21 January 2011

Multi-Tasking

About a year ago, I took a community course for writers, which was basically a learn-to-critique-others course - a handy skill, indeed. The slightly unfortunate part of the course was that it took place in Burlington, which is a much less interesting, much wealthier, and much more WASP-ish town than the Hammer. I struggled a little bit with the sensibilities of some of the other course participants. (Okay, I struggled a whole heck of a lot with them. Basically, we're talking about people who for the most part seemed transported directly from the more conservative environs of Mad Men.) Even more than that, I struggled with the way a lot of them were approaching the act of writing.

Not the best choice of role models, but feel free to dress this well.
A lot of these good men and women had been labouring for some time on just one big project. For a couple of them, the twelve-week course I was a part of was their third time around with the same project. This was true for the woman writing the conceptually and stylistically impressive literary novel about the woman who had travelled to Northern Ontario to bury the body of her mother. It was also true of the woman writing the not-so-great novel about a woman finding love/potential rapists (I was never sure which it was) in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. And of the woman who was putting together a short story collection the theme of which was Christmas. They'd spent twenty-four weeks of workshop already on these things, and they weren't writing anything else.

Me, on the other hand: I was workshopping my not-quite-vampire WiP, while producing short story after short story and planning another novel. I wrote during the course, fresh stuff on the WiP. I polished (and published) a flash fiction piece sometime in the first week or two.

I knew from the beginning of the course that my writing was different. None of the other participants were doing genre stuff (unless you count YA, which I don't unless it's speculative YA), a fact that eventually caused me to ditch the course. It took me a few weeks in, however, to realize that I was approaching the entire task of writing differently. They were using slender razors to carve increasingly intricate patterns on the same piece of paper. I was using a shotgun to blow massive, unpredictable holes in the sides of any number of plywood shacks from week to week. My work was focused in all kinds of different directions. And there was no telling what beasts would come flying out when the walls finally fell apart.

The penny dropped when I brought part of a new short story to the group. "I'm amazed that you can work on more than one thing at a time," said a Serious Novelist. "I don't know how you do that."

I don't know that I've ever considered working only on one big thing at a time. In grad school, you can't. Even when you're writing your thesis, you're also teaching a class, grading papers, heading off to conferences, and trying to get published. While the topic areas on all these different projects might vaguely resemble each other,  you have to learn how to task switch to survive. As a freelancer, I'm aware that one of the biggest mistakes you can make is to put all of your eggs in one basket. To diversify across clients is to have a better chance of surviving if a client goes down.

In creative writing, I know I am still learning. I hope I never stop learning. And if I work exclusively on one big project, I'll miss out on the valuable experimentation and excitement of actually finishing something that I get from writing short stories. And if there's only one big project going on at a time, well, what am I going to work on if I get stuck?

Then again, I find that working on so many things at the same time can end up making me feel a little cuckoo. At least a couple of times a day, I wake up to the sudden realization that I've totally forgotten to work on a WiP.

I'm all like, "Gah! I haven't written a new novel chapter in a week! How am I going to get back into my plot?"

Or I'll check out the calendar and it will be "Yikes! I'd planned to submit a story somewhere by last Thursday! But I haven't decided which one yet!"

(I live this way too. Every day it's "Crap! It's 5:00 and I was supposed to pick up Dave at 5:00. Why didn't I leave the house yet?" This is an unfortunate side effect of multitasking.)

But I'm not alone in these habits. Eileen Wiedbrauk of Speak Coffee to Me writes,

I'm always working on ten projects.  I think that's a conservative yet realistic number for what I'm doing.  I have four novel projects on the "this year" list. Ha. Other novel projects are chillin in the bread box.  I'm writing one academic paper, editing another.  I'm actively editing two short stories, and I've got another few who are patiently waiting their turn.  And then there's the teaching projects.  So ten seems about right.
The end result is that it seems like nothing gets done.  I work bit by bit, accomplishing a little bit more on each task daily.  But then I get frustrated for not finishing--much like I get frustrated when I over task my computer and slow it down.

She suggests a solution:

I'm beginning to think I need to streamline my process more.  Multi-task less.  Produce more finished items rather than switching projects.

