The Dreaded “D” word: Or How the Internet is Not to Blame for my Unfinished Novel


I’m not writing as much as I would like to, and I feel like I’ve betrayed a talent that cries out to be developed; in other words, I feel guilty.  I was once in the habit of ‘morning pages’ and afternoon edit sessions, even found time to market a couple of short-stories and a poem or two . Now my time is taken up with photography.

Nothing wrong with that. (The photo featured in this post is Collapsing Dune, a 1st prize winner in the 2012 PEI Photo Club Show – PEI National Parks category, and “Best in Show”.)

A friend tells me that I’m just having a fling, and, she adds, “with every fling comes guilt.” She says that after a while, I’ll tire of ‘the new love’ and things will get back to normal. I’m afraid they won’t, because I’m afraid that the Internet has made me lose my groove.  Seriously, it no longer functions as it once did.

When I write (when I used to write), I get into a ‘zone’ or a ‘groove’ of prolonged concentration where time disappears. Some writers call it the cold coffee syndrome. I put my morning pen to the page or my waking fingers to the keyboard, and the next thing I know, four hours have passed.  Unconsciously I’ve traded those hours of writing focus for minutes of photographic indulgence—minutes to set up a shot—minutes to enhance the digital image with software. And I want to say that the Internet is to blame.

Nicholas Carr, in an Atlantic Monthly article, Is Google Making Us Stupid? What the internet is doing to our brains, begins his discussion with how the internet is changing they way we read. He cites Maryanne Wolf, a developmental psychologist, “We are not only what we read, we are how we read,” and then he goes on to say:

… the style of reading promoted by the Net, a style that puts ‘efficiency’ and ‘immediacy’ above all else, may be weakening our capacity for the kind of deep reading that emerged when an earlier technology, the printing press made long and complex works of prose commonplace.

As readers, we have become a generation scanners and power-skimmers, our eyes and attention skipping from one hyperlink to the next. We stay connected, but never to one thread of thought taking us deeper and deeper. (I read the comments posted online by ‘readers’ of the Nicholas Carr article, and I am amused by the number of critics who complained that the article was too long and who confessed that they could only stay with it for a few paragraphs. Do yourself a favour and read the article, in its entirety.)

The Internet has changed the way I read, and I fear it is changing the way I write. (Okay, Paul, why don’t you start a blog? Forget about worrying about that that longer story, and write postcards. Blogs are like postcards. Surely you can hold your mind together for the 300 word sprint.) Carr gives the example of Friedrich Nietzsche whose writing changed when he traded in his pen for a typewriter.

Is there no turning back? According to Michelle Aldredge there is. She knows me, knows how I work. She writes:

Our day begins with good intentions. Feeling rested and focused, we set our priorities. We resolve that today will be different from yesterday, because today, we will stay on task. But then we turn on our computers and smart phones, and before we know it, we’ve fallen down the rabbit hole.

Aldredge, who is also a photographer, is writing about concentration. She poses the question, “How do we create time and space for deep thinking, creation, and real connection within the chaos of digital life?” And then she answers it in The Art of Focus : 5 Ways to Free Yourself from Digital Dependency.  I could have come up with her list, if I had stopped checking my email inbox long enough to give the question more than a passing, oops-it’s-gone, thought.  I doubt you’ll be surprised with her recommendations, and I think you’ll enjoy reading what you probably already know. What it all comes down to is self discipline and the volition to disconnect.

Carr is correct when he says that there has been little consideration of how the Internet is reprogramming us. It is reprogramming us, and we are not going to stop that. The Net contributes too much to our lives, and only a fool would pull the plug, permanently. Aldredge is calling for balance, for carving out a space for the deeper creative thought—a space I would want to reserve for meditative reflection. Writing is both the process of reflecting, and the outcome of reflection. And without reflection there is no learning, no development beyond the acquisition of more information and the accumulation of data.

What I find frightening is the possibility that the longer I stay connected to my superficial online habits, the longer I postpone the wisdom that might become me. When I go into a place of worship, I remember to turn off the cell phone. So if I want to enter that sacred personal space—that space where the characters of my unfinished novel are clamoring to be heard, then I need to face the dreaded “D” word and give Aldredge’s recommendations serious second thought.


