The Wired Woods: The Long and the Short of It

categories: Cocktail Hour


So. I am teaching a class this term that focuses on forms, shapes, genres, modes of writing and then the variety of modes within those modes. The bottom line: I don’t think young writers think about shape and form enough. (Though “think” might be the wrong word, and “experiment with” might be better.)  Today is our first class and I’m asking them to do something on purpose that I did by accident. What I did was write a 4,500 word essay that was accepted and then “released” by one magazine (for good reasons–they were already publishing “too much Gessner”) and then picked up by another. The catch? In its new home, the essay would be reduced from 4,500 words to 750. It was challenging and fascinating to see if I could do this and keep the essence of the piece. And now I’m asking my students to do the same thing with one of their longer pieces. Once they have done it, I want to ask them what has changed with the smaller form… does shape and size affect content? 

 I’m also asking them to read the draft of the longer piece (posted below) first. And then published piece HERE next. But since you are not in the class you can read it in any order you like. (Or, of course, not at all!)

The Wired Woods (Note different titles.)

                                  “Our lives are frittered away by detail.”— Henry David Thoreau

             Status Update: Having left my cell phone in the car, I am walking around Flint’s Pond inLexington,Massachusetts, where a guy named Henry used to stroll. For the last three months I have been on something called a book tour, which consists mostly of manically waving my arms around and yelling “Hey, look at me,” and which these days requires  almost constant updating of my all-important status on Facebook and Twitter, not to mention my two regular blogs and my website.  It seems of vital importance that everyone knows what I am doing at every second.  If not….well, if not, then what?  Oblivion? 

            I had only expected to come to Concord for a day, to give a talk at the house where Thoreau was born, but that morning I did a lap around Walden Pond, and that afternoon, after the talk, I decided to tour the home of Ralph Waldo Emerson. The tour was just me and two other people but one of them, a tall man with a prow of a nose,  looked remarkably like the bust on the landing at the top of the stairs, and, as it turned out, was Ralph Waldo’s great-great grandson. “From the Maine branch,” he said matter-of-factly, but standing next to him I felt the past was very much present.  The next morning, before driving to my radio interview, I visited Houghton Library at Harvard, where, after applying for an inter-library permit and filling out my special request form, I was handed two of Emerson’s journals.  It was startling to see his actual words on the actual pages, and I just sat there for a moment staring at the scrawled longhand and relishing the fact that these were the same books in which he had kept the ledger of his life. Later that afternoon I drove back out to Concord, and loitered again in Ralph’s backyard, near the grown-over path behind the grape vines where he had launched his almost-daily walks to the woodlots he owned over on Walden Pond. From there I crossed the street to inspect the grounds of Louisa May Alcott’s house, on which she based the home in Little Women, and then walked down the road a bit to the Wayside, where Nathaniel Hawthorne lived. I ended the day staring down at Thoreau’s spyglass and flute where they sat behind glass in a display case in the Concord museum.

            “Nothing is diminished,” wrote A.R. Ammons, looking back as a modern at the older poets.  I wonder. Spending these few days in the place where American Romanticism was born, I envy its creators their homes, their space, the pace of their days, and the simple fact that Lexington Road, now a speedway, was then a carriage path.  It’s not nostalgia I am experiencing, but something else.  Part of it is that I feel, in a small and un-malicious way, accused. Feel that the way I have chosen to live lately, or the way I have stumbled into living, is flawed in some deep way.  Being here, in this hotbed of both military and literary revolution, there is a sense of the importance, not just of privacy but of deep retreat, in the life of an artist, or of anyone. I don’t mean to say that the Concord gang were a pack of hermits: they had their own social network, and they all, including Thoreau, were constantly visiting each others’ homes. You could even make the contrarian argument that the sentences Thoreau scribbled in his journal were his own status updates, and that while they took a little longer to transmit than those I’ll send out later today on Facebook, they served a similar purpose—projections of self outward to the larger world.  Thoreau and Emerson celebrated the individual above all else, and that particular celebration still rages on.  In fact, the words Henry put down on the first page of Walden could serve as the motto for our e-generation: “I should not talk so much about myself  if there were any body else whom I knew as well.”      

            What is Facebook, after all, if not a celebration of self, a distilled version of what Thoreau and Whitman were after?  We sing–or post–ourselves into being.  We create our own minor self-celebrity.  A People magazine for those of us who are lesser known.  We tell our Friends: “Here’s what I do, here’s what I like, you fawning media, you paparazzi….”  We matter!  Every one of us! 

            For my part I am embarrassed by my own recent spate of electronic posting, of talking too often about the self I know so well.  Why are we–why am I–so eager to give up our/my privacy?  Is the mania to be known so compelling?  And is that what drives us, at root, or is it something else?

