Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Transformation of Boring

Profound thought of the day: Almost anyone can make something interesting interesting.

Some people can manage to make something interesting—such as an epic how-I-survived-a-rabid-jaguar-and-found-buried-treasure tale—boring.

But it takes great talent and deliberate effort to make something boring interesting.

I learned this at an early age from Pixar, Klutz Books, and Steak-and-Shake.

Pixar makes sense, of course. I loved how they could take any topic—the history of rats was a short on Ratatouille that was particularly impressive to me—and make it the most fascinating thing ever. The way they take simple concepts and tell them in beautiful ways, especially in the short films, is one of the main reasons I love Pixar.

Klutz is a series of kids’ craft books. I had a lot of experience with them because I went through nearly every possible stage of crafting in my early years, including, but not limited to, thumbprint doodles, pipe cleaner animals, curled paper creations, card-making, rock-painting, sewing felt finger puppets, and making a Civil War Candy Land entirely out of modeling clay.

No, really. Uncle Tom’s Peanut Brittle Cabin was probably my favorite.

But that’s another blog post.

Or maybe not.

The point is, those books weren’t just instruction manuals. They made boring information fun—even the often-neglected copyright page was filled with jokes and unexpected bonuses, much like the credits in Monty Python movies. Klutz’s mission statement (given with the note that it could be cut out by any eight-year-old who collected corporate mission statements) is still one of my favorites: create wonderful things, be good, have fun.

And, finally, I remember reading a Steak-and-Shake menu in jr. high and noticing dry, witty comments in the fine print that no one ever reads unless they came with a group of seventeen people and the food is taking forever to get there. I don’t remember exactly what they were, or why I found the quips and taglines so hilarious, but the fact that those little details were there gives me a positive impression of the restaurant that’s still with me today.

Eventually, probably my freshman year of high school, I associated the genius of all three of these companies together and realized that’s what I wanted to do: I wanted to make something boring into something interesting. This is why writing a textbook is actually on my list of writing goals. Not sure when I’ll get there, but it sounds like a party. It also led to the creation of a motto that’s served me well in life: Nothing has to be boring.

Okay, so I’ve found exceptions. But I used to tack on a few qualifiers to my motto—the most common being “Nothing has to be boring, except possibly math”—and then I saw the play Proof, and that qualifier got crossed off. So now, I start with the assumption that someone, somewhere, can make any topic interesting if they’re creative enough and passionate enough.

I’ve seen hundreds of examples of creative people refusing to let boring information stay boring. Here’s a sampling: the time a choir sang instructions about turning off cell phones before a concert, Bill Keaggy’s commentary on discarded grocery lists in his book Milk, Eggs, Vodka, the storytelling narrator of the board game Space Alert’s instruction manual, a tour guide who tells stories instead of just facts.

Every time I encounter something insignificant—a list, a procedure, a routine fact of everyday existence—presented in an interesting way, I get excited about life, because it reminds me what a difference creativity can make. Someday, all of those off-the-wall ideas I have could be turned into something useful, something that will cause the average person to stop in the tracks of their dull, daily routine and take notice of something that could easily have faded into the background.

Sometimes, when I’m thinking about it, I also remember to put that kind of effort into the boring things I do on a regular basis, to refuse to settle for ordinary in my sleepy breakfast conversations, reflective essays, or walk back to my apartment. That doesn’t mean looking for opportunities to constantly make jokes or pull stunts to keep life from getting boring. It usually just means appreciating the little things, not being afraid to be passionate about things I care about, and noticing the interesting quirks of people around me.

Life doesn’t have to be a bland instruction manual, but rejecting the dull and mundane takes a very special kind of magic, one that involves both creativity (to come up with something original and attention-getting), discipline (to avoid saying “Who cares about this anyway? Why don’t we just slap something together and be done with it?”), and a love for the subject (which is usually the answer to “Why don’t we just slap something together and be done with it?”).

It’s not that only a few rare people possess that magic. It’s just that very few people care enough about the small things to make them memorable. But those who do get noticed, at least by high school freshmen who want to be writers.

Which is why I’m going to look into patenting and marketing Civil War Candy Land.

Just kidding.


  1. Oh, Amy, you certainly do make me smile. :) Life is so full of absolutely lovely "teachable moments" - thank you for helping us recognize and appreciate a few of these!

  2. Heeey. Glad to see you changed your mind about math, because it is not boring in the least. I applaud whoever wrote Proof. :)