Month: February 2017

Audiobooks are the best

I finally had to get a smartphone last summer. I’d resisted for years. I hate the idea that gadgets are now controlling our lives, and I actively try to resist the internet’s intrusion into mine. I had a little texter phone for five or six years and it was great.

Then, the day before I left for a multi-month trip to Canada, my dad found out my phone “might not work” there. I don’t know the technical details, but the gist was I wouldn’t know if it would work until I got there. I was traveling to Newfoundland alone, so this was sort of a problem. Before I knew it, my mom was explaining phone cases to me and showing me how to use the plain black one I got. My poor texter was stuffed in the glove compartment and I was on the road with my new device.

Of course, the devices themselves aren’t all bad…for the most part. It’s true they’ll track your every move by default, unless you adjust the settings (or at least they allow you to think you’re adjusting the settings). But there are aspects of the phone that I’m really enjoying. I’ve downloaded a couple of exercise apps that are fun to use and might get me to work out more.

My favorite is the audiobooks. With Overdrive or Hoopla, you can check out audiobooks (or ebooks) from your local library. I was skeptical at first, but now I love it. There is something fundamentally satisfying about being read to. It frees you up to do other things at the same time—cook, clean, etc. all those annoying chores that would otherwise feel like time badly spent, but which now feel worthwhile because you’re reading at the same time. Also, it doesn’t strain your eyes. I am concerned about my nearsightedness getting worse as I age, mostly because I stare at computer screens so much. My job usually involves looking at a computer, and then I look at the computer even more when I write. So reading paperbacks worries me. The audiobook solves that. Another thing: I used to hate the slowness of the CD audiobooks, which I sometimes listened to on car trips, but with the smartphone audiobooks, you can increase the speed to 1.25, 1.5, or even 2 to use your time more efficiently.

Of course, the benefits are only worth it as long as you don’t get addicted to the phone. I didn’t download an email app, so I won’t be tempted to check my email all the time. For the same reason, I haven’t downloaded any social media apps. I recently read an interesting/disturbing article about how smartphones are actually designed to be addicting. It’s not that surprising, really; it makes commercial sense, and commercial activity is the highest value in American society.

It’s getting harder and harder not to have a smartphone these days, but always remember to protect your humanity and your real life. Resist tech companies’ efforts to make you into an obedient screen addict—use your smartphone as a tool, not an end in itself.

Writing and talent

Recently I showed someone a story-in-progress of mine, and they said I had talent. Naturally it pleased me to hear this. But I was also aware of how misleading the situation was. To the reader, who’d never seen the piece before, it perhaps seemed like a fresh new story, one I might have composed quickly and with inspiration. In reality, it was the product of several labored drafts, and it will go through several more before I finish. In addition to this, I’ve made conscious effort to improve my writing craft over the last five years. This has involved classes, critique groups, and hours of reading, thinking, and practice.

Sometimes I’m in the reverse situation, in which I read a piece somebody has written and impulsively form a judgment about whether they have talent or not. This, too, can be inaccurate. A single piece of writing may be good or not, but it doesn’t give a whole picture of the writer. Writers’ stories vary in strength. In addition to this, the writer exists in time, developing their skills over an extended period.

I have no idea whether I’m a good writer or not. It’s impossible to judge one’s own abilities. And when it comes to judging others, there is a great deal of taste and subjectivity involved. Many excellent books elicit polarized reactions from readers. One example of this is Madame Bovary. Of people I know who’ve read the book, some love Emma Bovary and others hate her. This affects their enjoyment of the book as a whole.

So I can’t say whether I’m a good writer, but there are a few things I know to be true. One is that I’ve been published and paid for my work. The other is that I’ve improved significantly over time.

I took my very first writing workshop in my senior year of college. I had just started to write seriously around that time. There were two levels of the writing workshop class, and both had competitive admission. I was admitted to the beginning level—barely. It soon became clear that I was one of the worst writers in the class. In retrospect, it was one of the more difficult workshops I’ve been in (or maybe I just wasn’t used to it, since I’d never been critiqued before). I remember some particularly harsh comments about my characters and dialogue. I felt embarrassed and ashamed about my writing, especially since some people in the class had written remarkable stories. I’m sure that I seemed quite untalented.  That spring, I applied to the advanced fiction workshop. Other people in my class got in, but I was rejected. The worst part was you had to go to the English department and look for your name on a list posted on the wall. When I didn’t see my name on the list, I rushed out of the building in shame.

Now, when I look at the stories I wrote back then, it surprises me how amateurish they seem. Over the years, I kept at it, and it’s unquestionable that my writing is much better for the work.

The point of all this is sometimes people appear successful, but there’s a whole story of struggle behind how they got there. If you’re just starting out as a writer, don’t be discouraged because other people seem more accomplished or talented than you. Chances are they’ve already been working at it for a few years. Also, it’s impossible for other people to judge your talent. They’re looking at you at a moment in time, when in reality your life is a trajectory. You’re the one who gets to decide that trajectory—i.e., whether to keep working or not. You’re the only one who gets to decide whether you’re a writer.