By Britton Andrews
There’s a certain grain of stupidity that the writer of fiction can hardly do without, and this is the quality of having to stare, of not getting the point at once. The longer you look at one object, the more of the world you see in it; and it’s well to remember that the serious fiction writer always writes about the whole world.
I’ve had to start wearing glasses again. I haven’t worn glasses in nearly a decade, ever since an ophthalmologist dissolved the outer layer of my cornea and then fired an excimer laser into it to reshape it. (“Don’t move your eye,” he said. “Once the laser’s going, or else, well. Just don’t move.”) I wore bandages and took painkillers in the days that followed, but now I see very well (except for the globs of light that will forever float in my right eye’s field of vision, obscuring words in a book here and there, but they are from an unrelated trauma). Now, I’ve had to start wearing glasses again.
These new glasses don’t correct my vision, though; they protect it. Last year I began to suffer headaches every afternoon. Each day my eyes would burn and my head would throb and my cheeks would flush and my brain would tell me to screw. I’d take ibuprofen and water and then other brands of ibuprofen and try to be productive.
When my wife suggested that my “screen time” was the source of my daily collapse, I—believing myself no longer a child—shrugged it off. Sure, at the time, I was spending my days typing up my dissertation, doing office work that kept me in front of a computer, and teaching my first online course, but I knew I wasn’t alone in that experience. Much of our modern work demands that we stare at our computer screens and phone screens all day. And then we end up staring at our TV screens and our phone screens at night. And for years we’ve joked about how unhealthy this must be for us. Still, I shrugged it off. She ordered me the glasses, anyway. They’re stylish and she likes the way I look in them and I don’t need them to read or to drive, but they filter out large doses of that blue light that I was staring into all day and suddenly I don’t get the headaches so bad anymore.
Wearing the glasses also forces me to think about all the other ways my screen time has impacted my health, all the other reasons I wrap myself in gallows humor about various approaching technological apocalypses and my diminishing attention span and my dwindling desire for productivity and my occasional (brief) descents into misanthropic despair. “I can’t see a way out of this for us,” I tell people, about our current tech age, our politics, our unwillingness to help First Reformed earn Marvel level money.
“Well, giving up and just not looking doesn’t help you, or anyone,” a friend—a good, wise friend—told me recently.
Flannery O’Connor tells us to stare at an object. To see the whole world in it.
How do we adapt her advice for our age in which that quality of objects is no longer figurative? When the world is there, behind the screen, but the screen is making us sick? Can we write about the world anymore if we don’t spend time staring into the light of our black mirrors?
I’m not becoming a Luddite, but I am trying to make other changes, to pursue useful detachments.
Back before my eyes were laser’d, before a universe of information glowed in my pocket, I used to write first drafts of everything by hand. Poems, stories, entire screenplays. I’ve got these old journals and I read them now and I can’t believe how much thinking that kid did on the page, before he stared at light for a decade, always chasing another thought from someone else. These days, I write whole poems on my phone. Stories. Paragraphs of my dissertation.
It’s a simple thing—to look away, to a blank page that isn’t blinking at me, taunting me, reminding me how easily I could click away from it. It should be a simple thing, anyway. It doesn’t have to be mystical. Nothing demands it of me, except perhaps my health, and a desire to restore the well of my patience.
I can’t remember the last time I made New Year’s resolutions. Probably, again, back before my eyes were laser’d. But this year I resolved to get back to writing without a screen, much as I can. So far, this has meant that I’ve started another one of those journals, looking to it like those cups of water I learned to drink between bourbons: I don’t go from one screen experience to another without writing about it in the journal.
Mainly, then, this routine has become an exercise in forced formal criticism. Critiquing what I’m watching, what I’m teaching, what I’m writing. It’s not some grand or transcendent fix for our technological malaise (“I am IRL, and so can you!”), but it does feel restorative, this simple rejuvenation of an old habit. Preserving my vision. Allowing my outer layer some time to heal, before I have to look again. I’m not writing whole drafts of anything there, yet. But I’m playing there. Asking myself questions about what I’m doing with my eyes. Making suggestions. Working things out. Letting ideas bubble to the surface of reflection. Perhaps most of all, then, it’s a good reminder that the writing often is the staring. A simple thing—to look away, to look inward, to really see what I’ve seen.