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Creativity coach, writing and creative process instructor, speaker, author of Around the Writer's Block: Using Brain Science to Write the Way You Want (Penguin/Tarcher 2012) and Dancing in the Dragon's Den (Red Wheel Weiser), Teaching Artist at the Loft Literary Center.

How Hemingway Made ‘Attention Residue’ Work for Writing

quote-the-best-way-is-always-to-stop-when-you-are-going-good-and-when-you-know-what-will-happen-ernest-hemingwayErnest Hemingway certainly never heard the term “attention residue,” but he knew how to make the phenomena work in favor of his writing. You can, too.

In case you didn’t read the previous post,Don’t Let ‘Attention Residue’ Derail Your Writing,and haven’t heard of “attention residue” either, it’s what distracts you when you sit down for Product Time (aka writing time), but can’t focus because your attention keeps getting pulled back to something you worked on earlier in the day.

According to Sophie Leroy, business professor at the University of Washington (previously at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Business):

“Attention residue represents the extent to which a person’s attention is only partially focused on a current activity (task or social interaction) because a prior activity is still holding part of his or her attention.”

Stop Before You’re Done

hemingway-dont-empty-the-well-quoteHemingway kept his writing the beneficiary, not the victim, of attention residue by stopping the day’s writing when he knew what would happen next.

He advised, “Always stop when you are going good and don’t think about it or worry about it until you start to write the next day. That way your subconscious will work on it all the time.” (read more…)

Stopping when you still know what will happen next is one way to put attention residue to work in service of your writing. Even when you have to move on and do something else, you can keep part of your attention on your writing.

Of course, this will backfire if you need to devote your full attention to the task following your writing. So, as much as you can, follow Product Time with activities that are more routine and don’t require all of your cognitive energy and ability.

When You’re Done But Not Done

penrose-illusion-paradoxLeroy makes a significant distinction between task completion (when the job is done) and cognitive closure (when you’re done with the job):

“It is possible for people to experience closure but not completion (e.g. knowing in one’s mind how to solve a mathematical problem without having written down the solution) and completion but not closure (e.g. having written down the solution to the problem but still wondering whether a more elegant solution exists).”

Writers with a low need for cognitive closure tend to stay open to new information, consider competing ideas and explore alternatives. We’re likely to look at something we’ve written and think, “That’s okay, but can I write it better, shorter, more beautifully?”

Low need for cognitive closure makes us more likely to keep thinking about our writing even after the writing session is over. Hemingway’s willingness to stop while he still knew what to write next suggests (at least to me) that he had low need for cognitive closure at least when it came to writing.

I suspect the willingness to be uncertain (which is essential to creativity) correlates with lower need for cognitive closure. Not all of us are wired with low need for cognitive closure; nor do we need to be. There are strengths associated with high need for cognitive closure, including decisiveness and confidence. Whether your need for cognitive closure is high or low, you can use a lack of closure to keep your writing on your mind throughout the day. 

Make the Most of Attention Residue

dreamstormLeroy’s research shows that cognitive closure reduces attention residue. It also correlates low time pressure to complete a task with increased attention residue following that task.

There are non-writing commitments that deserve undivided attention, so it’s important to know when to not let writing intrude on other activities.

But when we do want to follow Papa Hemingway’s example and let our writing rumble around in our unconscious all day and even intrude on our conscious thoughts, we want to increase the attention residue left by our writing.

Practical ways to reduce cognitive closure and keep time pressure low include:

  • Write early in the day, so your thoughts return to the scene or section you’re working on during breaks and boring meetings, or when you’re driving, waiting or doing administrivia tasks
  • Have a specific starting time, reserve more than 15 minutes for writing when you can, but don’t force yourself to write past your 15-minute commitment; let yourself stop “when you’re going good”
  • Record specific questions just before you bring a writing session to a close so both your unconscious and conscious mind continue to explore possible solutions
  • Ask yourself a specific question before you go to bed and freewrite when you get up; dreams are metaphors, so be sure not to censor ideas or images as you freewrite; trust yourself to see the connections later
  • Dreamstorm (imagine a scene unfolding in your imagination like a mental movie, read more…) as you fall asleep
  • Make notes about your writing throughout the day
  • If you doodle during phone calls or meetings, review your doodles later to see what messages/metaphors your unconscious was broadcasting while your conscious mind was mostly or partially focused on the call or meeting topic; non-doodlers don’t always understand how much doodling can help present moment focus, so you might need to be discreet or explain your doodle practice.

How do you encourage writing to “invade” your thoughts throughout the day?

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2 Comments on “How Hemingway Made ‘Attention Residue’ Work for Writing”

  1. Glynis Jolly October 15, 2016 at 8:20 am #

    Questions before I end the writing session sounds like a marvelous idea. Because I have short-term memory loss, I’ll take it one step farther and write those questions to go back to at other times during the day and again go over them before writing in my next session.


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