slow writing

Sit under your novel in progress, lessons from motherhood

As I mother of four I am very familiar with having to wait, to rein in speed and impetus and to go very slowly or not at all while being present for my children in some way or another. Walking with a toddler or even my 5 year old now there is more standing than proceeding, where special things such as pebbledash walls and ‘baby leaves’ need to be examined, legs are short and cannot do distances at speed. I take a step forward but my stride is too long, I stop, I wait. These days we might be on the school ‘run’ and I can feel frustrated at my lack of progress with the 5 year old as I watch my older children stride ahead of us down the hill. I remember breastfeeding in particular (since only the mother can do it) as one of those experiences where it was  a question of sitting under the infant for long swathes of time (perhaps up to an hour) at each feed and all thoughts of being elsewhere or achieving tasks of any kind needed to be put aside. Right through pregnancy and right up to the late toddler years there are physical restraints, whether it’s a cumbersome body or trying to negotiate a pushchair in the town. There are things that young mothers miss; having their arms loose as they walk, walking straight out of a house without first cajoling an army, getting into a car and just driving without negotiating with a plethora of awkward straps and resistant toddlers.

This society is geared up for achievement, for awards, for the spectacular rather than ordinary mundane heroics. As writers now we need to be everywhere, building a platform, marketing ourselves, we need to keep up a presence and be productive. But what we keep needing to be reminded is that the occasions when we need to stop, sit under our book and it’s themes for a while are absolutely necessary and valuable and part of the process.

I’ve talk around this before, about how Kirsty Gunn spent seven years on her book, about incubation, the benefits of walking for creativity and so on. I’m thinking about it now as I’m looking at how I go about writing books, how expression and structure interplay, how the first excitement of an idea needs to be followed by thought and observation.

I’ll add more specifics of my own current experiences with a new project in a further post but what I will say in general is that if you come to an impasse at any stage of a project, don’t let your lack of progress dismay you, first, just sit and wait, follow your train of thought, read more things that are tangential to your work, look out the window, spend the necessary time, as this beautiful post by Kim Triedman explores, staring at trees to live ‘on both sides of the brain’.

The  children grow up in time, and your novel will too, there will be less need for stopping but the stopping has given you greater insight, added a whole new depth and dimension. Never apologise for your lack of speed.

(By the way, if any of you have joined us for the #15KinMay (which is a very reasonable/non manic wordcount target) I have now reached 10K words but many, many of these are not sections of the book per se but thoughts on what the book is. Many writers, including Irish writer Claire Kilroy who I spoke to at a writing event, say that they write many many thousands of words beyond what is required, including notes of all kinds, then they extricate the story afterwards, many of you are more methodical than that but we all need to find our own way.)

Taking the time for the book you want to write

Today I’ve written an article including some Tolstoy quotes sent to me by a writer friend, exploring how to really take the time we need to write the book we really want to write. I talk about incubation, deep reading, George Saunders’ view that this slow writing demands a greater focus and integrity than our quick flit modern world encourages as well as the music and resonance of Kirsty Gunn’s ‘masterpiece’ The Big Music. I also consider two possible approaches in publishing – that of the set brand (with thanks to Elizabeth’s Baines) versus the writer as developing artist. Here’s an extract

We’ve talked before about the importance of incubation, giving time to a project to let disparate ideas coalesce into something whole, layered and original. The first Tolstoy quote says:

Truth, like gold, is to be obtained not by its growth, but by washing away from it all that is not gold.

We start out with a wealth of ideas and associations, everything is fascinating but making good story often means finding a true and strong thread through those ideas. Like panning for gold or, as my friend said ‘digging and digging before washing’ to ‘string together nuggets’. An artist friend of mine advised me with my own work on The Book of Remembered Possibilities to take it and ‘shake out the detritus of work progress,’ until I could see clearly it’s ‘colour and shape’ and clear away more until “the beat , the rhyme and reason, the poetry is plain.”

George Saunders in this excellent article talks about writing, about how new devices have had a neurological effect that makes the mind leap from one thing to another, become discontent faster. He talks about how writing faster, working on a number of things such as screenplays, travel journalism etc as well as touring, doing TV shows began to make him feel ‘quesy’. Not that he was denigrating those activities but “I really craved the feeling of deep focus and integrity that comes with writing fiction day after day, in a sort of monastic way.” He adds ‘And twitter doesn’t come into that’.

You can read the whole article here and I hope you comment here or there to tell me what your thoughts are. I’m not advocating an arduously slow approach for every project, rather suggesting that where space, time, ambition and courage are required, we need to find ways of holding onto those to maintain the integrity of the project.

Don’t Panic: Slow writing in the new publishing landscape

Many movements have taken on the concept of slow, the most prominent being the Slow Food movement. The idea of slow is to take more time, to deliberate more, to savour, to give depths to moments of endeavour and enjoyment. This idea has much in common with the concept of mindfulness, an attentive awareness of experiences in the present moment, a concept that is rooted in the Buddhist tradition and a technique that is being used more and more in alleviating mental health issues.

In many ways mindfulness and the concept of slow is the opposite of panic and the manic. James Gleick’s book Faster explores the science and issues around our perception of time and it’s lack. I’m of an age and background where I once lived a slow life (sometimes too slow!) and am now embracing the fast technologies and communication methods of this technological era. My children don’t know any different, sometimes I need to help them be bored.

How does this relate to writing? Well I must admit I’m writing this as a backlash to a rather frenetic week following the online launch of my book. I’ve become aware of some of the realities of what’s going on in the self-publishing world but also in the traditional publishing arena as well. There seems to be this push in certain quarters in order to make a ‘success’ of self-publishing to suggest that we need to be churning out several books a year. Similarly I read of a high profile thriller writer who is a marketing entity with co-authors who write many of the books. Perhaps I shouldn’t jump the other way. It’s one way of doing things and many people get pleasure from these series of books. My other experience of fast was that of KDP Select free days where self-published writers vye, giving their book away for free to get into the top rankings on Amazon in order to gain visibility and sales. It all seems a bit manic and crazy although it has been successful for some.

I don’t want to be naïve but on a personal level I want to write books that are layered and well thought out. I want to develop trust with my readers and offer them quality and an enduring experience when they read my books. I am short of time like everyone. I have a young family and constant interruptions of the kind of slow musings that are necessary to make original connections and find new ways of saying old things. But I want to try. I want to stop and make time for research. I want to let books simmer over years until I’ve found the right way of saying something. This balanced with the knowledge that sometimes you need to start writing to find a way into a piece and this tempered with the reality that you need to write regularly just to practise and to give yourself the clay to work with. It’s all about that balance. If feeling panicked and under pressure, particularly when you see the achievements of others, that is just the time to stop and wait and find out what you really want to write, not what you should write. By forcing and pushing we can end up hating our writing and the book we are working on. It’s our mind’s way of telling us that we need more time to dwell and deliberate. Maybe it means we wait before we send off our manuscripts and we can look one more time on the finished product with clarity and this is particularly important when self-publishing. Not just anything will do. Even if we hire an editor we may not get the same heavy level of editor involvement in our product, we need to go slowly to get it right.

This is the first of a series I’ll write about slow. And in doing so I’ll also celebrate the fast, the quick connections, the times when we can find fast answers when we need them, check in with other writers on Twitter for a quick motivation fix. But I want to find a way to get the panic out of writing in this publishing landscape that is new and challenging. I want to find ways that quality can prevail and ways that the writer can stay sane as they pursue the endeavour they love.