One of the biggest challenges I’ve found with writing is keeping focused. There are always other things happening: The Verge is posting new articles. People are tweeting cool pictures of mountains or about upcoming beer releases. The games on my phone are ready for me to play my next turn. League of Legends just released their latest patch notes. The list goes on and on…
I spend a lot of time on the computer. Even before I started writing. I love to consume knowledge, no matter how strange and useless. Having the world’s knowledge at my fingertips is a lure that I simply cannot resist. For example, I know that Hajime Isayama based the character design of Dot Pixis in his Attack on Titan manga on a Japanese general, who died over 80 years ago, named Akiyama Yoshifuru. Do I really need to know that? No, I don’t.
The internet is like a hallway filled with doors. And every time you open one door, you find yourself in a hallway filled with a dozen others. This is how I can go from looking up the street view of a location I’m scouting for a scene, to reading about the Battle of Hampton Roads, where the Ironclads CSS Virginia and USS Monitor faced off during the American Civil War. How did I even get from one point to the other? I don’t know. I just know it happened.
Nicholas Carr wrote an excellent book called The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains that I found particularly illuminating (I highly recommend checking it out). He writes a lot about neuroplasticity, and while I won’t go into detail here, the idea is that our brains can develop habits. The internet is filled with distractions, and reading an article on the internet is a different experience from reading a book or a newspaper. An internet article is filled with flashing ads, hyperlinks above, below, beside and even embedded into the content. You know what I mean, we’ve all read articles with hyperlinked sentences that take us to yet another website. Consuming content in this manner is changing our brains, making it harder for us to focus on a single thing because we’ve become so used to reading short bits at a time and constantly processing decisions on whether to click a link or not (Every time the brain needs to make one of these decisions, it loses focus on what it was doing).
I’ve become one of these people. Even though I read books as often as I can, when I’m sitting at the computer and see a block of text I just skim through it, picking out keywords to get a general idea of the message. I also click links constantly. I see something and think, oh, this might be interesting, I’ll keep that for later. Even now, I have 10 tabs open in my browser. And that’s only because I just closed 4.
But I have improved (When I’m writing, anyway), and intend to keep on improving. I’m able to write more per week now than I ever have. My brain is slowly but surely building new, more productive, habits. And even though I still spend an inordinate amount of time ‘surfing the web’, as it were, I’m surfing just a little bit less, and that is helping my productivity a lot.
P.S. I opened and closed about 15 different tabs in the course of writing this blog post.
Nearly 10 years ago my friend James and I went travelling through Europe. We set up a home base in Glasgow with our friend Jon in a tiny, one room apartment with a “kitchen” in a closet and barely enough floor space for us to sleep on.
From there, we were able to branch out and visit a number of beautiful places such as Edinburgh, London, Rome, Venice, and Paris. We also didn’t bother using Planes, Trains and Automobiles as primary modes of transportation either. We actually bought a pair of bikes at a Carrefour in Mestre (Outside Venice) and used them to get around Italy, France and England. We put a lot of kilometers on those poor things.
We did and saw a lot of amazing things while we were in Europe, and as easy as it would be to launch into a long-winded chronicle of our journey, that’s not what I’m here to do today. I wanted to talk about two places in particular that we visited – two places that changed the way we looked at Canada, and what it means to be Canadian.
The first is Vimy Ridge. For those who aren’t aware, the Battle of Vimy Ridge took place in April of 1917, during the First World War. It was the first time the four divisions of the Canadian Expeditionary Force fought together as one unit, and their resounding victory over the Germans became a symbol of pride and accomplishment for our young nation. That battle is considered one of the main turning points in the war.
When I arrived at the Canadian National Vimy Memorial, just north of Arras, I didn’t know what to expect. I knew the history of the battle, and I knew I wanted to see the memorial, but that was it. I had no other expectations.
