When Cia McAlarney, one of my coaching clients, shifted a Jane Austen quote to reflect our current obsession with electronics and what it does to us as writers, I knew I wanted to feature her insights on the topic in this guest post.
Cia is editor of the Riverdale Hamlet Hub, an online news service. She has been a freelance writer for over 15 years and won a Connecticut Press Club award in the “Best Online News Story” category in 2014. She teaches writing at the College of Mount Vincent in New York City and is working on a nonfiction book about the first mid-air collision of two commercial planes over an urban area in 1960.
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife. – Jane Austen
With apologies to Jane Austen, the sentence could easily be rewritten for the modern world: It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a person in possession of a few moments of spare time must be in want of an internet connection.
No, I am not suggesting that Jane needed an iPhone. To the contrary, I think we should find balance in our own approach to the internet. Austen’s must, that single word of obligation, accurately captures our approach to electronics.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I am by no means a Luddite. At any given moment you are likely to find me checking my smartphone, reading on my Nook or plugging away on my laptop. I am old enough to declare that it is truly a miracle of modern science that I can sit on my couch and tour the Vatican, look up Chester A. Arthur’s Vice President or shop for sexy red sandals in a snow storm.
On the other hand, perhaps there is something to be said for the idea of restraint. Perhaps we don’t have to fill every spare moment with connection or the acquisition of more information. Sometimes we could just wait.
Many commentators have written about the siren song of screens. For teens and adolescents, studies have shown that sleeping with their phones impedes sleep cycles by calling them to check their text messages at 3 am. It is this compulsive quality that leads us all from one screen to another, leaving us on a fan page for Azaelia Banks.
In one sense, this is a wonderful boon to writers. We all have the type of brain that longs to make connections, to follow a thread of unwinding thought wherever it might lead. Yet there are times when perhaps it is too easy, and therein lies the rub.
I bought my Nook to accommodate my insatiable need to be surrounded by books and choices of reading material any place, any time. Here was a device that supported a brick and mortar book store and also allowed me to pocket the 10 books and 5 magazines I might need to consult at a moment’s notice. It is a cornucopia of information, always accessible, always on.
Yet there are times when I suffer what I can only think of as screen malaise. On a hike through secluded woods, I feel the weight of the phone I carry in my pocket for emergencies and hear its call to check my email when I stop for water. On line in a supermarket, I whip out my Android to check my text messages. On a late night read of a Victorian novel, I wander to the internet to check a word origin and find myself moments later on a fan page for a bad reality show.
In each case, I have to ask myself if the time spent on yet another screen added to my experience as a person, a reader and a writer. Perhaps it would be better, as Rosanne has sometimes suggested, to just wait.
Waiting without electronics doesn’t have to be filled with boredom and the anxiety of believing that we need to do something. We can daydream, plan, pray, think or simply feel our connection to the ground.
Waiting can be pregnant with the possibilities of unwritten stories, unspoken conversations or untapped feelings. And waiting, I can’t help believing, was simpler without the imperative to “make ourselves useful” and indulge in yet another hit of the information high.
I haven’t learned how to completely do without the screens and I’m not sure I want to. They lurk on the fringes of my consciousness, beckoning me with the enticing promise of something to do. Still I am learning to resist their call.
Perhaps it is a truth universally acknowledged, that a person in possession of a few moments of spare time may sometimes wait.