Writing: To Task or Multi-Task?

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Writing: Task or Multi-Task?

“To task or multi-task? That is the question.”

In the lonely world of creative writing, be it in poetry or in prose, is it better to continue with one text until the task of writing it is thoroughly finished? Or should we flit from text to text, developing several at once and thus multi-tasking in the best sense of the word? This is a key question in the revision process and relates directly to the concepts of write, re-write, revision, revisionism, and the creative process, all of which have been mentioned both in this blog and in the comments to this blog. However, there is no single answer to this seemingly either / or question as many factors must be considered.

  1. Deadlines:

Anyone who has worked with strict deadlines knows that they matter more than anything else. “I want this work on my desk by 4:00 pm today,” says the manager rubbing the magic bottle in which the genie is kept. “Yes, ma’am,” says the genie bowing before vanishing back into his bottle. Only one thing matters, the task in hand, and there can be no multi-tasking.

  1. Novellas and Novels:

With longer texts, while there might be room for manoeuver, provided no deadline is in sight, it is better by far to focus on the task in hand — the extended narrative — and to dedicate all tasking and multi-tasking to that prime task. The majority of writers who have written on the art of writing, including Stephen King, Graham Green, and E. M. Forster, emphasize the necessity of sticking at it, maintaining focus, and getting on with the task. Graham Green’s recommended approach is to write four to five pages a day, re-reading them and revising them the next day, before writing another four pages. That way the events, the action, the characters, are kept well in mind. In addition, Joan Clark and Norman Levine, in their workshops, advise writers to get to know their characters intimately, to think about them, and to write and rewrite until they come living from the page. Anyone who has taken a longish break and then returned to the writing of a novel knows just how difficult it is to get back into the mind of those characters. With an extended narrative, a dialog abandoned is a dialog lost. And one must learn to listen to one’s characters and to never forget what they have said, mustn’t one?.

  1. Poems, Prose Poems, and Flash Fiction:

This is where multi-tasking can truly take place. The brevity of these pieces, and I classify epic and extended poetry with narrative rather than with poetry, allows the writer time to pick the pieces up and put them down again, to play around, to abandon the text and to return to it later. Being shorter pieces by definition, one can re-read them with ease, correct them at leisure, and research around them with impunity. In an extended narrative, or when writing to a deadline, focus is necessary. With shorter pieces, easily recalled, procrastination is a pleasure, not a crime. With poetry, focus is sharper but for shorter periods.

  1. From Poem to Poetry Book:

As the poems accumulate and the writing, or rather the putting together, of the collection becomes more important, so the need to concentrate and single-task, rather than to procrastinate and multi-task becomes paramount.

These are my initial thoughts on Task or Multi-Task. What happens when we apply them in real life to real questions?

  1. On Revision (Chuck):

Will this exercise (revision of older texts) provide you more gratification than starting new ones that may or may not be so important to you?

The question of revision is key. While I would like to avoid revisionism (Al: There is value in showing poetry as a snapshot in time (if only to avoid endless revisionism), the question of how to revise a text is of maximum importance. The text to be revised may be old or it may be recent, but the act of revision — how and why and what to revise — is one that must concern us as writers if we are to eschew automatic writing in a search for le mot et la phrase justes. If I can learn from the revision of older texts what I need to look for in order to revise newer texts, then my search for a way in which to recognize and achieve better form of writing can be justified, for the techniques discovered can surely be applied to future texts as well as to past ones.

  1. The young Roger who was once you is no more (Kevin):

This is a beautiful thought: thank you, Kevin. Much of that earlier writing must stand as it is (and was) as a monument to what and who I was back then. However, some thoughts and phrasings may well be weak and need revision. The recognition of weakness and the realization of how to strengthen and how to renew is surely a part of our ongoing growing writing process. That is what I would argue, anyway. I would argue further that revision is NOT multi-tasking, but is single-tasking in the sense that I, as reviser, am teaching myself how to revise: an ongoing process in the act of creativity.

