By Mona Mansour, member of the 2009 Emerging Writers Group
Maybe it facilitated Tahrir Square. It’s not facilitating you writing your play.
That’s my thesis. I’m not sure how blogs work, or if they need a thesis, or frankly if I’m even capable of demonstrating a thesis, this many years out of college. I’ve forgotten. Anyway, I’m going to try and write this all in one sitting. I’m not going to go on the internet at all. Except to email two writer/teachers I respect to ask them what they think of all this. I will do that right now, brb.
And I’m back. I was gone for about three minutes. And I really did just send those two emails, nothing else.
Well shit, now I want to go on some other site. I need a sort-of chaser. Just one minute on some site, and then back to the task at hand. You don’t care, right?
The Guardian UK is good for this kind of light trolling; I can still feel moderately good about myself because they cover world political shit. You LEARN stuff! And if a pop culture story happens to be on the site—really, what is the deal with Lana Del Rey?—I can read it, by which I mean scan the HEADLINE of course, and not feel icky about myself.
I didn’t go to the Guardian. I am thinking about it, though. What’s ‘on’ you now, Guardian? What am I missing? Has something happened in the 20 minutes since I checked nytimes.com?
When I first started writing, it was dial-up all the way, pay by the minute. You had to keep track of your time. Unless you did the $25.99 AOL unlimited package. That shit was great. You’d go on, check your email, MAYBE do a chat room for a few minutes, and then sign off. My point is, going on the internet was an event. And then it was back to writing. Now it’s not even worth saying you’re going “on” the internet. It’s not “on” or “off.” As I type this in Word, my gmail window is open the background. If somehow the number goes from 947 to 948, I will have to, yes HAVE to, leave this task and click on gmail to see what’s come in. What if Sabon has another free shipping offer? What if Branden wrote me back, sending me back an emoticon-only reply to the emoticon-only email I sent? [I just tried g-chatting him to see if it’s okay if use his name in this post. Let’s see if he gets back to me.] What if that literary manager wrote back and loves my play?
All right, I’m overstating my point. But rather than retract anything, I’ll overstate it again: The internet is fucking up writing.
Now when I start on this tear, people often say, look at the world: The world being more connected is good for all of us. It’s good for democracy. Tyranny can’t go as unnoticed as it did. Tyrants can’t behave without repercussion anymore. The Arab Spring/Uprising might never have happened if it weren’t for the internet. And look at Russia. Putin is finally getting it from people! Fine. Maybe the internet is facilitating global change. It’s not facilitating you writing your play.
Some teachers are well aware of this and ask you unplug all your stuff in their classes. Karen Hartman does. It was a relief, the last time I took her daylong writing workshop, to just shut everything off. That was about six months ago. The truth is, I don’t know right now if I could hack that. I really don’t. Nothing, for six hours? What happened to me since then? [Follow up: Branden did chat me back. Wanted to know what this was all for. Asked that I don’t use his last name. I won’t. I’ll keep you posted if there’s follow-up.]
Here’s what I think it is. There’s this excitement threshold all of us as artists have. The excitement of finding a new character, of writing a page of dialogue, of seeing the person you have a crush on. There’s that thrill that happens, the adrenalin rush. I think most everyone in theater has some kind of addiction to this in some form or other. Some people get dropped out of helicopters to ski down a mountain; we write plays. Why else would we engage with this strange process of leaping into the unknown again and again?
And I think when we’re writing well, we make those discoveries, get those little bolts of thrill, as we’re just sitting there (or standing, whatever), it’s – well, it’s divine, etc. etc. Many other people have covered that act of creation/creativity quite beautifully, so I don’t think I need to. But here’s why I think the internet is bad for writing: because instead of waiting, sitting, accepting those moments as they come, we click away from what we’re working on. We go into another room, as it were. It’s not hard to see why. Any time of day, far more interesting shit is going on than you writing in your room: Qaddafi sympathizers are taking over a village. Seal is getting divorced. A head is found in a paper bag near the Hollywood sign. Why wouldn’t you want more and more and more of that? Fine, I’ll point the finger solely at myself: Why wouldn’t I want more and more and more of that?
And something gets lost. The ability to sit with, and wait. Jane Campion, who made BRIGHT STAR and THE PIANO, said in an interview: “What I am trying to do is to keep space for the unknown….The unknown is frightening. If you spend all your time in front of the TV or on the computer, you can avoid your mind.”
The unknown is frightening. But that’s where we have to be willing to visit, over and over and over, as writers. I won’t say anything pithy about ‘facing the blank page,’ and all that shit, but you know what I mean. What I’m saying is the kicks we should be getting from engaging in our own work, frankly, we’re getting from outside. From clicking on whatever and whatever and whatever. Javier, a fellow EWGer, told me that just quitting Facebook allowed him to write a play with rhyming couplets. It took him “many, many hours” over three months, he said, and for him, Facebook’s fatal flaw lies in “the constant checking, messages, tagging (like a glorified email) that I find distracting to writing... Because writing needs our full attention, no?”
Yes. Lest we think I’m some sage here, let it be known I am on that f*cking Facebook every day still. Only for a few minutes, total. But still. I’ll end with another quote from another writer. In an article for The New York Times about the perils of teaching in academia while also writing fiction, David Gessner said:
“We must concede the possibility that something is lost by living a divided life. Intensity perhaps. The ability to focus hard and long on big, ambitious projects. A great writer, after all, must travel daily to a mental subcontinent, must rip into the work, experiencing the exertion of it, the anxiety of it and, once in a blue moon, the glory of it.”
I think if all we do all day is stare at a screen 16 inches away, we lessen that small chance for glory, you know?
[By the way, Branden update: He hasn’t gchatted me back to tell me why he’s concerned about me using his last name. But he has changed his gchat status to “eat, pray, Chihuahua.” I like that.]
Mona Mansour lives in Brooklyn. Her play THE HOUR OF FEELING, written during her time in the Emerging Writers Group, will have its premiere at this year’s Humana Festival of New American Plays.
This post is part of a weekly series from the Emerging Writers Group community of playwrights. The EWG is two-year playwriting fellowship at The Public Theater seeking to target playwrights at the earliest stages of their careers. In so doing, The Public hopes to create an artistic home for a diverse and exceptionally talented group of up-and-coming playwrights.