How Technology's Stopping You From Being a Writer
My palms grew damp, my body, rigid; mind flitting this way and that as a moth between a screen and a window. As I sat on the comfy chair in my temporary tiny home on the edge of a field, just a five-minute walk to the sea, surrounded by hills swimming in firs, rock face, and thick brush, I began to get really angry at my Airbnb hosts. Yes, I was there to write for three days, but what if I needed to send an email or look up something? I didn't see a Wi-Fi password on the house instructions they'd sent me via email, nor did I see anything written in the guest book. I assumed there'd be Wi-Fi because, well, everywhere else I stayed had it. Why didn't they tell me there was no Wi-Fi. How could they be so insensitive? Then I noticed a wren flying into an opening in some ferns outside the window. Two pink beaks opened from their nest in anticipation as the momma wren fed them worms or grubs. What a gift I thought, and then, what was I thinking missing email, Google, Facebook? Fuck Facebook.
By the end of my time in the tiny home I'd settled into waiting in anticipation until she came back with food for her babies, watching her during my writing breaks like I'd watch an episode of Game of Thrones. I'm well aware of how technophobe-ish the title to this blog post sounds. After all, technology is neutral, right, and we can shape it to do what we want for us, not the other way around? Or can we? Do we? You might imagine the Twilight Zone theme song here. I'll go out on a limb and say that, not only is technology a timesuck, it also stops us from experiencing life--which in turn prevents us from really writing from our "inner houses.** If you're anything like me, think about how many times you said you didn't have enough time to write and then proceeded to spend an hour on Facebook? Two hours? Yet it's not only about wasting time. In Nicholas Carr's The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, he writes, “What the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. Whether I’m online or not, my mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.” Are you the guy or girl on a jet ski? I know that most days I TOTALLY am that girl zipping along the surface of life, not taking in much at all. And this isn't good for a writer. Writers should be scuba divers, not jet skiers. When you write you don't want to tell your reader that something's a certain way, you want them to experience it. “The best teacher is experience and not through someone's distorted point of view,” writes Jack Kerouac in On the Road. And I would add to that, not through something’s distorted view, either. I had an English teacher in high school who repeated to her students ad nauseam, "Write what you know." That bothered me because I had wanted to write fantasy, and how was I supposed to know what was happening on a distant planet if I'd never been there. What my teacher didn't explain though was that we have to have experienced certain feelings and sensations to accurately write about them. Obviously I don't have to go to Mars in order to write about it, but I have to draw on my experiences of something that felt unfamiliar or isolating or unworldly if I’m to capture what it’s like to live on Mars as a human. Maybe I was afraid when I was a child or felt alone. Maybe I got lost and had to find my way back home. It's connecting to those feelings and recreating them for the reader that makes a good story, and the only way to do that is to experience those emotions firsthand. “As we embrace a technology’s gifts, we usually fail to consider what they ask from us in return—the subtle, hardly noticeable payments we make in exchange for their marvelous service," writes Carr. When we're on our technology there's a film or a filter between us and the outside world. When I'm in the forest taking pictures with my smart phone I'm not in the forest interacting with the trees and the birds and feeling the experience of being alive and receptive to the forest. No, when I'm on my phone I'm curating the forest for my followers on Facebook or Instagram. I'm looking at the moss and the leaves on the trees, and the way the light falls on the leaves, and the way it streams through the branches, and I'm thinking about what that's going to look like as a thumbnail on my Instagram or as a tweet. I'm not saying we shouldn't curate our surroundings as, after all, part of the experience of living in the 21st century is being with our machines and doing this contemporary dance between the real and the virtual. I do it all the time and have no intention of not doing it. I'm speaking specifically about how it affects us as writers. In order to write and to inhabit our stories so that readers can in turn inhabit them, we really should alleviate distractions once in a while. Because the more alive you feel, or the more alive you try to feel, the better a writer you'll be. Writing involves the senses. When you're able to describe an event, a sensation, a feeling to your readers and they're able to experience that sensation or feeling through your description of it, then they have a more interesting experience reading your stories and are apt to stay with your story to the end. You've probably heard the expression show, don't tell. You want to transport readers to the time and place you're writing about. You want them to feel the pain and joy of your characters. Rather than telling them that something is a certain way, having them experience it for themselves gives them a richer experience. In order to be a writer, to push yourself and feel what your characters (or you) are feeling, then you have to experience the world--richly and deeply--without your phone. Without thinking about the next post on social. You can do both. I'm not saying turn it off for good, but try setting it aside sometimes in order to get in touch with your senses. Be the sensual, awake being that I know you are, and that we all are. Over the three days in the tiny home I'd not only completely restructured my next book, but I'd also seen eagles and heard ravens' wings clipping the sky overhead, witnessed the natural world coming alive in the early morning with dew on the grass and mist sweeping across the field. If you can't get away for a couple days without Wi-Fi (though I do strongly suggest that you try), here are a few things that you can do to awaken your senses right now. 1) Try one day without tech--without your phone and your fav social media. Put your phone on airplane mode. I do this routinely and know others who do this as well. 2) Go out for a walk in the forest or to the nearest park and spend five to 10 minutes or 30 minutes (even better) looking around you. Perhaps there's a worm on the ground after a spring rain, or you hear birds doing their chirpy thing in the trees. Just pay attention to whatever’s around you. 3) Visit a cafe that's not too busy. Jot down what you’re hearing be it a plane going by, the coffee machine whirring, or a conversation between two people. 4) Close your eyes and scan your body starting from your head. As you do this, ask each part of your body (head, mouth, throat, sternum, heart, stomach, hands, lower back, thighs, feet) to tell you how it's feeling in one word (i.e., cautious, boastful, sad, joyous, celebratory, tired, thoughtful, glorious, pensive...). Write this word down once your body speaks it. 5) Write down 10 observations about your surroundings that are connected to your senses. As an example, “the leafless tree out my window,” “the cloudless sky,” “the hard wood floor beneath me,” “the colourful books on my shelves,” “the soft cushion at my back,” “the citrusy, warming tea I’m drinking,” “the fragrant candle beside me.” These can be in point form; the idea is just to get them down. This exercise is from my Udemy course called Writing the Body. Practice deep listening and pay attention in your day-to-day as it will sharpen your senses and awareness, helping you become a better, more attuned writer. We don't yet have chips implanted in our brains; we just have our bodies, our minds and our senses and emotions, and it can be a pretty awesome experience to be alive on this planet in 2017. Writing isn't just when you sit down and put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. Even when you're not writing you are writing. Your body and your mind are sucking in experiences, storing them as juicy morsels to use and explore for later. **The term "inner house" is from Edith Wharton's Letters. "I believe I know the only cure, which is to make one’s center of life inside of one’s self, not selfishly or excludingly, but with a kind of unassailable serenity–to decorate one’s inner house so richly that one is content there, glad to welcome anyone who wants to come and stay, but happy all the same when one is inevitably alone." Photo by Jordan McQueen on Unsplash