  1. Conclusion:

In my current situation, I have five creative works (Echoes …, Waiting, Bistro, Stars … , People … ) lying fallow and waiting for their final touches. As I look back on what I have previously written and how I have written it, I am, in my opinion, multi-tasking. That is to say, I am working with many texts rather than concentrating on a single text. However, at the same time, I am working hard on a single task: that of teaching myself, once again, how to revise and how to rewrite. Hopefully I will put a little, objective distance between my current self and my recent texts. Then, when I return to them, I will be able to take them, one at a time, and revise them properly. That is my hope and my intention.

To task or to multi-task … writing or re-writing … each has its place in the creative process. To conclude: I thank all of you who contributed to this conversation (mentioned or not!), and I wish you joy in your (re-)creativity.

16 thoughts on “Writing: To Task or Multi-Task?

  1. Hi Roger. I am a multi-tasker. I like to have several projects on the go, so I can select what to work on any given day. I never get bored and time between sessions gives me thinking time. I think this approach comes from years of juggling a variety of projects. Works for me! Jane

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    • You are also an accomplished poet, Jane, with the ability to come and go with the work that you are doing. I cannot imagine boredom ever knocking at your door. As you say, the thought between sessions is precious and doubly precious. You also “live” your work: and that is a rare and wonderful accomplishment too. Best wishes and thanks for being here.

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  2. I have two novels started, a children’s book started, and I try to write a full chapter for each, read and revise before moving on to the next. And I agree that you keep the storyline and details fresh in mind!

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    • Interesting, Meg: so you task on individual chapters and multi-task by juggling the different books. I think that’s a great way to approach creativity. I will set myself some deadlines. In fact, I’ll try to get Bistro published this fall. That will be something to aim for; Bistro (Fast Fiction) and / or Waiting (poetry chapbook).

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      • I find the poems and Flash Fiction pieces change considerably when I am pottering: other points of view, fresh ideas. I notice when I rewrite for the Blog that I am suddenly very conscious of what a reader will think of the text, and that often causes me to write radical changes. I suppose partly it’s A Sense of an Audience, as Julian Barnes might write!

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      • Hmmm. Interesting. I don’t make too many changes to my blog pieces. In fact, sometimes I write in the WP draft first and then copy it to a saved file for backup. Oblivious to the audience I guess!

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      • It’s not the Blog that I rewrite (unless I make a serious mistake) but the literary pieces I include with the Blog. The Fast Fiction pieces all belong to a collection called Bistro that I hope to publish soon. I revise each of these very carefully with a reading audience in mind, in many cases, a remarkably acute reading audience.

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  3. A useful analysis here, Roger. I know some writer friends who go for the 1-1-1 approach. One idea in development, one work in progress, one in editing. Any approach has to fit the needs and preferred working style of the artist in question. Personally, I’m still trying to find out what is!

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  4. I fall into the camp of focus to the task. Write the first draft and do the first rewrite. Maybe dabble during that time if my creativity starts to dry up, but never a new novel for fear the original doesn’t get done.

    It’s too easy for me to follow the rush of excitement of starting something new and never finishing the hard work of those first rewrites.

    Then I go away, start the next project. Put some time between myself and my work. Perhaps have a beta reader or two take a look.

    I need this time and distance for perspective. I am too close to characters and plot to see broader issues. When I come back, I should still like the characters and want to see them succeed. And I should have made it hard enough for them that it’s interesting.

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    • Great response: thank you. I have often likened creativity to rivers in limestone country that suddenly disappear and vanish underground. We know they are still there, those rivers, but they are not on the surface. this is the quiet time of reading and exploration as we wait for the river to rise again. And yes, this can be when multi-tasking and innovative research comes to the fore. “Characters and plot” suggest novels and longer narratives: this is where the ‘nose to the grindstone’ applies most strongly. You must graze steadily, while we poets can peck along like starving sparrows searching for choice, metaphoric morsels.

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    • Good heavens: could it be? Yes, it could … it’s Judy from the WYPOD! Welcome, welcome to my blog. To answer your question, very briefly: it depends on exactly what I am revising, for each piece of writing will demand a different sort of revision. To speak in general terms, I search for thematic unity, for example; or rhythmic sequence; or intensification; or brevity of phrasing; or clarity of expression. This latter is of high importance in academic writing as we both well know. I have never worshiped at the academic altar of trivial meaning obfuscated by long words and muddled thinking. I hope you are going to also write me a nice long e-mail! 🙏

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