One more email. Just one more email.
Like many people, that’s what local author Zsuzsi Gartner kept telling herself as she went through her inbox each night. She’d look at the clock, and discover hours had elapsed and it was 11 p.m. Instead of reading a few chapters of a novel, she’d only have time to flip through the latest New Yorker before hitting the pillow.
“I’d come home from a few days away, and I’d be dying to check the email,” she said in a phone interview.
She found email was stressful, “guilt-inducing”, and never-ending.
When the Better Living Through Plastic Explosives author found herself sitting in a hotel lobby in Suzhou, China, during a writers’ festival, she caught herself emailing people in Vancouver, oblivious to her interesting surroundings.
That all led to her embarking upon the Analog Project in 2012, a yearlong experiment in which she lived free of as many electronic devices as possible. She gave up her computer, cellphone, and even credit cards and spurned ATMs. Instead, she used a 1961 IBM Selectric electric typewriter, wrote letters and postcards by hand, did her research at the library, and used cash.
She also tackled Henry James’s sprawling 1881 novel The Portrait of a Lady.
“I don’t think I could’ve two months before that sat down and read that book.…I was feeling way too fragmented,” she said. Mind you, she also endured withdrawal symptoms. “After a few weeks of being offline—and I was really agitated for a couple of those weeks, maybe even three—I found myself even more unsettled and kind of unbalanced, and my attention span was weird.”
Using a typewriter changed her writing style: she used fewer tangential, additive sentences and pared things down, an approach she’s since incorporated into her work.
After finishing the Analog Project and slowly reintegrating into the digital world, Gartner has limited the time she reads and responds to email to once a week, except for urgent work-related matters. She has a cellphone, but only her family members know the number. She has no social media presence.
While the Internet may seem like a perfect fit for writers, it is precisely its limitless ocean of information and distraction that can prove deadly for some.
Gartner isn’t alone in her aversion to the increasingly invasive quality of technology. Like her, other writers have found ways to continue writing and working without being perpetually plugged in.
Local poet Evelyn Lau used an electric typewriter (and a fax machine) until about 15 years ago, when her typewriter repairman told her to get a computer because he was retiring. She writes first drafts of her work by hand. When Lau detailed her Luddite approach in a 2007 Georgia Straight article (“On the pursuit of an authentic life off-line”), she still didn’t have an email address, which she got only after she became Vancouver’s poet laureate in 2011.
Yet she still doesn’t have a cellphone, and she only accesses the Internet at the library or her partner’s place.
“It’s better that way because it’s just not in my space,” she said by phone from her Yaletown apartment. “And so many people, they just can’t ignore it when it’s right there, right? So there’s no delineation between work time and writing time and just staring into space time because there’s always something to check.…The fact that I have to make a concerted effort to deal with it as opposed to [sitting in] my pyjamas at home, that makes a big difference, and it also seems more like work.”
The 43-year-old pointed out that her genre affords her some freedom.
“The great thing about poetry is that marketing just doesn’t factor into it because you’re not going to sell anything, so you don’t have agents or publishers pressuring you to be on Facebook or Twitter or all of that,” Lau said. “You can be totally incommunicado and still do your work, and I think that is a really necessary part of writing poetry, the ability to disconnect from all the noise, go inside your head, stay there, find that space where there are no intrusions, and of course that’s increasingly difficult to do.”
In contrast, UBC creative writing program coordinator Andrew Gray, a self-professed “geek” with a lifelong interest in computers, is never disconnected, even when on vacation. In fact, as a writer who readily embraced the Internet, he helped his department’s Prism International become one of the first Canadian literary journals to have a website.
Although he admits that his Internet usage does cut into book-reading time, he greatly appreciates online resources he can use for researching subjects for his fiction writing.
“When I’m writing, I’ve found that I use it a lot for things like getting a sense of the way people talk in different parts of the world or different parts of North America,” the 47-year-old Small Accidents author said by phone. “I was writing something last year that was set in L.A., and I could basically, using Google Maps, stand on the street corner where I wanted my character to stand and walk down the street and see what was there.”
He also founded UBC creative writing’s optional-residency master of fine arts program, which enables writers to take online courses from around the world. Contrary to popular belief, he finds that younger students, while comfortable with technology, are “not necessarily all tech experts” or savvy about it.
Gray noted he finds that it’s not the inherent nature of the Internet that’s problematic but how it’s used. Yet even Gartner concedes that the Internet is great for work. Her Internet dieting is merely a coping strategy that works for her.
“It’s what makes my life saner and more productive,” she said.