Phone Home?

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My son’s iPhone died recently, and it was sort of like losing a limb for him. He emailed us to inform us about it and to let us know he would be going to the Apple store to see if the phone could be saved. My husband asked him to borrow a friend’s phone and give us a call to talk about the options should the phone not be salvageable. The only wrinkle was that our son has no idea what our phone numbers are.

This is one of the casualties of the digital age. No one memorizes other people’s phone numbers. And no one keeps a paper address book so that they can retrieve the number even when their phone is on the fritz. Instead, a dead phone means the total loss of all the contacts stored within it. I pride myself on memorizing numbers easily. Just ask me to rattle off my credit card or drivers license number. But even I struggled when my other son got a new phone number through his work and I tried to memorize it. Since the number was stored in my iPhone contacts, I didn’t really need to dial (antiquated term!) the number. So it took me months and deliberate effort to commit my son’s number to memory.

This difficulty with phone numbers is not the only loss that has come with the digital age.  Our dependence on technology has affected other parts of our lives. Take, for instance, the art of writing. The vast majority of people never put pen to paper, choosing instead to send emails, type essays on the computer, or jot notes electronically in their cell phones. I can foresee a future in which pens and writing implements actually become obsolete. Yet research has shown that people retain information better when they physically write it down on paper. (Just ask any shopper who left her grocery list at home on the counter!)

Our ability to gather information has also become dependent on technology. Without the internet, most people wouldn’t have the faintest idea how to do research. We wouldn’t be able to find phone numbers and addresses of local businesses. Some of us would have a hard time getting our shopping done. My cousin went back to college in the not too distant past to get a bachelors degree in a new subject. When called upon to do a research project with a small group, my cousin went old school. She gathered a number of books on the subject, sat her group down, and had them sift through the information in the books to solve the hypothetical problem posed in the assignment. The small group of Millennials were a bit dumbfounded by this method, but most agreed that they got a lot out of searching for information in this way.

Advances in technology are beneficial to productivity and often make life easier for us. I’m grateful for all the ways technology has helped me perform household chores, kept me warm or cool depending upon the season, and made it easier to find what I’m looking for. But just as the use of calculators made people forget how to do basic arithmetic, the use of computers (including those mini ones in our pockets) has caused some of our basic mental and physical skills to atrophy. I think a balance between the old and the new would be a helpful way to get the best of both worlds.

Maybe E.T. could have phoned home more easily if he had just written down the number!

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Writers on Writing

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If the writers I’ve been listening to lately are right, then I’m not really a writer.

The other day I saw an excellent movie titled The Wife, starring Glenn Close as the wife of a Nobel Prize-winning novelist. During the course of the movie, the idea is reiterated that writers must write – that’s it’s excruciating and horrible but that it’s almost an uncontrollable compulsion.

Author Judy Blume said much the same thing last Wednesday at the Carl Sandburg Literary Awards dinner, where she was on hand to accept an honor for her body of work and to discuss the writing life with NPR host Scott Simon and fellow author Neil DeGrasse Tyson. During the conversation, Blume made the oft-repeated claim that writing was akin to breathing; she simply had to write in order to live.

I find this notion about writing to be a bit romantic. Writing is a decidedly tedious, unglamorous undertaking. Writer’s block and procrastination are almost as famous as the old saw that real writers need to write. For myself, it’s easy to let my other responsibilities and desires overshadow my urge to write. Maybe I just don’t want to admit to myself that I don’t have what it takes to be a real writer. But it seems to me that the way to determine if you’re a writer is simply to suck it up and write, no matter the exigency.

In his book The War of Art, Steven Pressfield describes the Resistance that afflicts all artists, and he prescribes a simple antidote: Get up, go to the computer, and write. Do it every day and don’t stew over every word as it leaves your mind and hits the screen. Thumb your nose at Resistance and get on with it.

For over four years, I have been faithfully writing a minimum of two blog posts per week. I have maintained this regimen no matter what the circumstances, whether sick or well, traveling or at home. It might not be much, but it tells me that I have some sense of the discipline involved in being a writer.

Do I need to write? No. But I acknowledge the reality. If one is to be a writer, one must write. End of story.

On Writing

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I’m currently reading Amy Tan’s newest book, Where the Past Begins: A Writer’s Memoir. In it, Tan describes the inner workings of her process as a writer. She details the struggles, the loneliness, the uncertainties that accompany a writer’s life.

I have always considered Amy Tan one of my most admired writers. Her stories of motherhood, childhood loss, and the Chinese experience are deeply moving and, it would appear, deeply felt by Tan herself. Indeed, she describes how her life experiences have informed her fiction, sometimes at a subconscious level.

It’s a writing cliche to say, “Write what you know.”  For Amy Tan, that dictum seems to hold true. While her stories play out in other times and places, the emotional themes of love and loss reflect the tragedies Tan experienced in her own life.

Over the past three years, I have merely dipped my toe into the writing life. My twice weekly blog posts have helped me express my beliefs, vent on politics, and, most importantly, delve into my past and present life experiences. Like Tan, my urge to write comes from a need to explore and make sense of the joys and tragedies in my life in order to understand myself better.

It also helps to realize that a successful and critically acclaimed writer such as Tan struggles mightily with her writing. She dissects every sentence and discards whole chapters – sometimes even whole novels – in an effort to write something worthwhile.

