stories of inspiration, writing life and more…
As published on Huffington Post
I’ve just emerged from 94 hours unplugged at a hilltop monastery off the coast of Big Sur, California. Last year, I did the same thing but for different reasons. My friends thought I was nuts. I told them I needed to unplug, sleep, write and think. I didn’t go for vespers, prayer, or any service. I’m not even Catholic; however, I had a confession: I am addicted to my cell phone.
I was snorting email and texts like a coke addict.
I felt my heart pound, and not in a good way, when I lost the last bar of reception a few miles north on Highway 1. How would I know my daughter’s conjunctivitis was going away? Would she be okay while I was gone for five days? What if a friend needed to talk? What if I did? I was on my way to a silent retreat. No Wi-Fi. No cell phone. Here we go, I thought. When I drove up the steep driveway to the reception, I felt less like a retreatant and more like a reluctant “guest” at the Betty Ford Clinic. I have never abused substances, but technology seemed game.
Who would ever know? I appeared in balance. I didn’t sleep with my phone, at least.
First, there is irony in all of this. For years, I prided myself on being a late adapter to technology. I was the last person of all my friends to get a cell phone and the last to convert to a smart phone. I am a skeptical consumer. I grew up in Amish Country. I boasted a love of minimalism and simplicity associated with aesthetics. Less is more guided my buying habits and helped keep my home, closet and office in check. But my head had become cluttered and chaotic. I had become an information hoarder. It felt gross and completely out of whack — and character.
A constant need to see incoming emails and texts drove me to check my phone at least every 10 minutes of my day. I even found myself checking emails before a hike, when the whole point of the hike was to unplug for an hour at least. What could I possibly do with that information? Did any of it matter? It’s not like I had a sick relative or friend in hospice. I mean seriously.
Here’s the kicker. It’s not even like I was compelled to respond. Responding wasn’t motivating me to keep getting a hit of “connection.” I knew everything could wait. Why couldn’t I?
It got worse. It’s one thing to keep a technology addiction hidden at work. No one has to know, unless you’ve adopted some very helpful apps to keep you off the Internet when you actually need to get work done. The dark side of my addiction seeped into off work hours.
How addicted was I? You be the judge. My own assessment might be mild compared to most. Or more severe. Wherever the pendulum swings, we all find ourselves on it, somewhere.
Here’s a snapshot. When I was waiting to pick up my daughter at preschool, I snuck in a peek. While my daughter swung from the monkey bars at the playground, I eventually got careless and pulled out my phone, in plain sight of other parents and kids and texted away, LMAO at inside jokes no one around me could understand. While I cooked dinner, I responded to more texts.
Silly things. Fun stuff, right? Harmless. In the midst of conversations, I still responded to these things, and when I had a chance, because why not, I returned emails. Done. Off the list. That felt good. But did it really? What benchmark was I measuring myself against if all my life had become were mostly online moments interspersed by, oh yes, real life?
I had become that parent and person I had detested. I was choosing the phone over my child during the most precious moments of her life. A few times at dinner, I even hid my cell phone on my thigh, under the table to see what rolled in — turns out nothing that needed my immediate attention other than the people in my immediate presence.
I was in bad shape. I just didn’t know how bad until I had 94 hours to unplug for real. Who sweet talks a monk into a password anyway? If this sounds blasphemous, it is. My imagination was painting lots of scenarios, that, should I find the disconnection unbearable, I could find my way out of. I could get in my car and drive five minutes down the road to a store that carried wireless. I could pay for access. But I refused to get in my car and so I let it sit for five days.
The monastery is not a place for everyone. I lived in a trailer with a single bed, desk and rocking chair. The one luxury, other than a hot shower, was a small kitchen with a propane burner; however, when I first attempted to light it, I almost singed my eyebrows. That would have saved me some expenses in waxing, but still. There were dented screens and drafts, ants and moths and mice. Maybe a bit too extreme for some. There were a lot of other places I could have gone with my five precious days. I didn’t want yoga classes, the noise (albeit well-intentioned) of gurus, workshop leaders and life coaches. I just needed everyone and everything to shut up, please.
