The Thing That Happens When You Slow Down



Natalie Goldberg and James Altucher both advocate the usefulness of stealing other folk’s work. Both prolific (and very public) writers, you would think they would be trying to keep their noses clean! It’s not quiet what you think, though.

Goldberg and Altucher advise that wanna-be authors perform the following exercise: take a book (preferably one you like/admire), sit down and copy the text word for word in your own hand.

Now, you are not mindlessly re-writing the words so your monkey mind can start thinking about your grocery list or whether the prices of fuel are going to increase again this week. No. You are going to pay careful, mindful attention to the words.

All of them.

I performed said exercise. Using a paragraph from a much read and beloved novel, The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett. I’ve re-read this particular passage, which opens the epic, countless times. I have never however, analysed it. Never slowed down and thought about why did Follett pick these words? or How does he draw us into this world so quickly?

Here’s the paragraph in question, with particular words of interest highlighted.

It was still dark when the first three or four of them sidled out of the hovels, quiet as cats in their felt boots. A thin layer of fresh snow covered the little town like a new coat of paint, and theirs were the first footprints to blemish its perfect surface. They picked their way through the huddled wood huts and along the streets of frozen mud to the silent market-place, where the gallows stood waiting.

(Follett, K (1989) The Pillars of the Earth. Macmillian, London, pg. 3.)

Follett sneaks in common adjectives such as thin, fresh and little to describe the scene without slowing down the action. Giving the illusion of ease, Follett has cleverly started to build his world for the reader. The use of colourful verbs blemish and picked, add….well…..colour…. just as the two similes quiet as cats and new coat of paint assist our imaginations and draw us into the scene. I found the phrase frozen mud to be particularly interesting. Follett could have just said mud but, by adding the adjective frozen, he is instead emphasis that it is newly winter. Is this perhaps hinting at a theme for the overall novel? Or, is it acting as a metaphor for the ‘cold blooded’ scene likely to take place at the gallows?

The passage is 76 words. My brief analysis was 139.

You may not have the personal desire to write, so you may think this exercise useless. But, by taking the time to slow down, pay attention, to really read the words; you may add a new richness to the familiar, well battered, words of your favourite novels.

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