            Today, as I walk around this pond that Thoreau circled hundreds of times, I consider another aspect of our constant connectivity.  I wonder about what separates us from our mid-19th century predecessors, other than the fact that our technology is way cooler.  I am thinking not just about their homes and habits, but about something else.  As my feet follow the path by the pond, what I am really thinking about is thinking, ruminating on ruminating, and wondering if our actual manner of thought has changed in this age of instant everything. 

            Some early studies suggest exactly that this is true: that our minds our changing along with our technology. Daniel Wegner, a Harvard psychologist, writes about how our memories have become more “transactive,” relying on Google to “remember” things in the same way a husband might rely on a wife to remember the names of certain acquaintances.  In other words the brain is smart: if it knows it doesn’t have to do something, it doesn’t.  But unused muscles quickly atrophy.  “We become part of the internet in a way,” says Dr. Wegner.

            Another worrying part of our e-habits is the addictive aspect.  The other day I had a guest lecturer in the large class I teach, and while my guest was speaking I sat in the back to observe. After a few minutes I noticed that three rows in front of me a young woman was obviously texting, her thumb pushing down in that distinctive manner.  I walked over to her and whispered “You can’t do that during the lecture.” She looked appropriately chagrinned and put the device away, and I returned to my seat.  But within seconds–certainly within a minute–I noticed that her arm was stretched down and that she was making sidelong glances, and was obviously at it again, thumbing at the screen, secretly now, though none too secretly.  I walked up and told her to put it away, giving her an absence for the day, but later when I talked to one of my teaching assistants, she told me that the girl was actually one of her better students. 

                “They can’t help it,” the teaching assistant said.  “Those things are like slot machines.  They’re addictive.”       

            I wish I could play the fulminating minister and preach from the pulpit about my student’s sin, but I can’t because I suffer from a similar affliction.  I, too, know the pleasures of being connected.  The appeal of “mail” is the appeal of novelty, and it pricks a center of the human brain that likes being pricked. It is no different, though less concentrated, than the pleasure that Emerson might have gotten after a walk to the Post Office, or that some of us remember from mail call at camp, the excitement of unknown messages from others.  What will they say?  But what if camp mail came, not once a day, but constantly; what does that do to the wiring of our brains?  We get more stimulation and so crave more stimulation and so expect more stimulation.  We need it, or at least we feel like we need it.  And when we don’t get it, what then?  I think of the New Yorkers who were reported to have suffered from “Blackberry withdrawal” during Hurricane Irene.  And I think of how I’ve felt my own thoughts fracture over the last months: how I’ve have woken from sleep with sentences in my head the perfect length for a Twitter post.

            My thinking about thinking is interrupted by a sight at the side of the trail.  As I near the water I come upon a non-electronic message, sent out to the world more placidly through the rock it is carved into. It is a stone memorial for a woman named Aureet Bar-yam, who lived from September 8, 1957 to January 7, 1991.  The stone reads:

Shiver to think of her light, her warmth

Forever frozen in this clear cold pond

May its glimmer give you pause….

For ice broke hearts the day she drowned.

             I walk on, considering Aureet, who died at thirty-three, and those words by which she is remembered to strangers. Words that will be there until the weather smoothes them down, in what, a hundred years, two hundred, three?  Words that seem so much more solid than those that float through the electronic ether, but that announce something similar.  Here I am.  Here I was.  I exit.  I existed.  Remember me.    

            Will your name be there when your great-great-grandson googles you in 2109?


* * *

             After a few miles my thoughts loosen up.  It’s true if trite: walking can get you to another place.

            I worry about what we are losing when we never have time away from “it,” when we wake to check our messages and our mail, when we walk with phone in hand and plugs in ear, not leaving us time to ruminate, time to let our thoughts progress the way thoughts do in one’s own quiet brain.  Will we get to the point where doing anything for a long time—going for a walk, sitting alone, reading a book, writing a book—starts to feel unnatural? Will we wonder where the little pellets are that we are supposed to get when we push down on that lever?  Will our brains ask “Where is my shot of novelty?”

            I don’t want to bring down a moral sledge hammer here.  The fact is that my own mind is jumpier than most (see this essay) and as both a reader and writer I dart around.  And let’s face it: there are undeniable pleasures in darting.

