Last week's discussion of time, technology, and living life at a more human pace inevitably leads back to a subject that many of us seem to be wrestling with these days: how to integrate communication technologies into our lives without letting them take over.
One practice that helps me to get the balance right is to take periodic Offline Retreats. These are weeks in which I'm in the studio as usual (not sick in bed or on holiday) but keep the Internet shut down: no email, no blogging, no radio, no news. (If I had a mobile phone, I'd turn that off too.) It's a form of mental detox that serves to reset my work rhythms, helping me to retain the slow and steady focus that I need for the writing, painting, and editing I do.
I seem to have been wrestling with this issue for a long while. The following passage comes from a post I wrote over four years ago:
It's not surprising to me that so many of us in the Mythic Arts field have embraced the Internet so enthusiastically, for as a medium for the transmission of stories and ideas it's not only powerful and endlessly adaptable, but also remarkably accessible and democratic. I love the way that young artists can now find audiences for their work without being dependent (as we were in my generation) on the Gatekeepers of traditional media; I love the blogs that allow writers to communicate with their readers beyond the confines of a novel's pages; and I love watching Mythic Artists use modern mediums to keep ancient tales alive.
Overall, I value the Internet, and yet I also know that I have to put boundaries around my use of it. (Dani Shapiro is not wrong when she jokes that the Internet is crack cocaine for writers.) I spend enough time as it is behind these plastic computer keys...and although I do so in order to weave tales of earth and sky and wind and rain and animals and spirits on the printed page, I want my tales to reflect my experience of the natural world, not replace that experience. As much as I love wandering the woods of myth, as much as I love conjuring those woods in stories of my own, the real woods lie beyond the front door and that's where I must always go first. For my art's sake. For my soul's sake.
And so must many of us, I think; if not the woods, then the city streets, or the campus, or the road, or the porch where family and neighbors linger...whatever place you go, whatever air you breathe, to feed mind, heart, and imagination.
In his luminous book The Spell of the Sensuous, David Abram discusses the many ways that moving from an oral culture to a print culture has impacted, and even impoverished, our experience of the world around us. (His thesis is a nuanced and persuasive one; I won't try to encapsulate it here, but recommend reading it in full.) As a folklorist, I'm fascinated by David's argument; while as a writer, I find it more challenging, for I dearly love books and the printed page, and I'm fascinating by the still-evolving genre of blogging as an art form. Yet David isn't attempting to suggest that we turn our backs on literacy now, but rather that we understand its cultural, spiritual, and environmental implications. Addressing his fellow writers, he says:
"For those of us who care for an earth not encompassed by machines, a world of textures, tastes, and sounds other than those that we have engineered, there can be no question of simply abandoning literacy, of turning away from all writing. Our task, rather, is that of taking up the written word, with all its potency, and patiently, carefully, writing language back into the land.
"Our craft is that of releasing the budded, earthly intelligence of our words, freeing them to respond to the speech of things themselves -- the the green uttering-forth of leaves from the spring branches. It is the practice of spinning stories that have a rhythm and lilt of the local soundscape, tales for the tongue, tales that want to be told, again and again, sliding off the digital screen and slipping off the lettered page to inhabit the coastal forests, those desert canyons, those whispering grasslands and valley and swamps. Finding phrases that place us in contact with the trembling neck-muscles of a deer holding its antlers high as it swims toward the mainland, or with the ant dragging a scavenged rice-grain through the grasses. Planting words, like seeds, under rocks and fallen logs -- letting language take root, once again, in the earthen silence of shadow and bone and leaf."
Likewise, Terry Tempest Williams tell us in her essay collection Red:
"I want to write my way from the margins to the center. I want to speak the language of the grasses, rooted yet soft and supple in the presence of wind before a storm. I want to write in the form of migrating geese like an arrow pointing south toward a direction of safety. I want to keep my words wild so that even if the land and everything we hold dear is destroyed by shortsightedness and greed, there is a record of participation by those who saw what was coming. Listen. Below us. Above us. Inside us. Come. This is all there is."
What does all this mean for me, personally? First, that I try to do as these writers suggest when I sit to write or paint myself: to bring the physical world into my work, whether moorland or desert or city street. And second, that I strive to live in such a way that writing and art springs out of my life; it doesn't become my life.
And that means turning off the computer every now and again, putting down my paint brushes and pens, lacing up my boots, whistling for the dog, and going out my front door. It means that I try to never forget that “community” begins at home: with my family, with my village, with the inter-species community of rooted and winged and four-legged beings among whom I live on this green hillside. And from this place, with my tap roots deep in the soil below, my “community” can then slowly spread: via books and paintings, via letters in the post, via pixels on the computer screen...to you, dear Reader.