It is currently scandalous to say so, but: women’s and men’s brains are different, and women’s brains don’t naturally focus.
It Is All About the Babies
Our brains operate with something called “diffuse awareness,” according to my favorite relationship expert Alison Armstrong, which means we are constantly aware of many things at once.
(DNA wise, this worked through millions of years of evolution in which the ability to know the whereabouts and well-being of many small children at once was a HUGE ADVANTAGE.)
Men’s brains operate with what she calls “single-focus,” which means they are focused only on the result or activity at hand.
(The DNA advantage here: to catch the antelope for dinner, you can’t really be chit-chatting or paying attention to someone else. Anyone who has even tried to get a cat off a ledge or a loose puppy back into the house knows: catching even an easy, domestic animal, you can’t really be talking on the phone or checking your email at the same time. )
This essential brain chemistry/total worldview difference is backed up by loads of brain science that has been coming out in the past few years, my favorite source being Louann Brizendine M.D., author of The Female Brain and The Male Brain.
I’m sure you can relate to the implications on relationships here—like why the messy house (diffuse awareness of infinite details!) drives us insane but guys can keep functioning in the midst of socks on the floor (single focus on the need to get out of the house!).
HOW IT WORKS:
I’m REALLY interested in how our diffuse awareness affects our ability to sit down and write.
Well, I think it makes it excruciating. All that focus. On the computer. To finish and stay in one perspective. God! It’s really hard.
I personally have an extreme feminine brain—the extreme, sensitive, intuitive, ADD brain. It makes me a really good teacher. (It makes me a crap employee in our current masculine-energy-worshipping work world!) And it makes writing really hard. For me, I could only imagine my novel Girly as seven different voices at once—there simply was no single focus throughout it.
The Taboo Fact of the Day: Focus Is Exhausting for Us
As women, our attention goes to a million different places at once. If we’re writing a sentence about one thing, we think, oh I should be describing the setting not going on & on about this one particular character. We are always pulled somewhere else.
This is not the case for the male brain.
This is probably a huge part of why my writing workshops are full of women.
When you’re in class with me, I am leading you through precisely focused writing exercises. You’re writing with the group. You have a very specific focus which as the teacher I have created for you.
Also, I am constantly saying, “Whatever has your attention is the perfect thing to describe right now.”
Then I say, “Now look at the shoes this person is wearing.”
Then I’ll say, “Now tell me how they are walking.”
Then: “What is the thing this person you’re seeing wants next?”
See! I give you little steps to respond to for about a minute each.
You’re relieved of that exhausting responsibility to focus.
Yet: your natural feminine desire to describe and connect has gotten a ton of amazing stuff productively written! Without the draining-ness that happens when pushing to focus and produce.
We Are Excellent Talkers
With this approach–with me as the teacher emulating conversation, basically–the focus problem disappears. It’s like, as a student sitting there writing, you’re just responding to my last question. You’re telling me the important details!
(Estrogen, which of course we pretty much have the monopoly on, chemically makes us want to connect, describe and please. This is our natural state, and one that is not really something that is valued in our culture.)
You see, in these writing exercises, you’re not sitting there trying to FOCUS, and PRODUCE, and ACHIEVE. (These three activities take adrenaline and testosterone, which we are seriously short on biologically.)
You’re in a naturally feminine space, just talkin’. And through not pushing, but through just connecting in little bursts, in a feminine way, with what your teacher is saying but by turning that into productive results on the page, really cool progress without exhaustion happens, effortlessly.
(God I miss this stuff, I need to start teaching in person again! I miss that magic so much. I will let you know when I clear out the space for it. )
Plus, your innate female-brain people-pleasing wants to do what you’re SUPPOSED to be doing in class, and this in large part overrides the diffuse awareness, this hard-wired DNA compulsion to BELONG and BE PLEASING works to your advantage. You’re using what you have huge reserves of, rather than operating from what you have comparatively very little of (testosterone).
So the thing is, I so struggle with this stuff. Daily.
I don’t have an Elizabeth to go take classes with! And I’m alone at the desk trying to freakin focus as much as anyone else.
These are the solutions I have found:
1) Remember that FOCUS IS DRAINING. Natural, easy, long-term focus is a benefit of testosterone, which men have 16 times as much of as we do. So I have learned that yes, it is totally REAL that I am spent completely after focusing and writing for two or three hours–I’m toast. My solution is to let myself off the hook for being spent after a couple of hours of forced focus.
(I have loads more to say about testosterone, adrenaline, and burnout—oh my god do you see my diffuse awareness here! it’s quite hard to stay on topic! –but I obviously must save it for an additional newsletter.)
2) I say it allllll the time: CLEAR THAT CLUTTER, my dears. All the little messy distractions or ugly knick knacks or cat hair tumbleweeds under your desk are going to drain, drain, drain your energy and deplete what focus you do have. Get it out of there.
3) TRUST YOUR BEST GUESS: in other words, practice (for me this is constant, with every sentence practically) LETTING YOURSELF OFF THE HOOK for whatever you have chosen to write about. Know that it is the total right thing for now. The energy you save in judging and trying to get yourself on some driven focused track will be huge.
4) Allow meandering, then GET AN EDITOR. We don’t need to hire support for the stuff that comes naturally to us.
But we desperately need support in areas where we have meager reserves or weak abilities. It’s the same thing as not having the biological capacity to move my couch upstairs on my own: I need extra support to help me with what I am naturally weak at.
5) REMEMBER HOW COOL DIFFUSE AWARENESS IS: The writerly benefit of diffuse awareness is we are great at experiencing other peoples’ inner worlds! That is an amazing thing, and we often can’t see the huge beauty of our writing until LATER.
Okay, I am now spent from the focus it took me to write this blog post! Time to go to the lake & chit-chat and let myself meander and refuel the well.
Until next week–