Usually after a few coaching sessions, clients start opening up about their dirty little writing secrets. Most of these confessions are fairly – even universally – common, but at some point, most writers will drop their eyes and say, “I’m a really slow writer. It takes me forever to get a chapter [or scene or story or essay] done.”
And then they look at me, stricken, like I’m going to tell them that’s it – stop right there! – you are not a real writer if you can’t pound out 1500 words a day.
We’re a culture that values speed. If you can speed it up – the internet, your metabolism, your multitasking rate, even your sleep – it’s got to be better. Right? But here’s the thing: the writing life is decidedly counter-culture. We spend much of our careers unlearning the messages we grew up with. The value of speed is one of those.
Mary Oliver once said,
Instructions for living a life. Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.
Not only does her advice lead to a rich and full life, it’s also the Golden Rule for writers. Paying attention takes time. Attention that is focused enough to birth astonishment takes even more time. And the telling! Honoring your wonder, your bewilderment, your gratitude, your fear, and your hopes in the human condition takes careful, painstaking time.
Our job as writers is to do life justice, to honor our joy and our suffering, our questions and our million billion sensory experiences that shape an hour, a day, a year. If we’re plowing through this telling at 1500 words a day, that should be a red flag.
So I tell each of these shamefaced clients, “You are a good writer because you are slow.” And I believe it.
Taking your time means you are invested in the power of the story you’re telling and care about the way you are telling it. Slow writing also respects the reader and her experience with your story.
In his memoir, On Writing, Stephen King says his daily goal is 2000 words a day, and too many readers have fallen prey to holding themselves to a similar standard. To be successful, they think, they should be cranking out those pages – ten pages, every day. Mary Shelley wrote her masterpiece, Frankenstein, in a month on the shores of Lake Geneva. A Clockwork Orange, As a I Lay Dying, and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie were all written in fewer than six weeks. But these examples are famous because they are exceptional.
The writing community is just coming off the high of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), for which the goal is to write a 50,000-word book in the span of one month. Although a handful of successful books began as NaNoWriMo projects (Like Water for Chocolate, The Night Circus, and The Forest of Hands and Teeth come to mind) the amount of good writing, or even financially successful writing, that comes from November is dismally low. Why? Because good writing is slow writing.
I usually dissuade my clients from participating in the formal structure of NaNoWriMo. What I like about the yearly tradition is that it can be a way to work through writer’s block, to get jazzed about your writing, to build community, and to reinforce a regular writing habit. But 50,000 words in a month? No. Just, no. Anyone can put word after word after word in a file. Hold yourself to a higher standard. You’re worth it, and your story is worth it.
According to legend, James Joyce was thrilled if he wrote two sentences a day. If you’ve ever picked up his book, Ulysses, it’s staggering to think he wrote the whole thing at all, but more importantly, that he wrote it (supposedly) two sentences at a time.
I’ve long given up on lofty word count goals. Instead, I measure the productivity of my day against Mary Oliver’s standard. Did I pay attention? Did I allow myself to be astonished? Was I deeply, thoughtfully, humbly intentional about how I communicated that astonishment? Do I respect my reader enough to slow down and get it right? Do I respect myself, as a writer, enough to get it right? This is not a very quantifiable gauge, to be sure, but art isn’t particularly quantifiable.
In her book on writing, Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott says,
Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write. It was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”
Slow down. Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it, bird by bird, word by careful word.