At the top of every slippery slope is a spot that feels like solid, level ground.
For me, the top of one such slope came around mid-May of this year. After holding out for over 10 years, I’d gotten a smartphone; I was also about to look for housing as a sublet expired, and was thus at the beginning of what would turn out to be an arduous apartment search.
You can perhaps guess what happened next. Obsessive checking of Craigslist and Zillow led to equally frantic email-checking. As the search dragged on and my partner and I crammed visit after fruitless visit into our already busy days, mindless internet browsing crept higher up my list of coping mechanisms. What better/worse way to “decompress” than to lie on my couch and alternate between reading productivity blogs, which I found disturbing and alluring in equal measure, and scrolling through profile pictures of herding dogs I would definitely not adopt?
Eventually, I found a great apartment, and the smartphone certainly helped in the search and in other realms. But I stand before you a slightly changed woman. My attention span is noticeably shorter, and my writing practice has slowed to a crawl, as it has during other periods of harried overreliance on screens. I need an intervention. And maybe you do too!
If so, join me on Saturday, November 9 for Digital Detox, a two-session class where we’ll consider how to free ourselves, if only for a little while, from the technologies and habits of mind that block our best writing. Here are a few practices I’ve been finding helpful:
Practice the art of noticing—and, to do so, put yourself out there!
In her book How to Do Nothing, the writer and artist Jenny Odell links what she calls “[r]esisting the attention economy” to our ways of relating to our immediate surroundings. These efforts require the same techniques that writers often strive towards: defamiliarization, curiosity, imagination, and awareness of one’s own context(s).
For Odell, what this often looks like is an attention to bioregionalism and community—what plants and animals inhabit her landscape, what strangers share a neighborhood or an art-making assemblage. The common denominator—and the trick, in my opinion, if your mind just isn’t feeling so attentive or curious—is to literally put yourself out there: find a place outside your private space and inhabit it, goal-free, even for a few minutes.
This doesn’t mean you have to venture into nature (though it definitely could!); you might leave your phone or computer at home and head to a cafe or museum with no aim besides open-eyed experience. Public transit can also be a good place for this! Henry James famously advised that writers “[t]ry to be one of those people on whom nothing is lost.” Just saying: If your earbuds are in and/or you’re focused on your screen, it’s likely that something is getting lost.
Take time to think through your technology habits and why they’re habits for you.
One thing I’ve learned from the aforementioned guilty-pleasure productivity blogs? Change often starts with recognizing that something is a pattern, and the next step is often thinking about the reason for the pattern.
Take my blog-reading itself: besides the very questionably useful “information” I sometimes glean from them, I often find myself reading them when I’m tired or when I feel like I need a break. Those aren’t moments when I’d otherwise be creatively engaged, but, after noticing this, I can at least consider whether there’s another way for me to rest that’s more inspiring and—well, restful. For me, this might be rereading a favorite poem or turning to a magazine (which is sort of a pre-Internet Internet, minus all the clicking and eye strain).
Do things by hand.
Lynda Barry, who’s a writer, cartoonist, and one of my creative heroes, calls our hands “the original digital devices.” (Digital—get it?)
“People think they understand what their hands can do, but there is a different way of thinking that goes along with them; they’re a spontaneous organizing force,” she says.
If, like me, you often find yourself unable to start writing in the presence of the internet’s myriad temptations, it can help to do what feels both drastic and obvious: avoid the screen completely. Take out a notebook and start a draft longhand—or consider, as a supplement to your Word document, some analog journal-keeping or note-taking.
This might not only improve your attention, but also serve as a rewarding way of switching things up in your work. “If you write by hand, something different happens,” Barry says.
We’ll use our two sessions together—and the week in between them—to experiment with all this and more. So if your mind has felt as cloudy as the Seattle winter weather that’s moving in, come try it out with me.
While I can’t promise that your (and my!) phone won’t still hold its allure, we’ll leave with new pages, new practices, and, with any luck, some new ways of looking at what surrounds us.
Liza Birnbaum‘s fiction and essays have appeared in Web Conjunctions, jubilat, Open Letters Monthly, and other publications. She is a founding editor of Big Big Wednesday, an annual print journal of literature and visual art, and has taught creative writing in a number of settings, most recently at an alternative school for young women who are pregnant or parenting. In 2019, she will be a funded resident at the Lillian E. Smith Center at Piedmont College. She holds an MFA from the University of Massachusetts Amherst.