Amen to that. I always, always wish that I could see the end of some of my projects a whole heck of a lot faster. It seems that the ones I do finish always happen with a whiz-bang. No coincidence that I've finished more flash pieces than anything else in recent months. The light at the end of the tunnel is just that much closer when your word count limit is under 1k.

I guess I don't see changing my multi-tasking tendencies anytime soon, but I do think that for me, the key is patience. I'm hoping it will also help that I'm scheduling some time to finish pieces of writing on a more frequent basis - if only so I can remember how. 

For some writers and other work-at-home types, scheduling is key. Charity Bradford at My Writing Journey recently posted about working out a daily schedule as a way to make sure her needs as a writer and her family's needs get met. What I like about Charity's schedule is that she's partitioning time for social networking as well as raw word count. In other words, she's making sure that she stays in touch with her support group of online writers. She's also got exercise scheduled in there. That's genius, Charity. Because I teach tai chi and attend classes so I can stay on top of my game, I have exercise enmeshed in most of my days, but I find that I do need to pay attention if I'm going to get time to play outside - meaning hikes in the woods or at the local park with the dog. (You all are getting regular exercise, right?)

On the other end of the spectrum, Loralie Hall at Apathy’s Hero talks about the demoralizing effects of setting a schedule and realizing that it just isn't for you. Of course, if you're like Loralie and setting a blogging schedule means you actually end up rereading and editing a novel project, you basically win.

So I realize that "schedule" isn't quite the name for what I do. What I do is more like "make a vague plan and emotional commitment involving as many people as possible and potential public shame, then cram it in somewhere when you finally settle down to work." This style of scheduling works best when it's combined with a little bit of a relaxed sense of obligation to the outside world, a sense of space in the course of a day, a sense that I don't have to rush. Even if I'm doing a lot and I will, in fact, have to rush at some point, if I can achieve that relaxed state of mind, then writing is much more likely to happen.

Ultimately, I think managing my life as a writer is more about the inner game of writing than the external, time-slotting game. I want to be like Trisha Leaver, who seems to be some kind of task-switching prodigy:

Yesterday I was asked how I do it . . . how I can switch from one set of characters to another multiple times a day. My answer: Mental White Board.
I am insanely organized. I don’t have a date book or a wall calendar posted anywhere in my house, nor do I use my computers handy post-it reminder system.  What I do have is this huge white board in my head, one that not only keeps tracks of appointments and coffee-dates, but has character maps, plot lines, and red-line editing projects clearly drawn out. It is so vivid I can actually smell my imaginary sharpie marker.
When I move from one project to the next throughout the day, I simply shuffle whiteboards. . . toss one to the back while bringing another forward.

Brilliant!

I guess the bottom line is that you should do whatever keeps your hand moving, right? The thrill and promise of raw word count is great, as is the elbow grease required to get a manuscript from first draft to finished. And submitting I find weirdly satisfying. Although it is a struggle to get a story to the point where it's ready to go, it's worth it. As Misa Buckley, writing about the importance of audience, says:

unless my writing is read, then it's just words on a page. It doesn't live And I remain a writer.
So this is my belief. That writing doesn't matter, nor editing, nor subbing. Not even being published. It's not until someone picks up my book and reads it that I become an author.
Happy plotting, writing, subbing, and getting read, everyone.

2 comments:

Eileen Wiedbrauk said...

I was reading along, going 'this is so me!' and then you quoted me, and i was like whoa. lol.

People who only work on one project may not understand people who work on many, but I don't understand people who only work on one project.

What do they do when the other ideas pop up into their heads? ignore them? never!

Do they not have other ideas popping up and demanding attention? If so, then I really can't relate.

Jessica Lei said...

Multi-tasking is definitely hard. I can do it in real life quite easy (to a certain extent!), but for right now I'm sticking to one project at a time. I just finished my first MS and while I tuck it away for some maturation and marination, I'll start planning for my next WIP. I might start writing it, I might not start writing it, but I don't see the point in stopping one WIP half-way so I can go back to the first WIP to edit.

I'm the kind of person who HATES stopping anything half-way through. I MUST finish. This drove me to write 75k in under two months. I JUST HAD TO finish.

Sure, I have other ideas, but I keep them in the back of my mind. I'll type out a flash idea if it's bothering me, but only a sentence or two to remind me what I wanted to do. That's it. It's like punishment: FINISH and THEN you can play with the new idea.

So, yeah!

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