That day I learned that there is a difference between knowing what happened, and really understanding what happened. Being there made it more real. The ground is bent and beaten. Massive craters litter the landscape, caused by powerful bombs that were detonated in underground tunnels. There are signs along the side of the road warning that there may still be live shells hiding in the grass, and to please stay out. There is a network of well-preserved trenches and tunnels as well. In one tunnel, a maple leaf is carved into a wall by an unknown soldier, reflecting the status of the maple leaf as a symbol of Canada long before the flag was changed in 1965.
Then we saw the monument.
It is beautiful, awe-inspiring, and emotional. Everything about it is simply majestic. The twin towers of limestone aren’t even the centerpiece of the monument; that belongs to a solitary figure, a cloaked woman looking down upon a tomb. She is Canada, a young nation mourning her dead. It is enough to make you weep.
After leaving Arras, we travelled to Normandy to visit the fantastic Juno Beach Centre in Courseulles-sur-Mer. There were 5 beaches targeted during the D-Day Landings of June 6, 1944. Sword, Juno, Gold, Utah and Omaha. The taking of Juno Beach was tasked to the Canadian contingent and by the end of the day they were able to secure the beach and push further inland than any other Allied force.
While we were riding near Caen, a french man rode up beside us to share the story of how his family was hiding in a farmhouse during the war, and how they were rescued by Canadian troops. “Merci,” he said. Thank you.
That night, James and I stood on the beach, trying to imagine what it was like for those soldiers on D-Day. What they fought through, the courage it would have taken, boggles the mind. As I looked out over that beach, I was inspired. An idea began to form and, with the help of James, it became a poem. I will share it at the bottom of this post. Dedicated to all of the Canadians who fought for us over the years. And remember to have a moment of silence today to reflect upon their sacrifices.
In closing, I’d like to say this: To any Canadian who travels in Europe – Do yourself a favour and visit one or both of these places. You won’t regret it. It will change you.
Ode to Junos Unknown
I journey through the channel’s night,
I’ve had no rest, there’s none in sight.
I instead see dawn reveal the coast,
With it, the waiting enemy host.
Fire echoes in the sky,
Then the first men fall, and lie.
Bombs rain down just as we land,
Mines throw up their gouts of sand.
I clutch my gun as I do my life,
I wish instead I could hold my wife.
But I’m climbing over the walls of hate,
Bravely climbing toward my fate…
The sand his fated blood would stain,
For all to see, the whole world’s pain.
A bruise there lay, upon the land,
In a pool of blood, by a lifeless hand.
But time, it seems is memory’s bleach,
It’s washed the sand of Juno Beach.
How can we, this debt we owe, repay,
Of vested valour; deeds done that day.
For honour spent and honour gained,
Upon his heart those memories stained.
To us, his charge we undertake,
For the past, for the future’s sake,
We remember and evermore shall teach.
For the water has since washed it clean,
It’s washed the sand of Juno Beach.
I stare at the computer monitor. The powerful bright white emanating from the screen burns into my eyes, making them water. I blink, turn away and, after a few moments, look back.
There is a virtual page on the screen covered in words. Words I don’t like. Did I really write these? I delete them and start again.
I never thought writing would be easy. Not for a second. But I wasn’t prepared for the times when, even though I know exactly what I want to say, I don’t know how to say it. It causes a special kind of frustration. Like typing with mitts on, sometimes everything is just rubbish.
For example, one day I can write a completely unplanned situation and blow through it like it’s nothing, then the next day I work on a chapter I planned long in advance, something I’m excited to write about, I can even see it in my mind’s eye, it looks great…but then I put my fingers on the keys and…nothing.
Writing can be a slog. I had to write off days, even weeks, because I couldn’t seem to find a rhythm. It’s frustrating and incredibly demoralizing. It makes me wonder what the hell am I doing?
But then there are days when I do have a rhythm, where the words seem to flow like water in a stream during spring runoff. I’ll sit down to work in the morning, then look at the clock and realize I’ve been writing for hours and I’m still not wearing any pants. But I’ve somehow managed to write thousands of words, and as I look back I realize, they’re good. Or at least, I think they are. I look at those words and suddenly it all feels worth it again.
So I continue to slog and hope that one day I will have a book to call my own. Something I’m proud of. And if I’m lucky; you, dear reader, will like it too.