8 thoughts on “The Dreaded “D” word: Or How the Internet is Not to Blame for my Unfinished Novel

  1. People say they can multitask. But multitask at what? Talking on the phone while a cake is baking in the oven is a heck of a lot different than writing a novel while surfing the net. Look at what happens when driving a car while talking on a cell phone. Smash. Crash. Bang. Writers . . . artists have to disconnect and focus on their projects or their hoped for outcomes will never be realized. I think you’re right, Paul–it’s about taking back that personal sacred place.

  2. However, for some of us, jumping in with both feet and heart in hands, swimming deep into the distraction of Google (or anyone elses) siren song is just the thing to alleviate the angst that goes along with the fear of ‘losing it’
    If ‘it’ could ever be lost I’d be surprised. When we tell ourselves it’s gone we are giving ourselves an excuse for laziness. The net gives us permission to be lazy in the guise of being ‘with it’. That sacred place will always be accessible but we have to work for it, tend it and believe.

  3. The internet is a distraction in the way that watching TV or certain films or socializing or drinking or doing drugs or having sex is a distraction. There has always been, and always will be things to distract a writer from focussing on a self-imposed project.
    It really depends on how thin you want to spread yourself in the vast social networks online or on some of the innocuous or great entertainment provided, but the Internet is above all a great resource and allows you to shape your creative impulses and share them instantly with a global audience.
    A balance is necessary and as Paul and the other authors referred to mentioned, it all comes down to willpower. I’m sure most writers reach this stage continuously. I know I have. The act of writing, especially working on a substantial project like a novel or a script can be a very long, daunting, exhausting and frustrating task which could end in failure or reward. If you really want it you will slog on.
    Some of us have only been exposed to the Internet for a relatively short duration, watching it continue to evolve for good and ill. As it has evolved and more serious writers have become involved with it the experience has become enriched. Though you wouldn’t think so at first glance. In some instances it would seem that language on the Internet is devolving. Even though many are communicating by video online text is still an enormous part of the Internet experience and merely requires input from the determined and disciplined author. Let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater.

  4. The fact that you’re able to articulate your concerns about your “temporary” loss of focus in such erudite, thoughtful language tells me that you have nothing to worry about. It’s not as if you’ve given up and gone to play Bingo each day or are watching endless hours of mindless reality shows. You are for the moment focusing on and developing another artistic skill in your very creative repertoire
    of activities. Instead of fear of losing the “wisdom that might become me”, think of this time as another opportunity to find the wisdom that is you.

  5. Impressive photo, what. And good article. I’ve also been wondering about this.
    I say yup, gotta disconnect. I feel the same way, unable to pick up a book and stay focused on it. (Okay, nothing new here you might say, but I went through heaps of books when we were internet-less in Africa). I also think the internet is to blame.
    I think this dilemma partially contributed to my “purist” photography phase with film cameras. With film, I was limited to 36 shots at most, and there was very little post-processing at my disposal. No chimping, no painstaking sifting and no constant reviewing of my photos. Very liberating, educational, and easy to divorce from the internet. That being said, the film alternative may not provide the flexibility to produce the same photo-show quality pictures. But good for a short period during which you reclaim your sacred space, perhaps?

  6. “There is a little of everything, apparently, in nature, and freaks are common. Yes, there were times when I forgot not only who I was but that I was, forgot to be. Nothing matters but the writing. Each must find out for himself what is meant. It means what it says. I cannot imagine a higher goal for today’s writer. What is that unforgettable line? If I do not love you I shall not love.” Samuel Beckett. I think this says-it-all for me. I have thought of your Blog for many days and after seeing this quotation today, all I wanted to write or could write was expressed in these few syllables and sounds.

  7. Life is filled with distractions. I am not sure the internet is any more invasive than others. And for discipline, it is not merely finding the time but sometimes forcing the time. Of course, if you are like me, inspiration must be present when I have set the time to be creative. And often it is not there, so I must wait for it, and wait, and wait, bobbing and weaving to escape distractions. Then ahhhh, it is here and yet now I am quite tired. Shall I make a note and pursue it later? It is not the same later. Inspiration often comes when our minds are tired, and therefore more open and responsive. And so I begin.

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