Vancouver writer Zsuzsi Gartner was sitting in a hotel lobby in Southern China, desperate for wifi when she first came to terms with her email addiction.
"I had been in Beijing and I was down (in Suzhou) as part of a literary festival," Gartner says. "I was in this beautiful place on the other side of the world emailing Toronto... I felt like I was halfway around the world, but I wasn't. It was the first germ of an idea."
That idea eventually morphed into a plan: to go offline and move away from technology — including debit cards, ATMs, credit cards, cell phones and, of course, Internet — for an entire year. It's a difficult task for most to imagine, but nearly impossible for someone like Gartner who teaches online writing courses through the University of British Columbia, pitches stories to magazines and newspapers and, at the time, was in the middle of promoting her Giller Award-nominated book Better Living through Plastic Explosives.
Turns out, the experiment — dubbed the Analog Project, launched on Canada Day 2012 — was more difficult for others to accept than for her to carry out.
"About a month ago I arranged to go meet a friend for breakfast and I go to meet her and she says, 'You know, you're making it so hard for people. You have no idea how much trouble you put me through,'" she recalls her friend saying, in response to having to call rather than text. "She said, 'You're trying to bend people to your will.' She was really kind of laughing, but she was mad. I thought, 'Well, that was interesting. Maybe I am.'"
She was, in a way, whether it was asking her students to snail mail her their thesis work for editing or handing in journalism pieces to editors typed on her cherry red, circa 1961 IBM Selectric typewriter (a gift from her husband) or attempting to convince her publishers she only wanted to give interviews over the phone. But there were important takeaways from the experience that many can apply to their own lives.
Gartner will share some of those lessons learned and almost unbelievable stories collected in Whistler at the first in a series of events called Works-in-Progress at The Point Artist-Run Centre July 6.
"We've become addicts," Gartner says. "I was addicted to email. The first couple of weeks when I went offline I was completely agitated. I paced a lot. I was really jittery. It was like coming off a drug. It was like withdrawal, physical and mental. I have no problem with being able to access someone when you need to set up a meeting. And it makes it easier for things like editing. But where I think the problem is is when we let it completely take over our personal lives."
There were a handful of situations over the year in which Gartner had to let technology in. During research for a story, for example, she searched high and low looking for a picture of the Nokia headquarters in Helsinki. It's the kind of obscure and specific information that is easily available at the click of a mouse, but almost impossible to find offline. "I finally went online because it was really important to the story," she says.
Then there were instances when she was guilty by association. She went to a travel agent to book a flight, going as far as heading to her bank to take out a money order only to discover the agent was simply going online to book the trip. "There is no way to circumvent it," she says. "Somewhere in the chain there's something digital happening."
Her year as a luddite might be over, but Gartner says she plans to stay offline as much as possible. "I'm going to continue because I like it," she says. "I had to ease back into it before the end of the year because of work, but if I'm writing about the analog experience for a magazine, I'm going to type it up and pitch it as a letter or phone them. I can't write it on a laptop."
To learn more about the experience — and to see her typewriter, which she will lug up to Whistler — check out the event July 6. Tickets are $20 with dinner and $10 for the show only, which will also include a performance by Whistler duo Poor Dirty Sylvia. Tickets are available now at Armchair Books, Hempire and (ahem) online at www.thepointartists.com.