July 5, 2017KR BlogBlogEnthusiamsLiteratureReadingWriting

A Writer’s Romance with Screens

When I can’t put my finger on what I’m feeling, I want to Shazam it or press Control+F, and then I realize I’m turning into a machine. In Adrienne Rich’s poem “Images for Godard,” “the poet is at the movies / dreaming the film-maker’s dream but differently.” As she told David Montenegro in an interview, “I was going to the movies more than I ever have in my life, and seeing a vast number of filmic images.” When Montenegro asked her what the cinematic technology helped her to release, she responded, “The absolute content of my life. And my times, in so far as I knew them.”

Why are we made to feel bad about our time in front of screens? Believe it or not, sometimes even really good writers long for technology. In her memoir The Year of Magical Thinking, as Joan Didion strives to articulate her experience of extreme sorrow, she concludes, “I wish I had instead of words and their rhythms a cutting room, equipped with an AVID, a digital editing system on which I could touch a key and collapses the sequence of time, show you simultaneously all the frames of memory that come to me now, let you pick the takes, the marginally different expressions, the variant readings of the same lines.”

When it comes to this poignant experience Didion wants to capture, the metaphor that springs to mind isn’t the time honored pen and paper, but the AVID video editing system. But Didion’s image editing fantasy doesn’t exclude the textual. Although she longs for images “instead of words and their rhythms,” when she dreams of letting the reader select “the variant readings of the same lines,” her fantasy is a supremely writerly one in which cinematic and textual technology can be deployed together. I get this. I really do.

The massive innovations in technology in the twentieth century greatly influenced how poets conceived of their work. I think about this a lot while simultaneously writing a poem and playing on my computer or watching a movie, at that hour when some mixture of reflection science and solitude causes part of my window to see out and part to see in. The poet Hart Crane writes early in his long poem The Bridge, “I think of cinemas,” and then later writes of dreaming “beyond the print.” Poets employed the notion of this evolving cinematic technology as a way to transcend the boundaries of the text and to gain access to a more radical, expansive way of seeing and writing.

And so writers turn to technological lands. We let ourselves be entered by text and image. I know it’s hackneyed at this point to discuss our media-glutted age, but I wonder if it’s quite as sad for a writer, accustomed as we are to living in virtual worlds, tundras that exist exactly nowhere. We are the kind of people who are always writing love letters to people who don’t quite exist, or at least not in ways where we can touch them with our real-life fingers. Maybe this is why things like movies or the Internet don’t feel like quite such a big jump for us.

I read book after book about how sad social media is, for one thing, and some days I believe it. But then there’s the issue of writing and loneliness. Writers spend a lot of time sitting alone, and I find a certain kind of connection out there in computerland. There’s nothing that can replace flesh and blood companions of course, but I have “friends” on Twitter I’ve never met who actually want to hear about the esoteric book I read, who actually read my essays, who actually like poetry.

We talk about imaginary friends as things of the past when it’s in adulthood that we really start to need them. My writing is that imaginary friend, and so is my computer. We writers need the characters we write and our technological communities. We need imaginary hands to hold ours, contrived voices to comfort us, to convince us we’re not as unaccompanied, outcast, blue as we feel some days. We wake up melancholy and suddenly it’s like we’re filled with zeroes and ones, like countless electronic lips are kissing ours, digital hands holding ours, and we are no longer alone but gloriously entered by the Internet.