This January I have been lucky enough to change gears and focus (most of) my energies on a single project. I am working with a small group of students on writing a play for our spring season, an adaptation of Marivaux's "La Dispute." Putting this class together sparked some memories of my own early attempts at writing and the best advice I got then.
I had a madman for a creative writing teacher. He handed in a letter announcing his retirement to the administration on April Fool's Day because he thought they would assume that it was a joke, and so he alone would be laughing when he didn’t show up next year. He looked forward to the free time because he could finally get to work on an engine that was fueled only by water. Not a story about such an engine as you might expect from a man teaching creative writing. The actual engine. He was surprised no one had thought of such an engine before. The idea was sure to make him rich.
In retrospect, he had very little good advice. While his passion for writing and story telling remained undiminished, he had grown disinterested with writers themselves. He enjoyed talking about the process. He did not much care to help us through it. Except for one gem that I still repeat a version of:
Buy an egg timer.
Of course, he didn’t really mean an egg timer (or perhaps he didn’t really know how long an egg cooks for because he wanted us to set them between one and two hours). The idea was that you would find a quiet place to work with a pen and paper.
Yes, he knew we had computers.
No, we were not supposed to use them.
Ideally, you would sit at a humble desk in front of a blank wall with the shades down (no windows at all would be preferable, but exceptions could be made). You set the timer for two hours. Then you write or do nothing. You don't research. You should have done that part already. Otherwise, you can do that part later. You don't check your phone. You don't check the Internet. You don't count the cracks in the walls (or ceiling). Essentially, you starve your mind of distractions so that it has no choice but to imagine, to create, to fill the void you've created with something interesting that you can write down. Your research is somewhere inside you. Your ideas are somewhere too. Rather than waiting for inspiration to strike, you use this time to work on your craft until you hear a little ding. Then you're done.
The advice, or the spirit of it, worked well when I took it. Unfortunately, I failed to apply the lesson in other situations, and before long it had crept out of even my attempts at creative writing.
I was remarkably productive during the writing phase of my dissertation. Unfortunately, my writing suffered because of it. You see, I created an (as-yet-unfinished) Excel spreadsheet of my modest library in that time so that I wouldn't keep losing books as I lent them around, forgetting who had what. I organized and reorganized my research as well as organizing and reorganizing my desk space (and occasionally the room I wrote in itself). I dove back into research at the slightest scent of some obscure reference that I might then incorporate as an oblique piece of incidental support to my main argument, and along the way discovered and rediscovered many interesting blogs, online resources, and other curious distractions which I could systematically bookmark in a newly created and more efficient arrangement of my once haphazard list.
I was very productive. I just didn't write much. Very often, I fooled myself into thinking that this was multitasking – especially when I was doing two or three things that were technically necessary – and that I was managing to balance a few things fairly well. Other times, I knew that I was finding excuses to shy away from the difficult task of creating something that others would one day read and judge.
If you are reading this, chances are your life is one of access… access to information, opportunities for inquiry, the lives of others many miles away from you. There are doorways all around leading to interesting (or at least diverting) things to read, things to watch, things to try… millions of avenues calling you away from doing any one thing for an extended time. Their allure is all the brighter when we set ourselves the goal of writing, because writing is ultimately a very lonely process.
And then there is plain old life.
Relationships to maintain, hobbies, school, work, cleaning, get some food, get some rest.
Your experience may well be different than mine, but whenever I try to tackle multiple things in the same moment – this rumored multitasking ability of mine – I don't really do any one thing very well. In fact, I find that taking twice as long doing two things separately produces better results than doing them simultaneously and "finishing" in less time. The results improve exponentially if I factor out the thousand tiny detours of quickly checking my email, scanning over the headlines of news site, or seeing what a friend has posted on a social site.
Setting aside our motivations for trying to go in many directions all at once (a whole other blog post, no doubt), I find the practice leaves me feeling like I didn't get anything done at all.
Writing the play this term, I set myself the same challenge I gave to my students. When we are writing, we are doing that and nothing else. We turn the WiFi off and shut the door. We refrain from distracting ourselves, though I can't quite bear to shut the blinds. When we are working on our craft we are doing only that. The distractions can't always be shut out. I haven't even completely succeeded in the course of writing this post. Nor does this always produce our best work right away. Revisions must still be made. Some things still get thrown out completely. Even so, committing to an extended, concentrated engagement with a single task has yielded far better results so far than the alternative.