For me, productivity used to mean reading a Victorian novel cover to cover in one day, or writing ten pages on some niche subsect of Andrei Tarkovsky’s filmography, or doing a deep clean of my bathroom, which I share with two college aged boys. Now that I’m in quarantine and the world is crumbling around me, productivity consists of imagining picking up a book at some point in the distant future (and never doing it), making nachos for dinner, (well, microwaving cheese on tortillas), or exploring the “dark” corners of my beloved iPhone. This morning, for example, as I laid in bed until one, I changed my phone wallpaper four different times, had a frustratingly limited conversation with Siri, and, most importantly, re-discovered the Voice Memo app.
My Voice Memos exist as a deeply personal archive that I had completely forgotten about. One takes me back to much better times: a frantic, detailed recollection of the circles of Hell in Dante’s Inferno that I saved at 3:04 AM the night before a comparative literature exam, and dictated lying in bed with my mouthguard in. That one reminds me of a moment that literature not only motivated and inspired me endlessly: it was my entire life. Another one is from when I was living with my twin sister in a tiny apartment in New York City. I recorded a stream-of-consciousness monologue on my senior project for the entire time it took to walk from East Twentieth Street on First Avenue to Forsyth Street in Chinatown (thirty-five minutes and twenty-two seconds). Partway through the memo, (approximately sixteen minutes in), I ran into a girl, Rachel, that I went to high school with. She was polite--but looked at me like I was insane. Probably because I was talking to myself.
But regardless of what Rachel thought, the fact is, I have uncovered an artifact that shows my dedication to literature and academia. New York City was bustling and lively all around me--people were getting in fights, people were walking to auditions and film shoots and were, like me, inspired by everything happening around them. And, to me, that mattered, and it didn’t. There I was, in the middle of everything, in the place that everyone wants to be, and I was talking to myself like a crazy person about my senior project. I was both implicitly inspired by and absorbing all the life that I was in the middle of and too involved in my own world to give a shit.
The Voice Memo still feels either pretty niche, or like more of an afterthought. After all, it’s a “memo”--which is not a term that exactly invited literary genius. But, between flipping through my old notes, or even my old journal entries, and the silly, terse voice memos on my phone, the latter connected me most significantly with my own personal “history.” It was just me, unfiltered, not at all self-conscious, jotting down what I thought was the most important thing in that moment; what I most didn’t want to forget.
Almost serendipitously, the Voice Memo is the basis of Ben Lerner’s short story “The Media,” which was published in the New Yorker’s latest edition. Not only does the story follow the Voice Memo format--beginning with “Walking at dusk through the long meadow, recording this prose poem on my phone…” but the page itself offers the option of Lerner himself reading the poem. Lerner dazzles the piece with meta interjections, like “it’s me, Ben, just calling to check in,” and “Am I boring you? Do you need to make a call?” and thereby transports the piece, suitably named after the media it exists on, to some otherworldly, personal space, like the Voice Memo always is. It isn’t meant to be shared, but rather to remain a personal archive. But sharing it highlights the importance of history and the things that we stand to lose on a personal and existential level.
Contributor Paste Magazine, Film School Rejects, Consequence, Looper, & Screen Slate. First cow in the territory.