In college I spent an entire day composing a short story in a computer lab. Hours. Without moving. It was the final assignment for my fiction writing class. And I’d assumed that a full day of writing was plenty of time to pen a short story. I already had an idea of my topic. I’m sure I’d made a few notes. And it was only about 15 pages.
I had no clue how writers really work.
A lot of us don’t. As Louise DeSalvo writes in her book The Art of Slow Writing: Reflections on Time, Craft and Creativity, “My students are often stunned to learn that famous writers revise more and take longer to complete their works than my students think necessary.”
For instance, according to DeSalvo, Ernest Hemingway wrote about 47 different endings for A Farewell to Arms. Pulitzer-prize winner Michael Chabon took almost five years to finish his novel Telegraph Avenue. Zadie Smith spent almost two years reworking the first 25 pages of her novel On Beauty. Her 2012 novel NW took eight years to complete.
In How to Fly a Horse: The Secret History of Creation, Invention and Discovery Kevin Ashton writes that Wassily “Kandinsky spent five months planning every stroke of his apparently spontaneous painting and years developing the method and theory that took him to it.” In one sketch he created 20 different versions of one symbol — the “troika,” a sled with three horses used by Russians to represent the country’s divinity.
DeSalvo has found that the most successful writers think about their process and reflect on their work. That is, they engage in slow writing.
She describes slow writing as “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.”
Slowing down helps us understand our process — whether we’re writing, painting, sewing, singing, dancing, drawing, designing. It helps us understand ourselves. It helps us self-reflect. “It’s one way to find — or return to — our authentic selves,” DeSalvo writes.
This isn’t easy to do in a society that has a need for speed. But it is important.
DeSalvo includes a helpful tool in her book, which supports slow writing. And I think it can support slowing down with any activity you’re engaging in, any project you’re pursuing, anything you’re trying to work out and through. It’s keeping a “process journal.” DeSalvo says it’s one of the most important items in her writer’s toolbox. She first learned about this kind of journal when she saw Sue Grafton speak. Grafton is the author of the Kinsey Millhone mysteries. DeSalvo describes how Grafton uses a process journal:
Grafton keeps a separate journal for each novel; they’re about four times longer than the novel itself. She writes an entry each day before she begins work. She records her feelings — especially if she’s anxious — so they won’t interfere with her day’s work, a brief account of daily events, helpful dreams, ideas about the direction her work might take.
The journal stands as a record of the conversation she has with herself about the work in progress. She describes what’s troublesome in a scene, a puzzle she can’t solve, lines she’s imagined but doesn’t know how to use, snippets of dialogue. Grafton maintains that every solution to her work’s challenges occurs, not when she’s composing, but in her writer’s journal. There, she steps back and reflects upon her work; there, she articulates problems and solves them.
DeSalvo uses her journal for everything from planning out a project to listing books she wants to read to sketching scenes to reflecting on what’s working and what isn’t. It helps her spot patterns in her process, learning how she writes, learning that her sudden insights really occur gradually, learning that she ruminates about abandoning projects before she figures out a book’s structure.
Both Grafton and DeSalvo keep their process journals on the computer, which makes it easier to transfer material and search for specific notes.
According to DeSalvo, a process journal is “where we engage in the nonjudgmental, reflective witnessing of our work.” I love that.
And here’s the great thing about slowing down with any project you’re pursuing: The wisdom we gain from witnessing our work (whatever it is), spills over into other parts of our lives. We learn valuable lessons about ourselves, about what matters to us, about what we need, about what’s challenging, about how we learn, about what we still need to learn.
As coach and blogger Sas Petherick says, “How we do anything is how we do everything” (which I talked about in this post). In most cases, how we do one activity is how we do life.
No writing is a waste of time, according to DeSalvo. And I think the same is true for self-reflection, time with ourselves, and time to pursue our passions. All of this is worthwhile. All of it is important.