                 But while admitting those pleasures, I want to preserve, if not for all humanity then for myself, respect for activities that require mental endurance.  For reading.  For writing.  For spending time alone.  For walking.  Even if we occasionally say “Oh how boring” while in the midst of these mental-endurance activities.  Boring is part of it.  Walking, for instance, can be awfully dull.  But it is also the time when my best thoughts, and best words, come.  Of that I’m entirely sure.  Walking is the rhythm of my speech and sentences, a reflection of my mind’s movement.  This method is hardly unique to me, and in fact yesterday I trespassed into the yard behind Nathaniel Hawthorne’s house and found a sign, at the bottom of a steep hill, announcing that up above I would find “the Larch Path where Hawthorne trod daily to formulate the plots for his marvelous romances.”  No one was around so of course I hiked up the hill, kicking through the humus of last year’s leaves topped with this year’s lighter layer.  My heart raced as I climbed, and my mind too.  I saw mostly oaks up top, not larches, but the hilltop seemed a good place to pace, like an outdoor study, and I thought, not for the first time, how our minds work better in movement. 

                 Thoreau, of course, preferred hiking to pacing.  Me, too.  I have found that after walking a few miles without words, words reliably come.  Many of the best passages in my work are lifted directly from my walks.  My method of capturing those words, a method that I am using right now as I walk between the blazing yellow beech trees that line the path, is one that might belie my current role as a critic of technology.  I wouldn’t be able to preserve the rhythm of my walking sentences, sentences I prefer to those that come at the desk, if it were not for the micro-cassette recorder I currently hold in my right hand.  In fact the present moment you are reading is the result of a kind of triple present: that “first” present when the words are spoken into the recorder on my walk; the next present of transcribing those walking words in longhand into my journal; and finally the typing of the same words into the computer.  At least I am not broadcasting what I am saying directly on-line, though come to think of it I am broadcasting in my own way, just with a slight delay, and would a broadcast of a walk really be so bad?  When I use this microcassette recorder in public, people sometimes confuse it with a cell phone, though the only messages I leave on it are for myself.  In the old days when I talked to myself on the streets people would look at me as if I were crazy.  But of course that was before cell phones and a world where everyone is constantly talking to themselves, like a nation of schizophrenics.   

                  I mentioned that I first transcribe my words in longhand, and this is another of the endurance activities that I think pays secret dividends, though I’m not exactly sure how. 

                Having worked as a cartoonist for a while, and having kept un-lined journals for decades, I’ve gotten pretty good at writing straight across the page, and I take pleasure in the physicality of it. In Houghton Library yesterday morning I got to see the handwriting of my fellow essayist, when the librarian brought me two of Emerson’s journals.  Fifteen years before, as a relatively young man of thirty five, I had done something similar, requesting the journals that Emerson kept when he was exactly my age at the time.  Now, middle-aged, I read Ralph’s middle-aged musings.  For all the pleasure of seeing Emerson’s actual words, the legible passages were less transcendent than those I’d read the last time, less full of wild fulguration and more focused on the value of work.      

            “Every man is careful to keep his tool chest in order,” Emerson wrote when he was fifty, sounding suspiciously like my father at about the same age.  And like my father, and myself come to think of it, there is an increasing emphasis on the value of hard work: “To every reproach, I know only one answer, namely, to go again to my work.  ‘But you neglected your relations.’ Yes, too fine; then I will work the harder. ‘But you have no genius.’ Yes, then I will work the harder’….”

            I read these sentences in Emerson’s own hand, sentences that cross the page without the aid of lines below the words, and then I saw evidence of the work ethic he described at the very end of the journal, where the pages that came before were thoroughly indexed: Fame: pgs 36, 185, 21; Fuller, Margaret: pgs 44, 167, 55; Coffee: pg 53.  Dull work no doubt to index one’s own journal; not fast work certainly, but integral to Emerson’s labor-intensive method of creating a quarry from which to draw his sentences.  Of course something else was going on as well, at a deeper and less-obvious level, when Emerson was involved in that seemingly uncreative process of organization.  As Emerson himself wrote: “A strange process too, this, by which experience is converted into thought, as mulberry leaf is converted into satin.  The manufacture goes on at all hours.”

               My daughter Hadley, who is now eight, shares Emerson’s love of creating books in her own hand.  Last week my wife helped her order three blank books from Amazon and she spent the weekend writing and illustrating them (titling the first “Let the Wolves Howl”).  She has always been drawn to writing and drawing, but lately she has also been drawn to her Harry Potter DSI, a computer game where Ron and Hermoine and Harry come alive.  It will be interesting–and for me potentially tragic–to see which wins out, or if she can keep the two things in balance. 

