I teach creative writing to undergraduates, and there comes a moment every term — usually at our first meeting — when I catch a student staring at their phone.
My standard response is to share with my class the story of the first handheld device that enthralled me. It was a miraculous invention that could add, subtract, multiply, and divide. If you entered a mystical sequence of numbers and turned its tiny LCD display upside down, the word BOOBS appeared, as if by divine conjuring. Yes, I announce, the calculator blew my mind.
The point of this little trip down memory lane is that writing requires sustained attention in the midst of distraction, which is hard to summon when we’re glued to tiny machines that feed off our distraction.
But there’s something else I’m trying to convey, beyond the generational finger-wagging — something about the pleasures and wonders of life in the age Before Digital (BD).
It’s not that everything was perfect during my childhood, which spanned the ’70s and ’80s. Far from it. But the way people moved through the world and interacted — unmediated by screens — was more direct, more personal.
As a digital immigrant, I’ve reluctantly adapted to technology’s conveniences and connivances. Not until long after my land line and compact discs had become embarrassments to my family did I surrender them. And yes, I’ve joined the clamor of online discourse. But like most older users, I find social media both addictive and oppressive, a self-inflicted assault on my capacity to focus.
This is why I gravitate toward novels set in the twilight of the BD era. They commemorate a world whose rhythms and habits I recognize, a world where the phones were dumb, group chats happened IRL, and only birds tweeted.
Thus, the intuitive twinge of pleasure I experience in reading, for example, Eleanor Henderson’s “Ten Thousand Saints,” with its virtuosic rendering of the late ’80s straight-edge music scene. Or Melissa Chadburn’s new novel, “A Tiny Upward Shove,” whose young heroine navigates a perilous path during the same era.
The buzz of a book such as Donna Tartt’s “The Secret History” resides in the cultish gatherings of its characters, which transform them from a gang of classics majors into a coven of murderers. Tartt presents an “unseen world” of “emotion, darkness, barbarism.” These days, that world is essentially a public realm. It’s called the Internet. I suspect that Tartt’s backstabbing cast would have left a digital trail a mile wide.
Annie Proulx’s “The Shipping News” was a sensation in the late ’90s because the gritty, tactile world it presented — a tiny Newfoundland village battered by storms, an intrepid local newspaper — was the antithesis of the world we were living in, which was consumed by early-model cell phones, the shrill siren’s call of dial-up modems, and visions of the coming tech utopia.
I’ll cop to the nostalgia of my devotion to this micro-genre. But it’s also an intuitive response to the solipsism, snap judgments, and splintering of attention that now mark our lives. I still remember what it felt like to occupy a single, tangible world, to be unshadowed by a digital self.
I wasn’t thinking about any of this when I decided to set my new novel in 1981. My conscious intention was to expose the racial and economic bigotries lurking beneath the Reagan Revolution. What I discovered in writing the book, though, were the tremendous dramatic dividends of setting a story in the BD era.
As the book opens, my teenage protagonist, Lorena, is assigned to work on a science fair project with her wealthy classmate Jenny Stallworth. In a contemporary telling of this tale, the two girls would probably collaborate by means of a Google Doc and texting. Instead, Lorena has to enter the Stallworth home, where she observes and participates in their lives of privilege and, more troublingly, catches feelings for Jenny’s father.
Lorena has no way of seeing Mr. Stallworth — you can’t Instagram-stalk a crush when there is no Instagram — aside from sneaking into his office. As a result, the desire that Lorena feels plays out in a series of tense encounters. As I wrote these scenes, I found my mind slowing down, focusing on the physical details of their two bodies, the emotional vibrations between them.
The novel’s true subject, I eventually discerned, was the secrets we keep from one another and, more dangerously, from ourselves. Because every character in the book had secrets, and because those characters could only meet in person, every scene was charged with the danger of their revelation.
Later in the story, when Mr. Stallworth goes missing, Lorena cunningly enlists the aid of the adults around her to help find him. Today, such a search might begin and end with a phone-tracking or location-sharing app. Where’s the narrative tension in that?
Over and over, the absence of modern technologies compelled my characters to take inconvenient and often morally fraught actions to solve the mysteries they encountered. These actions, in turn, forced them to wrestle with the bewilderments of their own motives and conscience.
This is not to suggest that tech is inherently the enemy of storytelling. There are wonderful examples of novels in which the technologies of the past collide, fascinatingly, with technologies of the present and future. I’m thinking of the way Anthony Doerr explores the preservation and transmission of stories across history in his novel “Cloud Cuckoo Land.”
Kazuo Ishiguro’s “Klara and the Sun” presents a vision of the near future by channeling the guileless observations of an android enlisted as a companion for a sickly girl. Klara’s uncanny perspective induces the reader to confront our shifting sense of consciousness in an age of artificial intelligence.
The challenge for my writing students, as digital natives, will be to tell stories that reflect the emotional truths of living in a world suffused by technologies that blur the line between public and private expression, between the inner life and the Internet.
I like my characters, rather than surveilling from afar or attempting to read the runes of a text chain, to be trapped at close quarters, where they are forced to pay attention to the ancient codes of intimacy — the words and gestures that express, however ambivalently, the secrets we bear.
For all our frantic innovation, there is no calculator powerful enough to solve what William Faulkner called “the problem of the human heart in conflict with itself.” It is left to writers to do that work.
Steve Almond teaches at the Nieman Foundation and is the author of the new novel “All the Secrets of the World.” Follow him on Twitter @stevealmondjoy.