I’m writing this on a laptop using a software program called Freedom. Freedom’s sole function—its raison d’ê tre—is that it disables the internet. How many minutes of freedom would you like? The question popped up in a little window in the middle of my screen. I could request any number of minutes at all. A whole day, for instance. An afternoon. A lifetime! Briefly, I considered forty-five, but that seemed pretty lame. So I typed in sixty. A solid hour, and I’d be able to live with myself. An hour with no internet. No email. Nothing but me, sitting cross-legged in the wing chair in the corner of my office. Silence in the house. My two dogs napping at my feet. An hour seems to have become the most I can handle.
The phone is on the table next to me, but it holds no allure. I wouldn’t dream of picking it up. I remember years ago—so many it seems almost quaint—when the phone was a problem. It would ring. Friends would call. Non-writer friends who didn’t understand why I couldn’t talk in the middle of the day. Writer friends who were procrastinating. To protect my time, I programmed my answering machine to pick up on the first ring. Voices—often my mother’s—would broadcast through the room. Hello? Are you there? Dani? Pick up. I know you’re there. Later, I discovered that I could turn off the ringer. But the answering machine would make a click and whir each time someone called. That click and whir could totally throw me off. Then voice mail came along: a marvelous invention. With voice mail, you never knew anyone had called at all, unless you actually picked up the phone and heard the stuttered dial tone. During writing days, I picked up the phone three, maybe four times a day, tops. I had a sense that, whatever it was, it could wait.
In the time it has taken me to write these first two paragraphs, I have had the impulse to check email. I have had the impulse to look up the year that voice mail was invented. I have wanted to double-check the spelling of raison d’ê tre. I have considered taking a quick peek to see how many minutes of freedom I have left.
The phone hardly rings any more. When it does, the caller I.D. usually broadcasts private. My mother died eight years ago. We receive calls from the Democrats. Calls from my husband’s alma mater. Or mine. Calls from Planned Parenthood, The Policemen’s Benevolent Association of tk (here I am combatting a strong urge to look up the precise town in which the Policemen’s Benevolent Association is located, because I can’t remember and I need to know now so that I can delete the tk, which offends my anal retentive sensibilities). Now, the phone rings with opportunities: to get new credit cards, to refinance our mortgage, to attend a local fundraiser. This, in part, is why the phone holds no allure. Someone always wants something, on the other end, and this has become known as an opportunity.
Except that every once in a while, I find myself caught up in a long conversation with a friend—the kind that happens after an exchange of emails has stretched into paragraphs and paragraphs, and finally talking feels like less effort. When this happens, I’m overcome with the sense that I’m wasting time. Not that I don’t want to talk to my friends. I do. I want to talk to my friends over a glass of good red wine and a cheeseburger in a dimly lit cafe. Instead, I pace my house, receiver pressed to my ear, doing other things while talking. I organize the pantry. Make myself a cappuccino. (Are you in the subway? a friend asked just yesterday while I steamed the milk.) I run a bath, and soundlessly lower myself into the steaming depths so that they have no idea I’m lying there naked. Fretting, all the while. Shouldn’t I be doing something else?
I have a piercing nostalgia for the places in which I used to write. A small room on the top floor of an old building on the the Upper West Side, which faced the interior courtyard. It was a friend’s room—it didn’t belong to me—but I can still remember the crack in the plaster that ran along the wall to my right, and the guy across the courtyard who smoked through an open window, ashtray balanced on the sill. I smoked too, in those days. When I hit a rough patch in the work, I’d open my own window and light a cigarette. I’d watch the guy across the courtyard, and he’d watch me. We were each other’s witnesses to an otherwise solitary and highly private process.
