Slow Writing?

Would that there were no other kind.

Sara Levine, author of the fantastic Treasure Island!!!, was interviewed in the Globe and Mail Monday. The article seems to treat “slow writing” (a “cute” coinage a la “slow food” — fuck) as quaint, eccentric. Disaster!!! I want to say (though I am in complete agreement with what Ms. Levine has to say):

As a teacher, the 41-year-old author says over the telephone from Chicago, she struggles to slow overeager students down, demanding they set aside their billowing reams to concentrate on the architecture of the sentence – “things like grammatical suspension, the difference between nouns and verbs, rhythm and sound.”

As a teacher, I remind my students that every word on the page is a choice, an opportunity. Writing is fraught, I tell them, more thrilling than they think. And not only for them, but for their readers as well.

I am not an adventurous reader anymore. I used to read books from all disciplines and genres; now I indulge my esoteric tastes only when researching. And when I indulge, I find so much to dislike. Lazy language, everywhere; garbage verbiage. I tell my students that they should accord the words in front of them the respect they are due — the writer walked these words out; they did not spill, they did not flow. (I complained about this once in a letter to one of my teachers — no flow — who responded: “Good.”) And so I am embarrassed when I encounter a spillage. The loose translation of Pascal we all know and quote, “I have made this letter long only because I have not had the leisure to make it short,” seems right because fast writing begets fast reading. The remark itself is careless (not as aphorism but in context, where it only adds to the letter’s length — if this had been all that Pascal had written, he would have been caught out as disingenuous), begs the reader to take less care in reading.

I want my students slowed. I fantasize often about teaching one story for an entire semester. A single story, read 32 times. It is a fantasy, as yet; I think I could do it with a year long course — the second semester, once I had battered their momentum out of them, they might be ready. In the meantime, I teach the same concepts, over and over, all semester long. I ask the same questions, over and over. Slow. Everything is spectacle until you get to the minutiae.

Mostly it is as reminder, though: I wish that respect upon myself. I am not and never have been fast as a writer. It takes me many drafts to even figure out what is meant, and many more to mean what is meant. And I have visceral reactions to fast writing. It is offensive to me in some way. My time as a reader has not been respected.

[N.B.: I might have written a longer post, but I have not had the leisure to do so– this by way of benison, not apology.]

13 thoughts on “Slow Writing?

  1. I’ve always liked Reuben Brower’s notion of “reading in slow motion” — unlike the more familiar concept of “close reading,” which oddly spatializes the act of reading and interpretation, Brower rightly understands reading within the temporal process.

    I just taught a unit on hypotaxis, subordination, and the periodic sentence — all of which, refreshingly, slow us down as writers.

    I think I will put a moratorium on the word “flow” in my writing workshops…

  2. It’s funny to hear you mention a fantasy of teaching/reading the same story week after week for an entire school term, as this seems the province of the art school, and not too many other institutions, sadly. I say this because I remember getting to grad school, befriending my professor (Stephen Prina), and shortly thereafter hearing about a class that he had taught in the film studies portion of our program. Every week for 12 or 13 weeks, he screened the same film, and every week, there was surely something brand new to consider in the discussion that ensued. Fassbinder is no picnic, despite the fact that I count him among my favorite filmmakers, and watching In a Year of 13 Moons a dozen times in a row through as many weeks must have been leagues beyond “trying” at times; but in my imagination, the payoff always strikes me as having been huge.

    • I feel lucky: adjuncting is the rare opportunity to reread for pay. Every semester, often several times, I read the same stories, and every semester, every reading, it takes me longer to get through them. I’m reading more (I’m reading old notes and taking new ones), but I’m also reading more carefully, by virtue of reading for a reason other than just coming to the end. And yet, with the best of these stories, I feel certain that I will never come into balance with the author, never spend quite as much time reading her words as she spent writing them.

  3. So much of the fast, sloppy writing, to me, seems to be the push to constantly be publishing something. It’s difficult to slow down and give the story the care it needs when your friends on Facebook are talking up their new stories all the time, or fourth book published, or whatever. But for me, writing is all about the writing, so I try not to listen to the noise and just craft, craft, craft.

