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.
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.
- 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?
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.
- 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.
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.
Comment: These questions are as relevant to my writing now as they were when I first posted them several years ago. The text names change, but the multi-tasking continues. There are about five manuscripts / typescripts on my desk right now, each one clamoring for attention. In a couple of cases, there are deadlines that I must meet. In others, overnight thought means an early morning return with new ideas. Most important of all, is to write, and to continue writing. And yes: unless there is an imminent deadline, I multi-task!