I was once asked a question about my writing that I didn’t expect. “It seems like all of your stories are historical. Why do you write about the past so much?”
To me the past has always seemed an attractive setting where conflict abounds, where modern certainties had not yet materialized and people were often isolated from the means to confront disease, or violence, or injustice.
But that question provoked another. Why do the lives people were living a hundred years ago make me passionate about their stories? Why do the lives people are living today seem so sterile, so removed from human drama, so far from what I want to write?
Earlier this year I quit Twitter. You have to stay off Twitter for a month for your suspended account to delete, but it took no commitment from me. I had a reason to leave—it starts with a T and ends with a rump—and I also felt no connection to the medium anymore. Why kill your days dumping tiny thoughts into the abyss when a story, something real and living, could be written?
The amoeba-like multiplication of ways to divert ourselves from concentrated thinking has made modern people (at least, those in the West, where technology use is heavy and mainstream) less intellectually deep and less interesting to write about.
Rather than growing our capacity to remember, we just “Google it,” knowing that we can always re-Google a bit of information once it fades from our brains. Instead of withdrawing inward to nourish our creative selves, we bathe in others’ words and images until not a single original thought or phrase remains inside us. To me it would seem a perversity if I wrote a novel populated with characters skimming their fingers over iPhones, posting on Facebook, or retweeting a meme. And Instagram! The insanity parade barrels onward.
The Pulitzer-Prize winning novelist Marilynne Robinson once told Newsweek that she likes to set her stories in the 1950s because there was less “cultural noise” during that era. “People were less accessible to each other,” she said, “which meant more of a kind of privacy, more time to think.”
But thinking we are not. It’s hurting our work as much as our minds.
Cal Newport, author of Deep Work, decries the “state of frenetic shallowness” that hardwires over-connected people for distraction and harms their creativity. Without cultivating mental solitude and privacy, we will sacrifice our time on things of transient value rather than projects that fulfill us, and maybe even better the world.
Newport recommends tailoring our lives so that technology does not rob us of our deepest qualities as human beings. Here is my own list of recommendations:
1. Don’t be a phone drone. Set a time each day when you turn off your phone. Mine is 6pm. The only exceptions are emergencies or when I expect important calls. On the weekends, if possible, I keep my phone off except to check it once a day for messages.
2. Join one social media platform—but only one. Limit yourself to checking it twice a week, if that. I am on Facebook, but mainly because I use it at my job. If I ever retire or become independently wealthy (come on, Powerball!), then I will jettison FB without regret.
3. Check your personal email once a day or less.
4. Don’t watch TV for more time than you are reading a book.
For a beautiful take on slowing down for the sake of one’s creativity, read Silas House’s essay “The Art of Being Still” in The New York Times: https://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/12/01/the-art-of-being-still/
Anthony Otten has published stories in Jabberwock Review, Valparaiso Fiction Review, Wind, Still: The Journal, and others. He has been a finalist for the Hargrove Editors' Prize in Fiction. He lives in Kentucky.
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