            I worry about how our baseline will shift over the next decades and wonder what will be acceptable by the time Hadley has children of her own.  We have gone down a path that it will be hard to find our way back from, and who knows where the steps we are taking now might ultimately lead?  Change comes fast in this shiny new world, and no one seems to be proceeding with caution.  A few years ago I was at a conference where I ran into a writer whom I deeply admire.  I suggested that we exchange cell phone numbers, and, after he told me he’d resisted buying one, he quoted Thoreau: “It is best to avoid the beginnings of evil.”  His tongue was partly in cheek, as was Thoreau’s when he wrote those words since Henry was referring to his decision not to buy a doormat for the cabin.  But when I saw my friend again this summer he had a cell phone in hand, “for emergencies.”  In this way we are all slipping down the same slope, and quickly enough we forget where we were when we started. 

            “Don’t give up your landline!” exhorts my friend Derby onCape Cod.  “You gotta resist it…You gotta go old school.”

            But everyday life works against Derby’s rebellion.  A month ago I visited the spacious offices of my publisher, a small press that has done much to preserve the book in all its dignity.  It was a beautiful space to work, with a few private offices and also artfully designed work corners that rose above the notion of cubicles.  But as I waited to talk to my editor, I noticed how, soon after everyone came to work, they quickly hooked themselves up to their computers, which they then proceeded to stare at while typing frantically.  I joked out loud in a voice that carried through the office: “This is like The Matrix.  You are all hooked up to the central machine.”  My publicist, who had been typing away, laughed out loud and admitted that when they communicated with each other during the day they were more likely to send e-mails than walk a few feet.  I am not above this, nor is anyone else in the current American workplace.  I do the same when I get to work, hooking myself up and staring down the machine for at least the first few hours of my day.     


* * *

                  My thesis here—if I have a thesis—isn’t “Technology is bad.”  And not just because I am currently talking to you through a micro-cassette recorder.  No, I see some good in where we are, and part of that good consists of the fact that I believe that today there is actually more of an emphasis on the written word than there was twenty years ago.  It’s not as if people were writing each other letters like those between Emerson and Hawthorne before the rise of the machines.  Far from putting an end to writing, computers have put a premium on it.  Now we all write constantly, and while the forms may be shorter, the average person certainly writes more.  I tell my creative writing grad students that this gives them a leg up on the rest of the world since we now communicate primarily by the written word.  

                   I for one am happy to learn the new forms, to learn Final Cut for my films and Photo Shop for my cartoons.  These are just shapes, after all, new genres, things to play with.  More than anything they are, for me, an opportunity.  I have embraced technology in an attempt to get my own words out into the world, and I often broadcast those words, usually born through walks like this one, through blogs, cartoons, film clips, Facebook posts, and yes, god help us, through Twitter.  I believe that these new forms, far from being inherently bad, provide great possibilities for creativity.  I have been working on a short book, for instance, that alternates chapters between cartoons, clips of film, and writing. 

                  But while I’m not anti-technology, I do wonder if I have lucked out, historically speaking.  I was lucky enough to grow up in a pre-internet time, a time when I spent four years working on a novel, for instance, or spent the same amount of time learning to draw political cartoons without the crutch of PhotoShop, or learned to read and research by doing my time in libraries.  And then all this new stuff came, and I, creatively sprung from my cage, got to embrace it; to play with it, to muck around, to make a mess and have some fun.  But what about the generation after us?  And the generation after that?  “Art proceeds in cycles of freedom and discipline,” wrote Alfred North Whitehead.  But what if there is no discipline preceding the freedom?  Recently I saw an ad suggesting that high school students would be better off talking their papers directly into a software program called Dragon Speaking Naturally. What is forgotten is that despite the boredom, or perhaps because of the boredom, something is gained by putting in a lot of time on a thing.  I have had the good fortune of straddling both worlds, and for me, therefore, the new technology is a pleasure, a counterbalance to the old disciplines.  But will Hadley and her friends have the same–pun intended–luxury?  Or will these skills be lost forever for most of us?

               Another worry I have is that of constant distraction.  In the Kurt Vonnegut short story, Harrison Bergeron, the title character lives in a future where everyone is equal, and where that equality is enforced by handicaps that are required by law.  And so strong people must wear weights and beautiful people hideous masks and, most relevant to this discussion, smart people hear various loud noises—church bells, train whistles, 21 gun salutes—going off every twenty seconds in a transmitter in their ear.  With e-mail and texts and phone messages hurtling at us, we live in the time of Harrison Bergeron, in a similar mode of distraction, having chosen to handicap ourselves in the same manner as poorHarrison. 

