As a college writing teacher, my favorite assignment to give was called a media fast, where students were required to turn off all electronic devices for 24 hours – cellphones, computers, car stereos, iPads, everything.
When announcing the assignment to my classes, semester after semester, the response was shock and horror, some classes erupting into near-riots: “Whaaaaat!? No way! No! I won’t! I can’t!” You’d think I’d just told them that they’d have to make out with a stray dog for 24 hours.
During the fast, students kept a detailed journal, noting not only their activities, but their emotions and attitudes throughout the 24 hours. They then wrote a paper afterward reflecting on their experience.
The results were astonishing. Many students spoke of their early fast hours as if they were drug addicts in detox, feeling anxious, nervous, vulnerable, feeling phantom vibrations in their pockets. Throughout the day, as reality set in, their anxiety continued as they wondered what hastily planned activities they might be missing, who might be trying to text them, who was posting what on Facebook. For many, the anxiety turned to boredom, being left to life’s empty moments, no cellphone to whip out while waiting for class to start or waiting for friends for dinner, or Internet to procrastinate with.
The experiment ultimately made many of them turn inward, reflecting on their lives, helping them see the world in a different way. Not texting or listening to music as they walked to class, they noticed parts of the campus they hadn’t seen before, they heard birds sing and greeted people walking past.
Some students hated every second of the fast, but many, by the end considered it transformative, finding the experience a respite from the cacophony of the everyday, the first step in establishing more balance into their lives.
As I write this, I’m on a weeklong artist residency at the enchanting Willowtail Springs just outside Mancos. Like many residencies, this one, offered through the Durango Arts Center, is designed to give artists space and time for their work. But there’s a bigger part of the experience, to me at least: It gives us a chance to disengage and turn off the world.
When I arrived at Willowtail on Sunday afternoon, the world was screaming at me, as it usually does. Work was screaming about all I had to get done before leaving for a week. My wonderful friends were sending me texts. Facebook was screaming “Look what THIS cat did while its owner videoed.” The New York Times screamed, “You’ll never guess what Donald Trump said today!” Like a freight train at full speed, the raucous momentum took miles and miles to come to a halt, much of Sunday evening where I simply couldn’t peel away.
Over the year especially, I’ve had scant time off from work. While enjoyable, my life has been a steady stream of external input – news, movies, books, ideas, friends – me constantly consuming. One major impetus for those who create art is a byproduct of all this consumption, their work a response to everything they take in, the things they read and hear, witness and experience. It’s the way they process the world and their lives, turning that external fuel into an internal fire. Most artists will say that they can’t not create. It’s something they have to do to survive, to exist, often finding nooks in their lives and opportunities and spaces to turn the world off, to turn inward, to say what they need to say. It’s something we should all try to find space for in our lives regularly.
So I’m going to turn off the noise. My phone is powered off, I swore off Facebook and my alarming two-hour-a-day addiction of reading about the Republican primary will have to wait. I bet all of it will be there when I get home.