The writing life is a solitary and difficult one, one without many signposts to show the writer she is on the right path. In his book The War of Art, Steven Pressfield encourages artists to press ahead, creating and expressing themselves on a daily basis no matter what, knowing that the jewel of a good idea will emerge if we can push past resistance and feelings of inadequacy and inauthenticity.

As a new year approaches, I plan to use the insights of Amy  Tan to renew my writing efforts and to learn how to use adversity to inform my work in a deep and meaningful way.

Happy Anniversary

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A year ago today, I began this blog. Filled with excitement and determination, I declared to the blogosphere my decision to pursue my writing. Every week for the past year, I have written at least two blog posts, and as I have gotten used to that minor discipline, I have found it much easier to put my thoughts in writing.

I also began writing once a month for my hometown newspaper The Hinsdalean. Having come up with all kinds of ideas for blog posts has made it easy to find subjects for my column as well.

There have been failures and frustrations. One is that I have fallen off from daily work on my memoir. Doubt has crept into the process, and I feel certain what I have written is nothing but garbage. Today is a good day to recommit to the process. If you are a writer, I highly recommend Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art. I think it might be time for me to revisit that wise book of advice for artists.

The one thing I am proudest of, however, is that I have ventured out into the public sphere with my own beliefs and opinions. I have tried to be as authentically me as I can be. If that is one of the goals of life, then I am on my way.

Thank you, readers, for taking the time to hear me out. I love getting comments, both here and on Facebook. And I look forward to sharing a part of myself with you in the year to come.

When Art and Life Collide

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How far should an artist be willing to go for his art?

That is the question at the heart of the novel My Name Is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok. Just yesterday I saw a stage version of this semi-autobiographical story done by the excellent Chicago-based Timeline Theatre Company.

The play disturbed me, not only for its display of raw emotion, but because it spoke directly to me about my work as a writer.

Asher Lev is a young Hasidic Jew growing up in Brooklyn, New York. His pious parents love him but don’t know what to make of his obsession with drawing and painting. As Asher Lev grows up and starts to learn what it means to be a true artist, his depictions come into direct conflict with his parents’ feelings and his religious upbringing.

As I write my memoirs, I struggle with the need to be honest and true yet at the same time not hurt the people I love. The tension is between my need to love and be loved and the need to be heard and really seen. Is art that compromises really art at all?

I also feel tension between my Catholic religious tradition and my passionate beliefs about freedom and women’s rights. Sometimes I consider myself a coward and a hypocrite if I don’t come out strongly against Catholic Church teaching in these areas. In Asher Lev, the artist paints nudes and crucifixions, two things his Hasidic parents find morally reprehensible. Yet he is driven by a need to express himself through these images.

At one point Asher tells his father, “I respect you, Papa. But I can’t respect your aesthetic blindness.”

His father replies, “What about moral blindness, Asher?”

Therein lies the dilemma for the artist – how to stay true to one’s vision without doing harm. It is a question that I will continue to ask myself as I pursue my writing career.

HELP!

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Dear Readers,

I am applying for a position as contributing columnist for my local hometown newspaper and plan to submit one of my blog posts as a writing sample.

Can you help me decide which post might be the best choice to appeal to the editors? They are looking for articles of general interest for the readers of our paper, The Hinsdalean. The publication features local news, information, and human interest stories, as well as opinion pieces that range from local issues to parenting to humorous observations about life.

If you have a favorite post of mine, please let me know in the comments. And thanks for reading!

 

Sincerely,

Mary Rayis

Procr&*!tination

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When I was teaching high school English, I used the word “procrastinate” in the classroom, and one of my students gasped, “That sounds like a dirty word!”

“It is,” I assured him.

Procrastination has been a bad habit of humans since Neanderthals were saying, “I’ll go hunting and gathering later.” As a matter of fact, I started writing this post about a month ago – but I put it off. That’s pretty low, procrastinating on an article about procrastination. What can I say? Even the indomitable Scarlett O’Hara was always declaring, “I’ll think about that tomorrow.”

Why do I stall around instead of acting? I only procrastinate when I find the task difficult, distasteful, or frightening. For instance, I have a hard time dragging myself out of bed in the morning. But once up, I make a beeline to the coffeemaker and brew a pot. Similarly, if one of my kids were to ask me to read him or her a book, I would jump to the task. But when asked to fix them a meal, I dawdle. Checking email or Facebook? I’m on it! Clean the bathroom? Maybe later.

Nowhere has my tendency to procrastinate been worse than in the area of writing. For years I entertained fantasies about publishing a novel and going on a book tour or seeing my short story in a magazine. Yet when faced with a blank sheet of paper, or more recently, a blank Word document, I would find a million other little things to do instead. I gave myself a hundred excuses to give up on the idea of being a writer. I was too overwhelmed with work or my children; I felt too isolated being at home with just my own thoughts. And hadn’t my mother always noticed how unobservant I was? A good writer observes the myriad details of life to inform her prose. No, I convinced myself, that wasn’t me.

I have recently realized that what was holding me back was fear. What if my writing wasn’t good? What if no one wanted to read what I wrote, or worse, disparaged it? What if I hurt someone’s feelings by writing about my personal life? Luckily, I had a friend and mentor to encourage me, some inspiration from other writers, and finally, a determination to go for it no matter what. Now when I sit at the computer for the day’s writing, I take a few deep breaths, and like a swimmer, I dive in. What I create may not always be great, and it may never be published. But in the process of writing, I am finding a sense of freedom and the feeling of truly being myself. To me, that is success.

Procrastinating? I’ll do that tomorrow.