Caeli Widger’s debut novel, Real Happy Family, will be released by Amazon in March. Her work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Another Chicago Magazine, and the Madison Review, as well as on NPR and CBS Radio. She currently teaches for Writing Workshops Los Angeles, and has taught in the past for Brooklyn’s Sackett Street Workshop and at University College London.
In this interview, Widger discusses rage against digital culture, what The New York Times will fact check (text messages!), and moving from novel writing to working within an 800-word limit.
To read “Why I Silence Your Call, Even When I’m Free” and an exercise on using context to discover what a story or essay is about, click here.
A lot has been written about the way social media and technology are impacting our lives, and I suspect that most of us feel as though our own behavior has been changed—I know mine has. However, I’m not sure that I could pinpoint a moment that illustrates that impact. But that’s precisely what you do in this essay. The simple act of not answering your phone becomes an opportunity to discuss the emotional consequences of how you use technology. How did you choose that moment to use as the basis of your essay? Was it immediately after the missed-call and subsequent follow-up occurred—a lightning strike of understanding? Or did you start with a general feeling about technology and then search for a moment to illustrate it?
The call with Stacey actually was not the trigger for the original essay. Her voicemail and our follow-up exchanges occurred a full month before I sat down to write the first draft. My initial motivation came from anger and resentment over how digital culture works against all the elements required to sustain a writing life: silence, contemplation, solitude. Unimpeded focus, minimal distraction, etc. As a writer with young children and a day job, I must stay vigilantly protective of my writing time. I was revising my first novel at the time, and had maybe an hour a day to work on it. And I found that unless I wrote at the crack of dawn, it was nearly impossible to “unplug” mentally and fully inhabit my writing mind in a short amount of time. As soon as I began to engage with the digital world, I always felt it breathing on me. I’d run Freedom (internet-crippling software) on my laptop and then cheat and check my phone for messages five minutes later. Or, even if I didn’t check, some little portion of my brain would still be attuned to the possibility of something happening on some technology platform. And every time I caved to the possibility and turned away from my work, I ended up feeling gross and disingenuous. Disgusted with myself. It felt like a low-grade addiction—and I’m a total social media lightweight compared to most people! I don’t use Facebook or Instagram. But the infringement of texting and email and Twitter on my writing life finally sent me into something of a rage one afternoon (after a lame revision session) and I wrote a spontaneous 2000+-word essay on how technology is anti-art and anti-relationship. The relationship part is where the Stacey situation worked itself into that first draft, but it was a minor part. The original essay was a high-level, “our culture’s going to hell” sort of rant-piece. Really, it was an act of catharsis and I didn’t have submitting to The New York Times or any particular publication in mind. I was just feeling disgusted and emotional about everyone being glued to their stupid smart phones, myself included, and needed to blow off steam.
I revised it over the next few days and decided to submit it to the NYT Mag’s “Riff” page. I hit send and forgot about it. A few weeks later Adam Sternbergh, the mag’s culture editor, wrote and said he liked the piece, but that it wasn’t right as a “Riff”. He asked if he could send it over to Jillian Dunham who ran the “Lives” page. Jillian liked it, but said I would need to 1) cut it down by two-thirds (Yikes!) 2) make the piece a personal essay instead of a cultural-criticism piece. She suggested starting over with the Stacey anecdote at the core, so that’s what I did. And I ended up getting to a deeper truth than I originally had in the long rant. It just took me a long time to get there.
The essay begins with the story and then, in the fourth paragraph, provides context for that story by explaining your phone habits. This is a common structure in magazine essays (begin in scene or with an anecdote, then provide context), but it can also be difficult to get right. There are usually several ways to talk about the same incident, and so providing context means choosing one and, perhaps, disregarding the others. How did you approach this paragraph? Was it difficult to distill your phone/social media habits down to five sentences?
Some iteration of that graph was always in the piece. I don’t think I consciously chose to explain my phone habits that way, but one of my original inspirations for writing it—part of what fueled that first burst of culture-rage—was the viscera of digitial communciation. The swooshes and pings and tinkling glass and other nine million noises that can come from a little machine had become way too present—and desired—in my daily life. Even the way my fingers feel on the glass of iPhone, tapping out a text, or the particular swiping motion I make with my thumb to enter my home screen—these are noises and actions that never existed until recently, and here they were, the gateways to NOT writing my book and NOT talking to people I love! So those sensory details organically worked themselves into the “example” paragraph supporting the opening graph, and then in revision I distilled the language into a succinct portrait of my phone habits.
The essay moves through time with incredible efficiency. These lines are a perfect example:
“I’ll call you at 2!” I replied.
“You didn’t listen to my voice mail last week, did you?” she asked when we finally spoke.
Was that transition between conversations always so quick, or did you need to revise out some mechanical explanation?
The 800-word limit is incredibly restricting. No room whatsover for mechanical explanation! This felt totally unnatural to me. I’m longwinded by nature. Novel-writing suits me—no parameters! But I simply had no choice with this essay. The original graph you cite was originally MUCH longer. I had to pare down every single inessential word. The NYT’s incredibly diligent fact-checking system also helped impose limits. I had to supply screen shots of my text conversations with Stacey and use them verbatim in the essay—no paraphrasing allowed!
Your first novel, Real Happy Family, will be released next month. Outside of poetry or highly academic work, there’s probably not a form that is more different than a novel than a personal essay. One is long, digressive, and invented, and the other is short, narrowly-focused, and true. Was it difficult to move from novel-writing to essay-writing?
In ways yes, but in others, writing this essay felt like a reprieve from the open-endedness of my usual genre. I’d never really written a personal essay before, outside of one workshop back in grad school. I’d spent years writing short fiction, and when my stories began to creep beyond 10k words, I decided it was time to take the plunge and commit to a novel. And it was totally liberating. But also overwhelmingly free, if that makes sense. You can go anywhere in a novel: into any character’s head, anywhere in time. You can indulge in descriptive language, you can digress for chapters at a time. Of course, in the end, you must impose control and revise endlessly, but there is a Wild West feeling to the early drafts that was pleasantly minimal in the crafting of my essay. Even in that very first “rant draft,” I was fueled by specific subject matter and knew I couldn’t go on too long. This is not to say that I found the form easier—certainly not! Not only did the prose require strict discipline, but it took a long time to tease what I truly wanted to stay out of the piece while staying within 800 words. The piece must have had 30 different endings. Jillian kept sending it back to me saying, Try again. I kept trying to force a transformation on the end. I was avoiding (subconsciously) being honest and facing the fact that what I learned from the experience is that probably won’t change. And that was an uncomfortable, if painful, realization. In this respect, the two forms (novel and short essay) are similar: both require a great amount of patience and openness on the part of the author in order for the true subject to “reveal” itself.