From the time we’re small children, it seems that someone is always urging us to hurry up, to not
|Photo by Cleo Sanda|
When I began to write professionally, I found myself juggling motherhood, a day job career, and the inner-driven need to set down the stories in my head. Writing time was precious and all too scant, and I had much to learn about the craft. My initial style involved “pantsing” (writing “by the seat of your pants”) or, as I put it, “taking a flying leap off the edge of reality, ” and then revising, revising, revising. As a consequence of this and the limited, fractured time periods available to me, my stories progressed slowly. I remember meeting a certain published author at one of my first convention, who breezily talked about how he never revised, he sold his first draft novels, and he produced three or four of them every year. I cringed to think of my one or two short stories and maybe one novel draft in that same time period (keeping in mind that I needed three or four – or more! – revision drafts). Was this what professional writers did? I wondered. And how was I ever going to produce that much, that fast, and of that professional quality?
(As a slightly smirky footnote, I have no idea what happened to that writer. I haven’t seen the byline in decades, so maybe that strategy wasn’t so successful after all. Or the name might have been changed, as so often happens. Me, I have four traditionally-published novels and an ebook short fiction collection coming out this year.)
To my great good fortune, I also encountered writers who had learned to listen to their own creative rhythms and understood that getting the story right trumped getting it fast. These were not writers who use “I listen to my inner muse” as an excuse for not writing, or who polish endlessly and never submit their work. These were professional, published authors. Some of them sold many books and others only a few. Not all were genre writers, but all prized their craft. I met writers who considered a day successful if they got a single paragraph exactly the way they wanted it; others measured their daily productivity by hours spent or pages finished. They opened my eyes to many possibilities for measuring progress besides how fast I could turn out a manuscript.
As it turns out, I found that different stages of a story call for different speeds. I work best when I draft quickly from outline and then revise slowly. I give myself permission at all stages to take a break and think about a “stuck place” (whether that is a block in the sense of “I have no idea what comes next” or just a niggling feeling that something isn’t right). I go for a walk, I clean house, or I pick up the phone and chat with a friend about something utterly unrelated to writing. When I’m willing to do this, I end up in fewer dead ends, I need fewer subsequent drafts, and I’m more in touch with the internal fabric of the story.
All this has a great deal to do with observing and accepting my own creative rhythms, but also with patience. Patience loops the topic back to my opening, which is how we find our way back being fully present with what is unfolding at the present moment and at a pace too often at odds with the regimented, overcommitted, multi-tasking, hurried expectations around us (not to mention the financial pressures for a working writer to produce so many books a year). It’s all very well to recite slogans like, “Stop And Smell The Roses,” and quite another to shield ourselves from those expectations.
I’ve been blessed with several Teachers of Patience and I’m trying to take what I have learned from them and apply it to my work. One of my most significant teachers was an elderly Quaker woman, who welcomed me when my husband and I began attending the local Meeting. She and I had many wonderful conversations before she died a few years ago, some at Meeting or the monthly potlucks, others at our lunch dates. She walked very slowly due to various medical conditions, but I quickly realized how important it was to accord her the dignity of doing what she could, of being autonomous. She did need my help from time to time, with opening doors and such, and she taught me ways of offering or responding that maintained that relationship of respect. It became a spiritual exercise to adjust my own walking speed to hers, to hold the door for as long as she needed, to move with her as if in a slow-motion dance. Adagio, not Presto. So much of the joy of writing is discovering new experiences, new points of view, stories told by characters who are not like us and who live in worlds not like our own. Here was a precious chance to experience living at a different pace.
Now I am staying with my best friend during the final weeks of her life. She, too, is moving slowly, more slowly with each passing day as her body winds down. I watch her savoring every moment, paying attention to her strength, which varies from day to day but it never what it was when she was healthy. Slow means taking the time to be as fully alive and present as possible. Slow means reordering priorities (eating dessert first, as it were, choosing only the most precious things to spend waning energy on). Slow means savoring the meadow at sunset, perhaps with a cup of hot chocolate and a dear friend.
Take your time; there’s no need to hurry.