I’ve been writing pretty consistently every day since I came up with a great new idea for a novel (sometimes as little as a few sentences a day, but hey momentum is momentum). Then last Thursday I found out about a contest on Wattpad set by Margaret Atwood, to write a short story either set in 2114 or as advice to 2114. I only had a weekend to write it (the deadline is midnight tomorrow GMT, you still have time to enter!), so I reluctantly had to set my novel aside for a few days. And now I have to find a way to get back into it.
Some people can write two stories at the same time, some can edit one while writing another. Most newbie writers can/should focus on only one ‘universe’ at a time, since the deeper you manage to delve into your universe, the richer the story should be, and that’s hard enough. I’m certainly not nearly confident/experienced enough to be able to switch between story-worlds within a day. I’m struggling to get back after even a few days in another world. Like writing itself, such abilities require practice. Since working on multiple stories counts as a form of multitasking, I suppose I as a woman and a relatively young person should be better at it.
Yet if you look at multitasking from a neural perspective, there’s no such thing. Yes, we can walk and talk at the same time, but that only works because we only do one of those things consciously. The brain has limited resources, and especially tasks that require higher order cognitive processes take up a lot of these resources. Just like a computer, a brain doing two or more things that require higher cognitive resources is constantly switching between the tasks. We don’t actually do these things at the same time. This is why it’s so dangerous for people to do other things while driving; if something unexpected happens during those few seconds the brain dedicates to looking at one’s phone, a delayed reaction would occur that could be catastrophic.
Women’s brains might be able to switch quicker, because they’re wired differently or because of differences in upbringing or both, hence the myth of the kickass female multitasker. Modern young people have shown however that practice is the best way to learn how to switch more rapidly and make it seem like you’re doing two things at once; given the constant attention-sinks that are smartphones, tablets and TVs, young people have learned how to disperse their attention between all of their devices while still remaining sane. They sometimes even spare some resources for actual human conversations. And though this is bad for attention spans, it certainly helps them process things more quickly and be more adaptive to changing circumstances. It’s a great example of how our brains adapt to the new environment created by advances in technology and science.
The brain is like a muscle. Practice strengthens the connections required to flex our creative skills. There has to be a balance between being able to switch, and being able to go deep into one particular story; both of these skills need to be nurtured. There might be some select few writers who have these skills from the get-go, but I’m willing to bet that if you ask Margaret Atwood, Stephen King or Chuck Wendig, they will tell you they had a lot of practice before things clicked. So right now I am, not entirely willingly, practicing switching between story-world while maintaining clarity about the story and characters. Hopefully one day this will allow me to edit one story while working on the next. It’s probably one of those things that separate the professionals from the hobby-writers, and I know which one I’d rather be.
If anyone is interested, you can find my hastily-written short story here.