This image shows a partial image of a woman seated with a magazine on her lap. The one hand that's visible rests on the handle of a white cup withe clear tea in it. The table that the tea is on also has a camera and an iPhone on it. Most of the image is taken up by the floor to the left that is terra-cotta tiles.

How Not Being on Your Phone Can Make You a Better Writer

Lately I’ve been experimenting with not looking at my phone when I’m in a crowded bar by myself, on the bus, or sitting in a cafe waiting for someone. Last week I was faced with the ultimate test: It was raining and I was away from home without a raincoat because the weather person said it wouldn’t rain, and I foolishly believed her. By the late afternoon the streets looked more like rivers. I had worn a wool jacket as it was officially autumn, and wool jackets make me feel like Audrey Hepburn or Lauren Bacall.

I had over one hour to kill, and was sopping wet by the time I stepped into a pub for cover. Adding my dark number to the umbrellas piled in the corner by the door, I took a seat at the side on a leather bench. As I watched people scramble inside after me where it was warm and dry, and where there was a fireplace (a real one!), my first impulse was to reach for my phone because I was alone and most people weren’t, and that made me uncomfortable.

But then I decided to stay with that uncomfortable feeling like comedian Louis C.K. says you should, and his wisdom on this topic should really earn him status as the Dalai Lama of the comedy world.

So this is what I noticed when I didn't reach for my phone, not because I was trying to notice anything in particular, but because these are things that came to me as I observed my surroundings on that soaking-wet afternoon. I began first to count people as they were coming in. This was an automatic, mindless thing to do to replace surfing on my phone because, if truth be known, I was feeling some anxiety at not being on my phone. It seemed a rather pointless activity to count strangers, though it took the edge off. 

From where I sat I could see everyone in the pub. After counting 54 people I then went back and looked at their faces as though to take a mental record of each one. Again, I wanted desperately to look at my phone, but resisted, so this kind of (also) fairly easy task of looking and mentally recording helped me to stop the automatic reaching of my phone that was right beside me on the table. Then after doing this, I began to randomly observe different things people were up to.

My eyes caught sight of an elderly gentleman a couple tables to my left. He was on his own, wore a crisp white shirt, had high cheekbones, and a face etched with lines like British actor Sir Ian McKellen or late Irish writer Samuel Beckett. Holding a pepper grinder out in front of him, his hands turned it gradually with intent and such poise, as if pouring tea at a Japanese tea ceremony.

I watched the non-Asian family that all ordered the only Asian dish on the English-style menu, and the eldest child proceeded to teach the younger one in the group how to use chopsticks. The boy was so patient with, who I assumed was a brother or cousin, that I couldn't take my eyes away from them for at least five minutes. 

A young woman with a glass of red wrote on a pad of paper while ever so often glancing at a football game between the Houston Texans and New England Patriots that broadcasted on a TV monitor above her. When I asked the waiter if he liked football, the tattoo on his inner bicep drew me into its swirls that resembled Maori symbols, and I admit to not hearing his answer.

A man at the corner of the bar by the door resembled Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg and even wore a tailored suit that I'm sure I saw the real David Cronenberg wearing in Yorkville, Toronto’s upscale neighbourhood, during a first snowfall a couple years ago. He had walked past me through snow-laden streets with not a drop of snow on his grey suit, seemingly impervious to the elements.

Tables in the pub had miniature pumpkins on them and vases of sage and pink flowers like apple blossoms. Paintings on the walls depicted shipwrecks, and early 20th century photos of steamboats showed Victorian women and men neatly arranged along the upper deck sporting their Sunday best.

The waiter brought my dish, which was an iron bowl of still-cooking rice, veggies, and egg on top. I unwrapped the chopsticks to dig in, yet then one of my chopsticks sliced in half when I pulled the two apart, and so I rubbed them together to shave the slivers down so I didn't get splinters in my tongue. My fire-making action didn't really serve the desired purpose, though my waiter was on the other side of the restaurant and my stomach grumbled in anticipation so I forged ahead.

