching. Reflect on times you’ve been stuck somewhere — perhaps back when you were a kid — and all the truly bizarre thoughts that would come across your brain. Your teacher probably didn’t appreciate you staring out the window, but that’s where all the best ideas are.

In short, doing nothing motivates many to do something new. For Gaiman, that might mean inventing a new iteration of the London underworld when he’s supposed to be watching his kids recite lines as Puck. For you, that might mean finding a new entry point to your project while on an Amtrak with a poor internet connection. Whatever it is, just let it happen. You don’t have to do anything at all.

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