               I’m not sure of the solution, or even if there is one.  In young people, in any people, novelty wins out.  Give us a tasty pellet and a lever to push and we’ll go for the pellet every time. But I worry about what is being lost.  When new technology is marketed, the basic pitch is usually “This thing can do something that nothing else can do.”  With that in mind, I think we can make strong cases for the technology of longhand, the technology of taking a arduous–sometimes boring– walk, the technology of reading books, the technology of sitting alone, and the technology of writing books, not just blogs.  From a purely technical point of view these activities can produce things in the world, and in the producer and consumer, that the new technology—as fast, slim, attractive and exciting as it may be—cannot.  These activities can offer the pleasures of depth, mental endurance and follow through.  Hard-earned but profound pleasures.

              These are also activities that require time without interruption.  Fewer church bells going off in our ears.  Think of Melville, inspired byHawthorne, in his “grass-growing mood,” taking the draft of a book that at first was going to be just like his others, a popular romp of a whaling story, and turning it into something more.  He would write for six hours every morning, waking and setting right to the work of “taking a book off his brain.”  To make his book he dove under and stayed down long, never surfacing to check his status.  He closed some doors behind him and focused solely on what mattered most.  On one thing.  Meanwhile his contemporaries, Dickinson and Thoreau, practically lived their entire lives in this manner.  Imagine Emily on a cell phone, Henry on Twitter.   

* * *

             At an old stone wall I begin to circle back to where I started.  My own endurance is starting to fade and I have another talk to give this afternoon—more frantic arm-waving and calling attention to myself.  And of course I haven’t yet tweeted or updated my status today.  As I walk back to the car my darting mind is already leaving behind the day’s topic and turning to other, newer things. 

            Darting minds are not inherently bad things.  Nor are they modern inventions; human minds have always darted.  The reason that we are drawn to our new devices is that we are genetically encoded to wander, to look for the new place, the new food, the new technology.  But we need to occasionally remind ourselves that we are not just genetically driven creatures.  Values can shape hungers.  More specifically darting minds can be trained and disciplined, and when they are trained, often over the course of many years, they can produce things that a merely darting mind cannot.  Some of these things are called books.  A few, like those written here in Concord160 years ago, are called masterpieces.

           I am not suggesting that we overthrow the new technology, just that we balance it out by remembering that the older technology works pretty well, too.  Sure, there are pleasures of novelty and immediacy, but so are there pleasures of patience.  Of feats of endurance and sustained concentration. 

            Before I get back to the car more words pop into my mind.  These are not the longer sentences that make up this essay, but something shorter, and I recognize them right away for what they will become.  As I speak them into the microcassette recorder, I already suspect what I’ll soon confirm: this cluster of words is approximately 140 characters long and is the sort of word grouping that we have come to call a tweet. 

        I record the words as I leave the woods, knowing that later I will send them out into the world.  When I get home I tweet thusly:

            Some things do not come fast.  These things we do in quiet.  We do them by ourselves.  We work at them long and hard.  We hope they will endure.




  1. Vasilios writes:

    So much to react to! I think this is brilliant… I love how you connect our present addiction to social media to the past. It’s something I’ve never thought about before. How social media has always been around, it’s just evolved into the form we recognize as “social media,” helping us (as humans) in some ways and hurting us in others. I had also never realized that my mind worked better while I’m moving until just now… why I pace when I’m on the phone or trying to work out something as I’m writing.

    Being on your cell phone is an addiction, and I think it has to do with my generation’s lack of sensitivity. Or maybe it’s just everybody now. Everything we see on a screen is designed to catch your attention faster and hold it longer than a competitor’s. This goes from color scheme to volume level to the amount of sex and violence in the movies. We’ve become entirely desensitized to the subtler things. We’ve almost come to expect whatever it is we’re dealing with to grab us by the face and yank us in. So now we can’t just take a walk. We need to hit the treadmill while watching a TV show with our eyes and listening to our gym music with our ears. It sucks. We’ve been trained to look for constant complete sensory stimulation. And so we reach for our phones. Even in class. Even in the car. And we find unanswered text messages.

    I also love the class exercise. Cutting stuff down while trying to keep the essence is something I’ve been exploring a lot lately. The screenwriter in me two years ago wanted to Tarantino everything, have my characters constantly engage in quirky smalltalk, display all my capacity for wordplay. Now I just want to waste less of everyone’s time and keep the story moving quickly, hoping the point (and admittedly, my talent) is absorbed in its new, concentrated form. Is it because I’m more effective with my writing, or did my own attention span shrink?

    Maybe I’ll take a walk and figure that out.

  2. Kerry Headley writes:

    I once wrote a piece of flash nonfiction that I realized afterward was 100 words over the limit. It was an interesting challenge to get my 400 words down to 298. I saw how much we can cut and still have a story. That’s a great class exercise, David.