I wanted raw. I wanted real. I wanted to re-awaken to the details of my life that mattered. After the first few hours of withdrawal, something happened. My mind quieted. I could hear my voice for the first time all year, really. I could hear the sound of the blood in my ears, it was that still and quiet, other than the occasional visitation from housekeeping to reset the mouse traps.
I managed to read 2.5 books: The Art of Hearing Heartbeats, Jan-Philipp’s Sendker’s gorgeous and brilliant novel, set of course, in a monastery, The Power of Less by Leo Babauta, which gave me a compass for managing future email and texts, and Precision Marketing, by Sandra Zoratti & Lee Gallagher, which I realized was super helpful, but too much information for a hoarding mind. I wrote instead. I walked slowly. I ate slowly. I got clear about 2014 and what I wanted to create in 2015. I worked on a few new chapters of a novel. I sat still and admired the view of the sea, watched every single sunset and sunrise, and happened to see the full moon.
94 hours without Internet or cell phone gave me access to myself for the first time in months. Even with the ants and moths and mice, I’ll return again next year, if not before. I realized that my addiction to being “connected” had actually disconnected me from myself and my daughter.
So what are we feeding with our technology addictions? The gaping hole we experienced in the moments we feel most alone — at a restaurant when a friend is in the bathroom, at home, in our relationships, on the playground. The list goes on and on. I left the monastery restored. I drove slower up the coast. I fully appreciated the views of the mighty blue Pacific, and because I wasn’t concerned about all new incoming messages, I saw the blow spouts of three migrating whales.
Technology can only enrich our lives to the degree that we can stay present with ourselves and each other. I have to remind myself that I can still love my phone, but it will never love me back. The only “access” I need is to myself and the people that matter most. Everything else can wait.
With Thanksgiving just around the corner, I wanted to introduce you to a dear friend, fellow Litquake volunteer and dedicated writer, Nina Lesowitz, whose new book The Grateful Life will give you a reason to pause, take a deep breath and reflect on everything you have in your life. It’s easy to dwell on what’s not going right, what could be better, or how you’d like to change yourself (and others!), but Nina’s book helps us re-frame our idea of happiness and reminds us it’s as easy as giving thanks. An attitude of gratitude is just about the most potent medicine any of us can take. Enjoy!
What are you working on?
NL: My new book, The Grateful Life, was officially published last month while I was busy producing and/or attending numerous events for Litquake, San Francisco’s Literary Festival. I am working on what every author has to do these days following her book’s publication – social media marketing, radio and TV interviews, and book signings. But I’m immensely grateful for the opportunity!
How does your work differ from others of its genre?
NL: Our books differ from others in the “gratitude genre” because they are not academic treatises or written entirely from the author’s personal perspective. They differ from other books in the inspiration genre because they are guidebooks as told through stories of people. We highlight the science behind gratitude’s many benefits and provide tips and practices to motivate readers into action.
Why do you write what you do?
NL: Writing a nonfiction, self help book is vastly different than creating a work of fiction. I am in awe of the talents of writers who have mastered character development, dialog, symbolism, and pace. Funny, my co-author Mary Beth Sammons and I advise others to counter their inner critic and focus on self-appreciation, yet here I am devaluing my contributions. I guess that’s why I partly why I write these books – I still need to work on myself!
I believe in the power of both literature and nonfiction to transform lives and teach us another way to be in the world. I hope that my books help others open themselves up to new possibilities. I am drawn to the ways that we can rewire our brains – at any age – to overcome anxiety, connect to a sense of purpose, and experience happiness in our daily lives.
How does my writing process work?
NL: My books have all been co-written, most recently with Mary Beth Sammons, who lives in Chicago. We send each other ideas, but we work independently on stories and sidebars. Our books take shape as we write these stories, and they flow organically into chapters and sections.