Next, I lived in the back of a quiet building a few blocks south. The floors were old, herringbone. The building had an antiquated system for distributing the day’s mail to its occupants. One of the doormen went to each apartment’s door and slid the batch of envelopes beneath. The only interruption in my morning was the sound of paper against wood. I waited for that sound—the outside world, sliding in. Later, I rented a house on Henry Street in Sag Harbor where I finished my very difficult third novel one sweltering August afternoon. I can call to mind the quality of the sunlight when I left the house, giddy, on sea legs, like the lone occupant of a sailboat who hadn’t quite believed she’d ever see land again. I just finished my novel, I wanted to tell the lady walking her dog on the street. But instead, I contained myself. Why would she care? I didn’t need to broadcast it to the world. It was my own, private euphoria.
Freedom has just informed me that my sixty minutes are up. It has done this with a gentle, nearly-inaudible beep. It is the fastest hour I’ve spent in recent memory. I had lost myself. I’m tempted to go on Twitter and tweet about this phenomenon under the popular hashtag #amwriting, or announce it as my status on my Facebook page. Instead, I opt for an hour more.
Early this morning—before I discovered freedom—I approximated wakefulness while sleepwalking through my family’s routine. My goal was simple yet elusive: I scrambled the eggs, made the toast, poured the protein shake, assembled the sandwich, juice box, individually-wrapped packet of cookies into the lunchbox which went into the knapsack, all the while attempting to stay in that delicate semi-conscious place from which the day’s work (if there was to be a day’s work) would spring. I was both present and absent. My mind a split screen: tennis racket, sneakers, loose-leaf binder, money for class trip on one side. Characters, scenes, fragments, words, phrases on the other. I knew all too well that a tussle about missing homework, or a brief outburst of misery about the taciturn personality of the after-school tutor, and there goes the day. I waved goodbye to my husband and son. I love you! Drive carefully! The car toodled down the driveway, down, down, down as I made my way up, up, up the stairs and into my office. I had my mug of coffee. The dogs know the drill and plunked themselves down on my office floor, resigned to a morning of torpor. My mind was as quiet and smooth as a lake at dawn.
I’ll check my email, I thought. It will only take a second.
On any given day, my in box contains the following: spam (Jetsetter vacation offers go live at noon! See what’s new for you at Net-a-Porter!), friends checking in (when are you next in the city? Drinks? Dinner?), spam from friends checking in (so-and-so thought you might be interested in the Jetsetter vacation . . . ). There are people who need something from me (these invariably begin with Dear Dani, I hope this finds you well), friends who need something from me (I hate to bother you but . . . ) Any of these have the potential to mess up my writing day, but most of all, any email containing the subject line: Bad News. Or when someone’s name is in the subject line. (They’re almost always dead.) An email from a friend entitled Some thoughts. (Uh-oh.)
But even on a day that holds no drama, there are other things that need attending to: someone has tagged you in a photo. Well, then. Don’t you need to see that photo? Someone has DM’d you on Twitter. It would be rude not to write back instantly—the medium virtually demands it. And then—what the hell!—you might as well go on Net-a-Porter to see what is, indeed, new for you this morning. What a pretty handbag! And those Jetsetter vacations sure do look intriguing. Morocco! You’ve always wanted to go to Morocco.
When I say you, of course, I mean me. I mean me, this very morning. You may not find yourself lost—a half hour later—on a blog about trekking through Morocco at all. You may not accidentally end up contemplating a handbag. You may tumble out of bed in the morning and go straight to work, do not pass go. You may, as I have come to think of it, pull a Franzen, and have a dedicated computer, stripped down of all bells and whistles until it resembles a Smith Corona in the limited nature of its possible functions. You may put on ear muffs. A blindfold. You may work in a room with blackout shades. A writing studio in the woods with nothing more than a rickety desk, a pad (the old-fashioned paper kind) and a pen.
Well, good for you.
For a moment there, I forget about freedom and try to look up the old interview of Jonathan Franzen I once read, I don’t remember where, in which he described in great detail his earmuffs and blindfold. His stripped down computer. Loading . . . Loading . . . I stare at my screen the way my dogs watch me while I’m cooking. Waiting, hoping for the smallest scrap.
