Phone-Free Concert, Being Present, & Writing

Royalty-free image, Flickr

Royalty-free image, Flickr

Below me, a sea of humans jostle for space, chat, sip on amber-tinted beverages. They spread across a trough-like expanse, facing an enormous stage with several thirty-foot high screens stretching across it. 

There are 8,000 of us. I’m standing against the ledge of a long railing that hems in the second floor. One hand grips the railing, the other an overpriced drink. I can feel the pulse of this place, the pure excitement whipping through the crowd.

A bare-beamed ceiling arcs over us in a sheet of near-black metal. It has a modern warehouse look that would fit in with Bruce Wayne’s tech lab. The only relief from the metal expanse is a brick facade on one end of the venue — tan brick pillars cross-hatched by more brick and a big sign that reads Armory in blocky, military-esque font.

We’re waiting for Jack White.

It’s a bucket list show for me. I’ve been a fan for as long as…well, as long as I’ve been a fan of anything. Jack White has been there for me in the same way The Shins, Regina Spektor, and Death Cab For Cutie have been there. You know — through heart ache and triumph and all the drama that accompanies a young, running-on-hormones-and-emotions life. 

As we wait for Jack to take the stage, I notice the bobbling heads on the ground level are either turned toward each other or fixated on the front of the hall. No one is hunched over a screen. No one is taking a selfie or adjusting the settings on their phone’s camera to tolerate low lighting.

It’s a phone-free show — my first ever. 

I had mixed feelings going into it. “What do you mean I can’t take a picture of one of my favorite musicians? How am I supposed to prove I was there!? What am I supposed to post on Instagram?!” (This is only slight sarcasm, BTW. I was genuinely disappointed I couldn’t snap at least one photo of Jack on stage).

At the door of the Armory, attendees were handed pouches for their phones that lock in a way that reminds me of those beige plastic security tags you sometimes find on clothing. I wasn’t sure what to expect, so I took the whole thing a step further and just left my phone at home. 

Though anxiety-inducing at first, it ended up being liberating. I met my friends at a designated place, at a designated time (1990s-style!). I didn’t worry about receiving work emails or social media updates or the latest weather report. 

I just…was.

Existing without a tether to the outside world seems like a foreign concept now, but that’s been the norm for most of humanity’s journey. News used to travel (relatively) slowly, and no one thought it was urgent to inform the world at large about their latest workout, their dinner, or their cat's latest antics. 

And why should that be a priority today? Why do we need to know, in real time, that Mike is doing squats at the gym? Why do we need to know the Smith’s toddler is eating applesauce?

For real. Who cares?

But part of me understands this urge. It’s the desire to be a part of something — a conversation among friends and online communities. It’s the desire to brag a little. It’s the desire to put yourself at the center of the action without having to do a whole lot.

I get it, but at the same time I loathe it.

Our attachment to experience-sharing has put a filter on our existence. We view things through a foggy lens — one governed by photo ops and jealousy points. We validate our actions by how many views and likes we receive. And that’s so…messed up. 

I know I’m guilty of thinking in terms of experience-sharing . I once found myself kayaking solo, pondering the exact wording for a Facebook post about the gorgeous day. Ugh. Why couldn’t I have simply enjoyed the sunshine, crystalline water, and the slap-drip sound of the paddle?

I was letting my in-the-moment, writing brain succumb to my social pressure brain. I was there, in the kayak, but I wasn't present. 

A large part of writing is about observation. Excellent writers plunge themselves into their surroundings. They live deeply, observing the human condition, noticing the finer points of a landscape, paying attention to the ebb and flow of their own feelings. 

Have you ever read a book that was so immersive you felt like you were living inside the pages? You could feel the light breeze across your face or taste fresh-off-the-griddle corn tortillas or see the outrage etched in the arcs of someone’s eyebrows and the tightness of their lips. How do you think the author was able to describe the scene/person/emotion in such vivid details? They channeled their power of observation into the written word.

In my own life, I’ve noticed I’m most creative when I’m unplugged. Maybe I’m on a multi-day camping trip or a bike ride. Maybe I’m sitting in a park, scribbling in my notebook. In these instances, I give my all to my craft because I am not distracted by social notifications or the pressing need to post about my day. I am present for my work. 

Time and time again, multi-tasking has proven to be ineffective. Tasks done in tandem with other tasks are half-assedly completed and no time is saved. 

Instead, be present. Watch the world around you. Observe the beetle crawling across a leaf. Listen to the whining of squeaky brakes. Feel how the ice cream melts across your tongue and fills your mouth with flavor. How would you describe this process? How would you tell someone about the flavor? 

These are the musings of a skilled writer. A skilled writer is always writing inside her head. She hears an unusual bird song and wonders how she could describe it. She sees a flowing, red dress and ponders why the wearer decided to put it on that morning. She watches. She listens. She pays attention. She is present.

Back to the concert...

A roar ripples through the crowd when Jack White takes the stage. The house lighting does a little dance, uninterrupted by camera flashes. Arms stretch toward stage or pump in the air. All eyes are on him.

It's hard to imagine what that's like--multiple thousands of eyes all turned toward you in rapt attention. Thousands of bodies bouncing in time to the music you're creating. Everyone present, everyone sharing an experience, sans screens.

That night, Jack White gave us a gift that went beyond his music. He reminded us of the power of living in the moment. He helped us explore what it's like to live life deeply--to feel its pulse, without worry about framing it up and presenting it to other people.

It's a lesson all serious writers should heed: observe, pay attention, feel the feels, immerse yourself in life unfiltered.