A four-year-old dragged a Fisher Price telephone past me, weaving in and out of the tables. It was the same telephone I had as a child with a rotary dial and beady eyes moving up and down. This brought to light a memory of my sister and me playing on the basement floor of our home for hours.  Why did our mother give away all our childhood toys?

I noticed a man by the fireplace who looked remarkably like the actor Jon Hamm, and his hand gestures suggested that he used this resemblance to impress girls like the one who sat across from him seemingly mesmerized.

Halfway through my meal it was like my splintered chopstick suddenly had a limp. It failed to grab hold of much rice or vegetable, and the more I tried the more the chopstick seemed to be giving up. As I patiently took the scant rice from my bowl I cheered on the lame chopstick, “You can do it,” I mumbled under my breath, and “Good for you.” I had an infinite amount of compassion for hurt birds, people with canes, and now apparently chopsticks that have been the subject of unfortunate accidents in public houses. I soldiered on and eventually managed to finish every bit of rice. Yes, it took more time than it should have, though I felt a sense of accomplishment for my small win.

Although I didn't write a bestseller while in that pub, I did improve my powers of observation, rest my mind which is good for creativity, while also exercising my listening skills (which still need work). Of course there are many other factors to writing well, though these are definitely important ones. Even though I've written a novel, three non-fiction books, a children's book, and translated a book of poetry, I still get distracted. Pretty much all of the time! Keeping in mind that my focus is to write well and to teach others how to write well, I'm always trying to find ways to limit this tendency. 

After all, writing isn't just about describing what's occurring on the surface, it's also about peeling back the layers of our life experiences to communicate what's really going on, and to do this takes time and the space to reflect, listen, observe, dream. To convey truths about who we are as humans, what makes us crazy, what tears us apart, what brings joy. To make a connection with readers and transmit these human truths that reflect or rub up against our experiences, is the task of any good writer.

 

HERE'S HOW YOU CAN PRACTICE WRITING AND OBSERVING WHILE OUT AND ABOUT WITH TIME TO KILL

1) Sit in a spot where you can see your subject matter; you know, the people who will inspire you and become the characters for your next book or TV sitcom.

2) Ask what would make you feel most alive right now. If you answer looking at my phone, then ask yourself if you're really being honest. Even if that is the answer, do something else like writing or just observing, and then see if you feel more alive for having done that other thing.

3) Carry a beautiful notebook with you to jot down ideas that come up. I have three small ones that I carry with me at all times; one for ideas, one for my writing process, and the other for whatever strikes my fancy.

4) If you're waiting for a bus, sitting in a cafe waiting for a friend, notice the people around you. Try to recognize details that you may not usually look at such as a person's eye colour, what kind of shoes she's wearing, whether he has a tattoo or other distinguishable mark.

5) If you're really courageous, set a timer on your phone for when you need to be somewhere, then hide it away in your bag where you won't touch it until it sounds. Setting the timer will stop you looking at your phone every five seconds and will give you some uninterrupted time for writing.

 

Here's a passage from Ernest Hemingway about listening that I refer to in my Writing the Body course on Udemy. There's a clip of me reading this passage below, along with a related writing exercise.

Listen now. When people talk listen completely. Don’t be thinking what you’re going to say. Most people never listen. Nor do they observe. You should be able to go into a room and when you come out know everything that you saw there and not only that. If that room gave you any feeling you should know exactly what it was that gave you that feeling. Try that for practice. When you’re in town stand outside the theatre and see how the people differ in the way they get out of taxis or motorcars. There are a thousand ways to practice. And always think of other people. 

Watch what happens today. If we get into a fish see exactly what it is that everyone does. If you get a kick out of it while he is jumping remember back until you see exactly what the action was that gave you the emotion. Whether it was the rising of the line from the water and the way it tightened like a fiddle string until drops started from it, or the way he smashed and threw water when he jumped. Remember what the noises were and what was said. Find what gave you the emotion; what the action was that gave you the excitement. Then write it down making it clear so the reader will see it too and have the same feeling that you had