About Nina Lesowitz
Nina, along with Mary Beth Sammons, co-authored the best-selling Living Life as a Thank You, and What Would You Do if You Knew You Could Not Fail?: How to Transform Fear into Courage. When she is not producing events for Litquake or writing books, she gives thanks for the waters around the San Francisco Bay, where she and her husband sail their boat Gratitude. She’s thankful for the sea lions and dolphins that swim alongside her in those waters, and for the wind and currents that carry her to new places to explore. She is the mother to two grown daughters and a very small dog and cat. When Nina is not sailing, writing or producing, she is hones her urban gardening skills in Alameda, CA. She has a degree in English from San Francisco State University. To meet Nina, click here: http://thegratefullifebook.com/
I had the pleasure of meeting Kristen Harnisch two years ago on a frigid New York morning at the Writers Digest Conference in Times Square. She struck me as one of those writers who dug into her work without complaint and endeavored to write the best book she could. I’m pleased to say she has gifted us with The Vintner’s Daughter, a marvelous journey into the life of a French born vintner who makes her way to California to avenge the death of a loved one in the late 19th century. I live just thirty minutes south of Napa and Sonoma counties and was delighted to learn about the fascinating history of the wine industry. Thank you, Kristen, for such a captivating read and for taking the time to chat.
- What are you working on?
Currently, I’m awaiting my editor’s review of The California Wife–the sequel to The Vintner’s Daughter—scheduled for publication in late 2015. From October 10-12, I’ll be visiting the San Francisco Bay Area to take part in Litquake, the area’s annual literary festival, and to continue The Vintner’s Daughter book tour in Napa and Marin counties. I’m also beginning my research for the third book of the series, and I plan to start writing the manuscript this November. I’m busy, but having fun!
How does your work differ from others of its genre?
My historical fiction debut differs from other works because, although the novel is character-driven with romantic elements, it explores the business of French and Californian winemaking in the late nineteenth century. In each scene, I want the reader to see, hear, feel, smell and taste the world as these vintners did in 1896. Over the last 150 years, the whims of Mother Nature, the politics of the temperance movement, and the economic perils of wine price wars have all brought winemakers to their knees. How did they persevere and prevail over these obstacles and their own human frailties? I strive to answer this question in this series of novels.
Why do you write what you do?
Writing historical fiction allows me to explore and to share my discoveries with readers. It also gives me free license to create an imaginary world in which readers can immerse themselves and hopefully learn a few things. The inspiration for The Vintner’s Daughter came to me in a flash. In 2000, I was standing on the edge of a Vouvray vineyard in the Loire Valley, marveling at the whitewashed winery, the rows of pristine chenin blanc grapevines, and the centuries-old limestone cellars. I knew a vineyard would be the perfect setting for the novel that I’d always hoped to write. Yet, I had so many questions. Who were these families who’d made wine for generations? How did they choose the grapes they grew? What challenges did they face? When I returned to the States, I researched the history of winemaking—and it fascinated me. I wrote The Vintner’s Daughter to share my fascination with the world.
How does your writing process work?
As the mother of three young children, “sporadic” is the best word to describe my writing process! Generally, I craft a two-page novel summary, a descriptive list of scenes, and I complete a fair amount of research before I begin. However, once I begin, I don’t write the scenes in any particular order. I usually write in three-hour blocks and I tackle the scenes that I’m excited to create on that day. This strategy keeps me invested in the process, and helps stave off writer’s block. At the end of each chapter, I also ask four questions of my reader-self:
1) Does this scene move the plot forward?
2) Do the descriptions create vivid pictures in my mind?
3) Is the dialogue crisp and fast-paced?
4) Am I dying to turn the page and read on?
Until I can honestly answer “yes” to these questions, I revise, revise, revise!
About Kristen: Kristen Harnisch drew upon her extensive research and experiences living in the San Francisco Bay Area and visiting the Loire Valley to create the story for The Vintner’s Daughter. When she’s not writing, Kristen is chef, chauffeur, laundress, nurse, shrink, shopper and maidservant to three young children and one terrific husband. She loves vanilla skim lattes, dark chocolate, all wine, and inspirational stories. She has a degree in economics from Villanova University and currently resides in Connecticut. To meet Kristen, click here for a listing of her upcoming events in the San Francisco Bay Area. Find her on Facebook and Twitter @KristenHarnisch.