Brain Science and Kerouac’s Scroll: Can a Writer Multitask?

photo of Kerouac's scroll by Thomas Hawk
photo of Kerouac’s scroll by Thomas Hawk

I used to read one book at a time. These days I seem to have several going at once: a novel, perhaps, for bedtime and dog walks, another for my book club, something for research on the chapter I’m writing and a biography I started in the airport over Christmas but haven’t gotten back to.

My writing is taking a similar tack. I’m careening toward this self-imposed deadline of completing The Saltwater Twin by the end of March, and feeling quite a lot of anxiety about making it. In the past, I’d work on one chapter at a time, revising again and again until it felt finished, a process which typically took several weeks. However, as this deadline hurtles into view, the notion of x-ing off March 31st on my calendar and having one or two or three chapters not even sketched out feels daunting. Nauseating, even.

To combat this, I drew up a writing schedule that involves alternating work on the remaining chapters. My plan is to finish a draft of a chapter, then turn to another and write a first draft. Then I’ll take a fresh pass at the first, another at the second and begin a third. Thus, at any given moment, I’ll have various chapters at different stages of completion. It’s allaying some of my anxiety and allowing me to feel as though I’m continuously moving forward even as I return to yet another draft of a piece that refuses to fall together to my satisfaction.

Almost immediately I started worrying about this plan. Is it too much like multitasking? Because multitasking is supposedly a Very Bad Thing.

I find the word itself unappealing—like youngster or bland. It derives from computer lingo and refers to doing two things simultaneously—such as writing an email while talking on the phone (this would make me crazy)—as well as to switching between tasks in rapid succession (uh oh—rather fond of this one). The internet is full of articles—like “Think You’re Multitasking? Think Again”—on how humans can’t multitask, we only think we can. Some go so far as to claim that not only is multitasking inefficient, it’s actually bad for you—and not just texting and driving. In one study, multitasking caused people’s functional IQs to drop lower than if they’d smoked pot. It disrupts short-term memory and concentration.

This perplexes me somewhat. I think about waiting tables, for example. You have to be able to remember and prioritize a running list of discrete tasks and execute them quickly and efficiently: run a credit card, print a check, order a dirty martini, drop off a glass of Malbec and make sure table 32’s enjoying their bruschetta. It’s like having a very fast paced to-do list scrolling through your head. It requires multitasking. Taking care of children, teaching, cooking a meal, directing a play—all of these and more—inherently contain a need to multitask, to quickly switch among various activities. Are homemakers and teachers and chefs and directors all wreaking havoc on their short-term memories and attention spans?

Maybe I should take a page from Kerouac or Kafka—who were mentioned as exemplars of singlemindedness in a recent New Yorker piece on the pitfalls of multitasking—and just work on one chapter until its done. Kafka apparently wrote his short story “The Judgment” in one 10 pm to 6 am session at his typewriter in Prague, and Kerouac finished the first draft of On the Road in three weeks on the sixth floor of a brownstone in Chelsea—typing on a taped-together hundred and twenty foot scroll so he wouldn’t have to pause to replace paper. That sounds legendary and everything, but Kerouac, at least, took breaks for coffee and Benzedrine (and, according to scholar Paul Marion, he’d worked intensively on the manuscript in his journals pre-scroll). Kafka, for his part, though he pronounced in his diary, “Only in this way can writing be done, only with such coherence, with such a complete opening out of the body and soul,” also said his legs got so stiff in the process, he had a hard time pulling them out from under the desk and the next morning wrote a note to his work supervisor, saying he was staying home sick.

Oh, boy. I am not Kafka or Kerouac. I tend to write for thirty to sixty minutes and then do some yoga or dishes for ten minutes or so. I’ve found when I sit much longer without a walkabout, my muscles complain mightily. And another thing—I became much more productive writing-wise when I began to allow myself to use whatever bits of time were available throughout my day. Rather than saying, “Oh, I don’t have a nice three-hour block, so what’s the use?” I started taking laptop or notebook pretty much everywhere I went and writing in all my in-betweens. I worked on this post yesterday for twenty minutes in my car in a snowy school parking lot.

Maybe what I’m suggesting isn’t even proper multitasking. A National Geographic article maintains just a half hour devoted to a task is enough to make it sufficiently, uh, efficient. And after just a week on my round robin writing schedule, I’m seeing connections among chapters that I may not have noticed if I were focusing on only one at a time. I don’t know where that insight will lead precisely, but it’s an interesting development, especially when I’m working at creating a cohesive group of essays. Another benefit is that the round robin method allows for the inevitable burnout that happens with a piece of writing. After setting it aside, I always come back with fresh eyes.

On writer message boards there seem to be a fair number of folks stirring more than one pot. One commenter on writersbeat.com advised:

Muck about with it and find how you work best. I was reading the blog of one author the other day who claims that taking time off of projects to focus on other projects is what helps him write so smoothly and prolifically. It oils the creative process. Then there are others that swear by only ever writing one thing at a time…Experiment and practice and see what works.

I guess the next couple months will be an experiment. Will there be a manuscript at the end of it? Or a very frazzled writer with a batch of half-baked chapters? I will report my findings.

How about you? What do you consider multitasking? Are there pitfalls? Rewards? Any words of wisdom for the rest of us?

octopus journal by Heather aka Molly
octopus journal by Heather aka Molly
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4 thoughts on “Brain Science and Kerouac’s Scroll: Can a Writer Multitask?

  1. Hey, that’s how I write, too. One chapter at a time … not moving onto the next one until it’s finished. Thought it was just me. The thought of having to go back and edit is too overwhelming.

    Anyway, best of luck with your project.

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  2. I jump around and work on whatever hits. This is fine for me because I’m doing a historical piece linearly and the the outline is pretty strict. I can only go so far offtrack. Here’s a journal entry from 12/19/13: “I’m finding that if I just stick with it, little connections and details coalesce into something resembling a scene in a play.” It sounds like your newest method of working on three chapters at once is giving you some valuable connectivity as well. I’m in the “whatever works” camp and if that means changing your tried and true midstream, then a-okay. Go for it. I can’t wait to read your book.

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