    • I am as sensitive to that stuff as anyone, Amber; maybe more, given that I am — however timorously — attempting to make a career out of the profession that birthed the awful slogan “publish or perish.” It matters, in the end. But I am (thankfully) hindered in my temporary ambitions by my stubborn, slow nature. I just can’t crank ’em out.

  4. i used to long to be a slow writer. i wanted to languish in a story for weeks rather than a couple days [or for really short things a couple hours]. it never did work, slowing down just clogged me up. so i realized for better or worse i was a fast writer. what i get out of it might not be as good as it should, i don’t know, but that i get something out of it at all has to suffice. [this is maybe a continuation of our brief ‘throw everything at the wall’ conversation.]

    • I think that there is a place for speed in composition, though perhaps that’s not quite what you mean, Joseph. Writing, for me, seems a parallel process to that of reading – the first time through I’m writing only to come to the end, to see what there is. Those first drafts are all legs, though – no head, no heart. And if I leave them at that, there’s really no point in coming back to them as a reader. Once you’ve read it, you’ve read it. (Often they don’t make any sense either.) “First word, best word” might be true for some, but for me it is only the case if I can arrive at it as Joyce does his riverrun, rendered with all of the rest of what comes after in mind. That seldom happens before I’ve seen what comes after.

      So speed, in that sense, is generative. But so is sloth. My most felicitous discoveries generally don’t come until relatively late in the process. Besides, we all only tell of ourselves in everything we write – why not give ourselves a little time to change before beginning again? Or is that too New Age?

  5. Nice one Gabe. There are many examples of slow reading (probably due to slow writing) James, Gass, Gaddis, Hawkes, Davenport…

    I wonder what some examples of fast reading are in terms of literary fiction? Carver would be one…

    • This subject has so many offshoots, doesn’t it?

      Slow reading is certainly necessary with the writers you name, Greg, though here’s a paradox: if you’ve ever had the pleasure of reading truly “fast writing,” you will know that it requires unbearably slow reading. First drafts from beginning writers. Youtube commentscreeds. Amazon reviews. What is meant? What sense do these words have (if any)? I word argue that a Jamesian sentence is a faster read than a majority of the approximately worded, hurried, unthought comments one finds under the articles in any news source on the Internet.

      • Yes, that is amazing. The Jamesian sentence leads one from the darkness into the sun, but the others, assuming the sun is there, reverse the process. The more and more you look, the more charcoal abounds. And seemingly, “fast writing” shows up in the most illustrious magazines:

        “And before I even know it, or can enjoy the new look on Joe’s face, like a blubbery peekaboo face, so surprised, because I’m driving us right toward the vague beige shadow-filled wall, and I can only see and hear Joe for a second, a high-pitched thing that cracks for just a second, and for that second I’m with Joe’s voice on a plateau in the black of space, wherever it is that noise cracks like that and decibels live, and then it’s gone because there’s the metal sound so loud and it’s how I had always planned it to be, crunching, and a jerk and the front of my head is filled with the cold hollow sinus pain, the surprise punch in the nose that takes you back to childhood and there’s an immediate link to every other time you ever had your nose hit, by a ball, by a head, by your own knee, and after the surprise it doesn’t go away; but I’m still there and the tires behind me are screeching because my foot is still on the gas, and the car has gone a ways into the wall but it ain’t going any farther, and I look over at fat shit, and there is blood rolling out of a slice in his forehead, and some blood coming out of his mouth, and I think that it’s from the head gash until I see one of those teeth is now a black gap and he looks like a fat something-awful: hockey-player-pumpkin-cartoon-shithead, and he says,

        “Why the fuck did you do that, Manuel?”

        – this is an excerpt from an Esquire short story

        I know what is going on here (car crash), but incredibly, the writing belies what is going on. The metaphors are dicey. “The black of space” has no thrill. The “ain’t” garbles things further. I know a 100 people have complained about these things…it’s a learning opportunity.

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