Slow Writing

Our lives are busy and they’re just getting busier. We’re desperate for tips about time management, scheduling, prioritisation and optimisation. We want life hacks and shortcuts. Technology has eliminated some of the tedious domestic tasks that consumed our time and zapped our energy, yet we’re still complaining about being time poor and exhausted.

These days, we expect more from life and ourselves.

Ironically, we have technology to thank for this. Polished images of highly productive people followed by #hustle fill our social media feeds. The subliminal message beneath these post is that a busy person is an important person. Of course, the shrinking job market, the increased casualization of work and the depletion of entire industries isn’t helping. With Baby boomers understandably stalling their retirement plans, mid-level personnel are unable to move into management positions and low-level workers are unable to take on more responsibility (or worse, they take on mid-level workloads, but without the title or pay). That means entry-level jobs are scares and competition is fierce. If you want the job, you have to go above and beyond.

That being said, we’re all very aware that “job security” is a thing of the past. The idea of limiting oneself to a single stream of income and to one employer is borderline irresponsible. We need to have side hustles, multiple streams of income, passive income and investments. We need to take control of our financial security and our careers instead of giving that control to corporations (who have their own interests).

This has resulted in a boom in online businesses and creative entrepreneurs. With so much uncertainty in the world, we’re desperate to carve out something stable and the clock is ticking. We need to “make it” before they do; before someone steals our idea or the market become saturated. We need to go, go, go and produce, produce, produce in the hopes that we are going somewhere and that we are producing something of value.

If you’re a creative, then this approach can be rather distressing.

Time management, tight scheduling, deadlines and optimisation tactics are…problematic… because there is nothing efficient about creating art. Don’t get me wrong, I keep a weekly schedule because I want to make time for the things that are important to me, like writing, work, study, exercise and free time. I also manage my time by keeping an eye on deadlines, and I maintain particular habits that increase my productivity.

I create timetables and outlines, but I hold these maps lightly. I listen to the recommendations of other hikers, especially those who have travelled to where I want to go! I follow small urges to wander down goat tracks in the hope that it will lead to a spectacular view. Sometimes it does. Sometimes I collide with a giant boulder. Good art doesn’t have to take a long time, but it often does.

We rush to get things done and I am no exception. If there’s a way to shortcut a recipe, send one email instead of fifteen or to coordinate my errands so that I am not backtracking all over town, then I will do that.

But art is slow, or at least my art is.

Writing is an act of perseverance and constant dissatisfaction. It takes me a long time to put together a short story, novella or even an academic essay. Although I conduct research and complete outlines before I start writing, I don’t really know what I am doing or what I am thinking until I’m actively engaging with the project. People may not think that writing is a tactile act, but it is. Although I outline my stories and plan my assignments, I can’t really “see” the work during this stage. I have a sense of what it is I want to accomplish and that feeling tows me forward, guiding me towards the watery image in my mind’s eye. It is through the act of writing that this image gathers shape. It is given a body, and consequently, a will of its own.

You must hold an outline lightly because a story can have its own motivations. Some authors work tediously on an outline that they then follow to a tee, others may mentally map out their entire plot ahead of time so that their writing sessions feel more like dictation rather than creation.

Personally, I maintain a working outline, conduct research and craft character profiles and I start each session with a five-minute mini-outline where I figure out what it is I’m going to write during that session. If you were to compare this mini-outline to the final product, you may not see the connection. The story has a form and a will of its own, but it is only through the act of writing that I can feel, see and hear it. The practice of outlining may seem pointless given my tendency to follow the story’s lead, but I continue this habit because it’s a way to orientate myself and the hardest part of writing is starting.

I am a slow thinker. I need time to ponder and to tinker with the work because clean poetic prose does not come easily for me.

I work slowly.

I revise in layers where each revision has a specific purpose. In terms of creative writing, a first draft is primarily concerned with plot. What are the story beats? What is happening here, to who and why? Later revisions will focus on character, mood, theme and voice or broad concern such as structure, tension and pace.

I write first drafts fast, because I want to get the story out. I need to see the shape of it before I can start refining. During this stage, I’ll typically write 1000 words an hour. During later revisions, however, I can easily spend an hour perfecting a 100-word paragraph. A paragraph that in a later revision may be reduced to 20 words or deleted entirely. Like I said, there is nothing efficient about creating art. At this stage of the revision process, I do not measure the success of a writing session by its word count or hours spent, but by my ability to say yes to the following three questions: did I make progress today? Did the manuscript improve? Did I write something that felt real?

I am comfortable with the fact that this part of the writing process is slow because there are few areas in life where we allow ourselves to be slow. Of course, the practice of slow writing is at odds with the current work culture where we are told to squeeze the life out of every minute and to produce more content in less time. A culture where we are told it is dangerous to be slow, because we may be left behind.

Slow writing is a luxury and I am not willing to give it up.

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