After finishing this morning’s super-quick email check—at which point a crowd, a stadium of people (3148 on Facebook at last count) had taken up residence in my head—I opened the file on my laptop where my novel lives. I stared at the screen. My novel—so clear to me when I woke up this morning—now looked like nothing so much as black squiggles against a glaring white background.
My novel contains a scene in which two characters—a brother and a sister—are seeing each other for the first time in many years. They’re walking up a staircase, and at the top of the staircase, there is a chest of drawers. I’ve been trying to nail the scene down for a while—the characters have been eluding me—but this morning the characters seemed less important than getting the chest of drawers exactly right. I felt that it needed to be an extremely valuable, signifying chest of drawers. Beidermeier, perhaps.
And so I googled Beidermeier. The first thing I discovered is that I was spelling it incorrectly. The i comes before the e. Biedermeier. Next, I found myself on the website of an antiques dealer in Paris. Lovely stuff. Unaffordable. Which reminded me that I hadn’t paid the deposit for my son’s summer camp. I clicked away from the antiques dealer and onto the camp’s website. I filled out all the forms—this took about twenty minutes, and involved going through my iphoto folder to download a recent photograph of my son, which led me to relive this past year, our trips and dinner parties and weekend visitors, our bike rides and hikes and visits with his cousins—until I finally typed in the credit card number and enrolled him in camp for the month of July. Which led me to be worried about how we’re going to afford to send him to camp, to private school, hell, to college, even though he’s only in the sixth grade. I reflexively checked Twitter. I hardly even knew I was doing it. I had forgotten to respond to that person who DM’d me. And while I was on Twitter, I figured I might as well tweet. After all, novelists are supposed to maintain a twitter presence, according to current publishing wisdom. Novelists are supposed to build a platform. But what to tweet? What the hell to tweet? One-hundred-and-forty-characters-or-less is not my strong suit. I’m a novelist. I prefer the long form. Which reminded me.
Where was I? Oh, yes. Back to Beidermeier.
The inlaid wood on the chest of drawers . . .
The wooden chest of drawers was inlaid . . .
I should mention that I am a disciplined person. I sit down every day to write. I have a work ethic that has, over the years, produced seven books, countless essays, stories, pieces of journalism. I am—some might even say—prolific. I don’t smoke any more, or drink too much, or gamble. My affairs are in order. My sock drawer is organized, and my windows are clean. I know what is and isn’t good for me—and do a pretty decent job of living accordingly. So why does Biedermeier lead to summer camp? And summer camp to Twitter?
Often, I leave home in the middle of the day and drive down to the center of the small Connecticut village where we live. In this town gathering place, known as the depot, there is a cafe, dry cleaner, sushi joint, and bookstore. There is also no cellular service. You see people sometimes, city folks, poking at their Blackberrys, or shaking their iphones like stuck pepper mills in disbelief that they’ve been cut off. You’ll see cars parked off the side of the road on the hill leading away from town, the grass worn thin at the precise spot where service—though spotty—can sometimes be available.
I wander through the aisles of the bookstore, sit and read in the cafe. I pick up our cleaning, order sushi. I know that emails are piling up in my in box at home. More vacation offers, flight deals, requests, hellos, bad news. I know that my 2000 twitter followers and 3148 Facebook friends have been busy, and that I will later read status updates involving dogs, kids, in-laws, food, travel, and the occasional, well-placed back-door brag. (Help! Feeling so fat! What to wear to the White House?) My iPhone is in my jacket pocket, but I forget its even there. For a few moments, my mind is smoothed out, like one of those miniature Japanese boxes of sand that comes with its own tiny rake. Doing household errands has become a form of meditation. I’m doing only this: looking at books, carrying the dry cleaning into the car, and the container of tekkamaki.
