Compartmentalising. Wow, what a boring word. But, despite this, it’s something I’ve really wanted to be able to do for years. You see, before now, I was crap at compartmentalising (or mashing things up into digestible bits, if you want it put slightly more interestingly). This included lots of things in my life and the thoughts, memories and knowledge that goes with experiencing it. But, more than those things, I’ve particularly struggled with being able to compartmentalise my writing.
Now, if you put me in any other professional role (and I’ve had plenty of them) then I can work out the different tasks involved in its daily activities and manage them well and altogether. But, you apply the same approach to writing, and my brain begins to resemble a wobbly jelly at a children’s party (although I’m sure it wouldn’t taste as good).
It was Thomas Mann who famously said “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people”. And I’m sure, if you’re a writer, you’ll probably agree with that. I can, especially as – up until now – my brain has struggled with what should be an inate ability to “manage” – or compartmentalise, yawn that word again – the different strands of fiction, scripts, short stories and non-fiction/journalism that I write.
There are probably many reasons for not having the same ability some successful writers appear to have (but possibly don’t when they sit in their study pulling their hair out in large chunks) but probably the main one is: practice.
As with everything in life, if you don’t practice it enough – for those famous 10,000 hours to get good at it or for however long – then you won’t hone your skills. It’s the same with producing lots of different genres of writing: if you don’t practice doing all those genres and types at the same time, then how can you be expected to cope with doing it?
Okay, so there are other reasons too, e.g. being too busy and immersed in your day job to have the energy to concentrate on many pieces of writing at once. Maybe you’re living in the wrong environment for you, or your current relationship isn’t very happy so it takes over your mind with emotional stress. Maybe you have fourteen children who demand your attention constantly, or your hectic social life leaves you drained. There are so many reasons.
For me, from a young age, I was bullied a lot, emotionally abused and often found concentrating in class at school very hard. I had a real difficulty with “pinning things down” in my head so they stuck. This included ideas, emotions, knowledge and thoughts…they all just swirled around a lot, becoming like that children’s party jelly. But, I think, this is actually what many creative people’s minds are like on a daily basis, so I’m not complaining.
Remarkably, this has all begun to change in the past few months. My mind feels sharper than it has been for a long time. I’m brimming with ideas, writing constantly…and I’m successfully managing different writing projects all at the same time.
I think this comes down to two things. 1) deciding to take time out and practice doing lots of different projects and 2) because I’ve made a choice to compartmentalise (booooring word) each one with its own, unique feeling and type of skill I’m using to produce them. This may not seem to make sense, at first, but what I’m saying is I kind of “tag” each project with a form of associative memory (an emotion, a piece of music, a general feeling) which then helps me flit from one to the other (usually with a 10-minute break in between, with a cup of tea and a few chocolate hob-nobs, of course).
So, if you’re struggling with the thought that I “just can’t do this” – whether it’s one creative project or many – then just breathe and take your time to believe you can re-wire your brain.
You can do it by ensuring you have your own space to think, write, create. Tell people not to disturb you. Eat healthily. Exercise. Yes, exercise. A lot. Because that builds up your mind’s capability of taking on lots of work at once. And, most of all, practice writing. Have I said practice enough? Practice!
I only really keep repeating it because I was afraid to do it. You see, I’d previously made an arbitrary (and quite concrete) rule in my head that my mind “couldn’t handle” the production of more than one piece of intensive storytelling at a time. That, if I tried to do this, I’d lose track of all the characters, plots, settings, action etc and they would all mingle into a slushy, mushy pile of not very tasty peas. Or jelly.
But, no! That’s not what happened. I’ve found that I’ve become pretty adept at creating a space in my head for all the different worlds. It’s like slotting a pretty-looking galaxy in one box because you’re done looking at it for the moment, and then you open another box near it and take out that galaxy which has different colours, stars, background and exciting things happening in it.
So, yes, like me, you can achieve this and, if you practice doing it, then you’ll become successful at lessening jelly brain syndrome and better at compartme-…oh, seriously, I’m not using that bloody word again.