11 Feb Writing as a meditative act — Learn the skill of slow writing
One of the most inspiring and useful books I read last year was The Art of Slow Writing, by Louise DeSalvo.
All of us can write. Few of us know how to work at writing. — Louise DeSalvo, The Art of Slow Writing
DeSalvo, an author and creative writing teacher, had seen countless students who wanted to finish their essay or book too fast. She understood their urgency, because she also felt frustrated at times with the snail’s pace of her own writing.
She decided to research how long it took successful authors to finish a book and the process they followed. What she discovered is that many of them revered slow writing as the only way to achieve the complexity and depth they were after.
For example Steinbeck, as he was writing East of Eden, set himself the goal of writing two handwritten pages each day. When his editor pressured him to finish faster, he resisted, telling him:
“It is a destructive suggestion… A book, as you know, is a very delicate thing. If it’s pressured, it will show that pressure.”
Virginia Woolf, while working on To the Lighthouse, wrote only about 500 words a day. Less after revision.
Michael Chabon took five years to complete his novel Telegraph Avenue.
DeSalvo uses her own example, as well as that of many other authors, to dissect the step-by-step of creating a book. It varies by writer, but a common process looks like this:
- Imagine a book. Think about it. Take notes. (This step can take months and even years.)
- Write a first draft.
- Work in stages, write, revise, let yourself learn what your subject is really about as you work.
- Once you have a better second, third, or seventh draft, revise again, thinking specifically about structure and image patterns. Rewrite again with your observations in mind.
- Show to others. Revise again taking their feedback into account.
DeSalvo gives numerous accounts of writers who, through this arduous process, ended up finding months and years down the road the real theme, motifs or ending of their books. As she says:
“Slow writing is a meditative act: slowing down to understand our relationship to our writing, slowing down to determine our authentic subjects, slowing down to write complex works, slowing down to study our literary antecedents.”
Reading this book was a boost for me at a time when I felt exhausted from the effort of writing a long format memoir. It gave me tools to be more organized and analytical, such as starting a “process journal”. In that journal I began to note the challenges I faced as I wrote, the thoughts and memories that popped up, the chronology that supported the plot, and any other thing related to what I was writing.
It also made me feel better to realize that even the most accomplished authors go through moments of despair and feelings of being lost or stuck. Only giving their story the time and effort it deserves helps them get to the finish line.
Nowadays going fast and getting immediate gratification is the ideal. We expect websites to upload immediately, texts to be answered right away, and articles to be broken down into digestible lists and short paragraphs that we can consume in less than five minutes. Being patient with our writing is a skill that we can only learn with lots of practice. Salvo’s book provides a good compass to guide us along the way.