By the time I have finished the very important research on Biedermeier chests of drawers, I have descended, without the slightest shred of self-awareness, to the nadir of the dance that should be between the writer and the page, but has instead become the writer and the screen. The difference between the page and the screen cannot be underestimated. The page is the end. The screen is the beginning. The page is finite. The screen is full of infinite possibilities. The writer—again, okay, me—alone in a room for hour upon hour. Solitary, possibly even lonely, vulnerable to every word, every slight, every voice, real or imagined. There is no guy across the courtyard, watching. No lady walking her dog on Henry Street. No doorman sliding mail slid under the door. And so I wonder: do I even exist?
There’s only one way to find out. The screen flings its shutters wide open. The laptop itself becomes a window into the outside world. I decide—no, it isn’t a decision so much as a Pavlovian reflex—to type my own name into the Google search engine.
On this particular day, there are 204,000 entries on Google containing the phrase “Dani Shapiro.” Some of them are duplicates. And a few are for the other Dani Shapiros in the world: an attorney in Los Angeles and a middle school gymnast in Ohio. But most of them are about me. Someone on Wikipedia has dug up my given name, which I never use. Which I despise. Daneile Joyce (Dani) Shapiro was born in . . . It gets stuff wrong. I am no longer, for instance, teaching at Wesleyan University. And most unfortunately, the news that Reese Witherspoon is set to star in the film version of my memoir is ten years out-of-date.
I scroll down, down, down. Past Wikipedia, past my own website, past the most recent reviews of current books, down, down, down, digging. The feeling—if I were to stop to feel it—is a sickening one. I’m vaguely nauseated, tingly with guilt, as if sneaking or prying into a place I don’t belong.
What am I looking for? There are reviews of my books in newspapers, magazines. There are recent ones posted on the Geeky Reader’s Book Blog, Scraps of Life, Reviews from the Heart, and Bloggin’ About Books, Sophisticated Dorkiness. People love me or they hate me. There is very little middle ground. I mean, why bother? On Amazon and Goodreads, books are rated by the star system, like a pre-schooler’s progress chart. Five stars. Or one. (One! That’s what you get for having a pulse!) There are photos from readings, from parties. I’m smiling next to a friend to whom I no longer speak. I’m giving a reading. I’m teaching a workshop.
My eyes burn. My brain buzzes unpleasantly, but I’ve passed the point of no return. I scroll past my wedding announcement. My mother’s obituary. The self-google is my mirror, but is it an accurate reflection? Or is it a fun house mirror in which all the pieces are there, grotesquely out of proportion? These 204,000 items, taken together, make up some sort of approximation of me. Something can be gleaned from it, though I don’t know what. Like a child holding up her own hand to examine it, I am scrolling through Google to see who I am.
On the surface of my desk: a Buddha head; a bowl of wishing stones gathered from the beach in Positano; three pieces of rose quartz, one in the shape of a heart; four small vials of aromatherapy oils: focus, inspire, de-stress and equalize. Virginia Woolf’s A Writer’s Diary; Thomas Merton’s Thoughts in Solitude. A piece of paper upon which I have printed out, in a large font, something the poet Jane Kenyon once said: Be a good steward of your gifts. Protect your time. Feed your inner life. Avoid too much noise. Read good books, have good sentences in your ears. Be by yourself as often as you can. Walk. Take the phone of the hook. Work regular hours.
Had Jane Kenyon (or Virginia Woolf, for that matter) lived long enough to be told to build a twitter platform, she might have resisted. She might—as many of us do—have found ways to build a fortress around herself, a cathedral of peace and silence. She would have emerged from that cathedral—
The soft, nearly-inaudible beep.
—only in her own time, and at her own bidding. Or so I like to think. Yet, whether rose quartz, blindfold, earmuffs, spiral-bound notebook, or a small cabin off the grid, still, we all need help, sometimes. The noise in our heads is growing louder, and louder still. We all have good days and bad days, don’t we?
How many minutes of freedom would you like?