Going Low

The Black Hole in My Pocket

I first saw Jake in a weird production of Waiting for Godot. I can’t remember if he was Vlad or Estie, but I remember he was quite good. Many years later, he got married to my friend Jenni, and I scored an invite to their amazing wedding where they served donuts and coffee instead of cake.

Jake has done many things, like acting and directing and playwriting, and is the rare person who is both very kind and very smart. I say “rare” because the cynic in me believes that all smart people must be acutely aware of how disturbed and unfeeling the universe is. But Jake carries himself with such compassion and warmth that extends not only to family and friends, but to everyone he encounters. This is precisely why I asked him to write an article: I think we could all benefit from the profound joy he brings to his work. – Jenny Kessler, curator

I read once that Ray Carver could knock out an entire short story in an afternoon. I thought: that fucker didn’t have to contend with a smartphone. And he had cigarettes.

Cigarettes never made me productive. I always wanted to be the guy who typed a hundred words a minute with a bogie hanging off his lower lip, but I’m very clumsy and I worried about ash falling into the crevices of my keyboard. Also, the sludge I made in my French Press every morning reacted with the nicotine and made me feel like I was coming onto a heart attack and/or a particularly unpleasant potty session.

But I still miss smoking: the smell, the whispered crackle of tobacco, the suck and inhale, the meditative targeted exhale. If I quit my iPhone, would I miss it the same way? And is it, I wonder, the sensory experience that I’m addicted to: the overstimulating light from the screen, the surprisingly effective speakers, the bounce of my thumbtips against the glass?

Doubtful.

More likely, I’ve become dependent on the distraction a phone provides from boredom and loneliness. I can listen to any album, watch any movie, stare at any picture, order any pair of cutoff jorts, read any Twin Peaks recap, and thus obliterate the idle moment at which my mind might otherwise have wandered into deep thought. Which—

remembers that his phone, which he set down on the other side of the room so he could finish what he was writing, has very low battery, goes to charge it, is lost briefly in a heavily circulating New York Magazine article about climate change which unnerves him so that he needs to take another look at the picture of a dog’s head on a giraffe’s body that he finds oddly soothing, sets his phone down, remembers that he meant to plug it in . . .

This is all anathema to creativity, as I’m sure you’ve read in several motivational or finger-pointy blog posts and interviews by the artists you look to for spiritual guidance. Time and again, young creatives are told to physically disable internet connectivity, to switch the phone not just to airplane mode but all the way off, to bury all smart devices underground in a nearby park for an hour or two while drafting, sketching, practicing, thinking, spacing out. Statistically, it’s very unlikely that anyone will need to contact you in the time that you’ve set aside for art. The world will not change unalterably when you unplug, and you will return to check your text messages, email, and social media accounts with a sense of accomplishment and productivity.

Or, in the time you were away from your phone, you will have putzed around for a bit without having gotten anything done, and you will wonder why you decided to put your phone away in the first place, and you will feel a strong sense of your own mediocrity. You will then spend an inordinate sum of time on social media checking the feeds of those who appear to be doing better than you, and you might wrap up with another few feel-bad pieces about our ongoing national nightmare, only to find that you’ve passed forty minutes on the couch without moving.

You can’t quit your smartphone, can you? Sure, there are places in the world where no one owns a cell phone at all, but your partner, best friend, colleagues, parents would all be pretty irritated to find out that they’ll no longer be able to reach you at a moment’s notice—this is, after all, 2017. Then again there are, I believe, still companies in the world which produce flip-phones, or other similarly graceless devices, on which one can make and receive calls and text messages and little else. But then you might go up to eight hours without being able to check your email, and this may drive you insane during a long, slow shift on the floor of a restaurant or behind a retail counter—many young creatives do not otherwise have internet access during day-job hours.

Which, now that I think of it, isn’t such a bad thing—would Kafka have gotten bored enough at his own day-job to write “The Metamorphosis” if he’d had a Pixel?

That slightly older generation of artists and writers is right to warn us to get off our phones, of course. But I’m hesitant to think that the only reasonable reaction for creatives (or for anyone who wants to get anything done) to these distracting and exhausting devices that have pervaded every corner of our public and private lives is a hardy shun.

Can we lean into our smartphones, instead, as a force for some kind of artistic good? Is there a way that my iPhone could make me more creative, not less? Would my writing life begin to expand if I stopped lurking at the fringes of social media and became a contributor instead? Can I repurpose the internet as a sort of endless writing prompt—the stuff which garners enough of my attention for a click and a minute or more of eye-time becomes fodder for fiction?

Maaaayyyybee…

About a month ago, I decided that I wanted to meditate every morning after I woke up. I’d been having trouble managing my anxiety, and I thought that meditation was probably the healthiest non-pharmaceutical, non-exercise option. It’s working, I think. At my day-jobs, or when trying to solve a creative problem, or when puttering around the house, I’ve gotten a little better about keeping my stressors in perspective.

Still, I suck at meditation. My mind drifts away and I think about the food that’s going bad in the fridge, the movie I watched before bed last night, my concerns about money. And then I return to the breath. I keep breathing. I drift, I return.

Perhaps this is where we can start with regards to putting away our phones. Sooner or later, we’ll hear the buzz—a NY Times alert, a text message, a glitch—and we’ll follow our first swipe with fifty more until we remember to return to the breath. We set it down. We get to work. The buzz will come back. Notice and adjust. Return to the breath, to the work.

And if you’re having a hard time, just remember: this guy wants you to return to the blank page. Don’t disappoint him.

doggiraffe

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