October 30, 2017 § 49 Comments
By Amy Collini
A month ago, I did something drastic: I replaced my iPhone with a flip phone.
The woman at the Verizon store thought I was crazy. Her eyes went wide as she gasped, “Why?” as if I’d told her I was leaving my newborn there in the store. I answered with the truth: my phone was running my life. I couldn’t concentrate, I was texting all day and ignoring my kids, I was checking my email two dozen times before noon. The final straw came that very morning, when I put an app on my phone to track my usage. By 11:00 a.m., when I’d only been awake for four hours, I’d already logged a full hour of phone time doing nothing but texting friends and checking email repeatedly. If you had asked me to guess how long I’d spent on the phone, I would have said fifteen minutes.
I didn’t even engage in some of the behaviors I viewed as the worst. I didn’t sleep with my phone, I didn’t play games, I didn’t do social media on my phone. I most definitely wasn’t like the guy my husband and I call Phone Man, who watches videos while he walks his terriers and never looks up. I refused to be the mom at the the pumpkin patch or the playground zoned out in front of a screen. But the reality was that I used it constantly when I was at home (ignoring my kids in private rather than in public), and it was destroying my concentration and my productivity.
Being a writer means I happily steep myself in words all day, but I realized I was gorging on language in a variety of ways; the problem wasn’t limited to my phone. I was listening to NPR on the kitchen radio while I cooked and I was flipping through the New York Times on Sunday mornings at the table. Of course I listened to music in the car and I was reading thirty or forty picture books a week to my sons. I was making my way through the New Yorker and piles of literary journals all week long … and that was in addition to my daily consumption of novels, memoirs and how-to books on everything from toddler behavior to xeriscaping. And it’s not as if any of this was new. When I was a kid, my word-gorging got me in trouble. When my mother announced it was time to clean up, my eyeballs were drawn to the heap of magazines, coupons and advertisements slaloming off the coffee table. I read whatever I found in my hand. My mother, who otherwise encouraged my reading habit, lost her temper. “Get away from the newspaper, Amy!” she’d yell, and I’d scurry off.
Two years ago, after publishing an essay in a well-respected literary magazine, I was contacted by three agents who asked to see my novel manuscript. One wanted it, and I spent ten months revising per her instructions; she took it to publishers last summer. She worked hard on my behalf, but in the end, she told me in November that the book hadn’t sold; nineteen publishers passed, even as many had offered praise for my writing. The disappointment of No Novel—after 5 ½ years of work—left me in a terrible funk.
As the months passed, it became easier to fall under the seductive spell of words in their many guises and to avoid finishing my second novel manuscript, which my agent was waiting for. I sat in the library, staring at the shelves of New Fiction, then grabbed my phone to see if the babysitter had texted. From there I checked my email. And then I checked the Times website to see what fresh hell Trump was up to that hour, followed by the funny parenting tweets my sister sent. I put the phone down, stared at the page, then grabbed it again two minutes later and repeated the whole cycle. Writing time would end and I hadn’t written a word.
An entire summer disappeared this way.
I thought I’d miss my smartphone. I don’t, not even a little. The first 24 hours were unnerving, but after that, it was as if I’d never had one. I told my friends no more texting, only phone calls or emails. I cut way back on NPR and I keep the radio off in the car. I need fewer words in my life if I’m going to be able to write. (I did not give up the Times or the New Yorker. Because hey, not going there).
I had to come to grips with the fact that I was avoiding finishing my second novel for fear of suffering another round of en masse rejection. But there are no guarantees, and what am I going to do, quit writing altogether?
I think not.
My ability to focus has returned, and with it, I’m nearing completion on the second novel. The second draft is at 72,000 words right now; I’m probably 10K from the finish line. I think I can finish it in a month, maybe less.
You can call me if you want to talk about it.
Amy Collini’s work has appeared in Slice, Southern Indiana Review, Baltimore Review, Indiana Review, Redivider, Tahoma Literary Reviewand elsewhere. She’s currently at work on a novel about an accidental suffragist, set in 1913. She lives in Columbus, Ohio, with her husband and two young sons, and everyone is happier that they don’t have to compete with a screen for her attention any more.