Three Questions

I read an article in the New York Times last week about breaking an addiction to smartphones. Aside from the usual head-nodding and recognition that accompanies pieces about of weaning ourselves off of our digital dependence, I was particularly struck by this passage:

[She] encouraged me to set up mental speed bumps so that I would be forced to think for a second before engaging with my phone. I put a rubber band around the device, for example, and changed my lock screen to one that showed three questions to ask myself every time I unlocked my phone: “What for? Why now? What else?”

Those three simple questions—six words—stopped me in my tracks. Few times outside of being stoned have I come across a turn of phrase or single passage that hits me the way this one did, as if everything tunneled out and all that existed were these words, which seemed to explain everything. As if just by reading them I’d taken them inside of me, swallowed them whole and somehow understood something deeper and more powerful than the individual syllables.

What for? Why now? What else?

Yes, in this context they were a gentle chastising against checking your feed for the thousandth time, but I immediately thought about the writing process. The work the characters do, the way they drive the plot, the pacing of it, the motivation, the arcs, the resolution. All of it. “Why would the character do this? [What for?] Why would it happen now? [Why now?] What happens after? [What else?]” These three questions are applicable to so much of the act of writing; really, they’re applicable to almost anything. Or maybe since all I’ve been doing recently is writing I’m in a frame of mind to see inspiration and the profound in things that have nothing to do with writing. Regardless, I love those three questions so much I made the graphic above and set it as my phone lock screen, hoping it would not only deter me from checking my notifications so frequently but also remind me to ask myself deeper, thoughtful questions when I sit down to write.

What for? Why now? What else?

2 thoughts on “Three Questions

  1. This part really struck me – “Catherine had warned me that I might feel existential malaise when I wasn’t distracting myself with my phone. She also said paying more attention to my surroundings would make me realize how many other people used their phones to cope with boredom and anxiety.”
    I got a new job a few months ago and now ride a ten minute shuttle to and from work each day – during this time I can’t help but notice that every single person has their head down, eyes glued to their phones. Once, I even caught the woman sitting next to me just swiping back and forth, back and forth, through her menu screen… she didn’t have anything to look at but couldn’t put it down! It’s such a welcome change whenever someone strikes up conversation or also notices the mountain in this distance when it makes it’s brief appearance around the turn onto the main road. And it makes me feel guilty any time I am using my phone out in public for something other than calling (even that makes me uncomfortable) It’s hard to have faith in where we’re headed when everyone is distracted and afraid to lift their eyes and look around. I know you intended this to be more about the writing process, but I had to share because that piece really struck me.

    1. It’s crazy to watch other people on their phones, the zombie-like addiction to swiping, and then realize that’s probably exactly what you look like, too. It’s harrowing! It’s held up a mirror to my own phone usage. I wonder if this will be a thing we look back on as a society in 25 years and breath a sigh of relief about, that we escaped it, or if it is only going to get worse (I don’t want to imagine how it will get worse).

      Congrats on the new job, btw!

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