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Slow Writing is Good Writing

curious turtle

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.

Beginner Mind

Back when I was teaching full time, I had an open door policy with my students, which meant I always had tissues on hand. I was the go-to professor to cry on.

Once, I sat in my office with a Latina freshman in tears.

“I’m a bad writer,” she said. “I always have been.”

“Why do you say you’re a bad writer?”

“Because all my teachers have told me. I get bad grades, even when I try my hardest. And I just don’t know enough words. Everyone else knows all these words that are perfect, and they know how to use them. Even when I try to use those words, they sound stupid. I sound stupid. Maybe I am stupid. I don’t belong in college.”

Every semester, I had at least a dozen conversations like this: I’m a bad writer. I don’t know how to learn. My vocabulary isn’t big enough. Everyone told me I shouldn’t be here. They were right.

One of the reasons I quit my job as a professor is because I’d seen too many young artists and intellectuals crushed by the U. S. educational system. Too many students who’d been told their whole lives that the way they wrote naturally wasn’t the “right” way, that they were too far behind in English language acquisition to learn. As these students stood on the cusp of adulthood, they were told it was basically too late for them.

I handed my student a tissue and asked, “Do you speak Spanish?”

She nodded.

“At home, do you mostly speak Spanish?”

She nodded again. “My mom doesn’t speak English, so we always speak Spanish at home. I try to teach my little brothers and sisters English, but it’s hard. My dad doesn’t want us to forget Spanish, so he gets mad when we speak English.”

I tapped a finger on the table that separated us. “You know, I don’t speak Spanish.”

She looked at me blankly.

“I have a big English vocabulary because I’ve spent my whole life speaking English, around other people who always spoke English, in schools that only taught in English, except for special ‘foreign’ language classes. You speak Spanish the way I speak English. And on top of that, you speak English well enough to earn a spot in a college-level course. If you and I were to count all the words we know in English and Spanish, chances are, you’d have a bigger vocabulary than I do.”

The tears stopped.

“Quit short-changing yourself,” I said. “Simply by being here, you’ve proven you’re smart. You’re capable. You do have a big vocabulary–you just use words most of your teachers don’t know. You are exactly in the right place to continue adding to your talents, to keep adding English words to your toolbelt. And you can do it.”

Research shows that the way we traditionally teach is most effective for white males. But in my time as a professor, my classrooms had very few white males. My classes were overwhelmingly made up of women, and those women were not usually white.

Furthermore, the way we are taught to write in school–the traditional five paragraph essay that starts with a thesis, and every paragraph starts with a topic sentence and includes hard evidence to support that topic sentence and the thesis, the essay that moves from Point A to Point B to Point C and to a conclusion that must be irrefutable–that is the way white men have historically communicated.

In contrast, the research shows that women and people of color don’t communicate in this linear way. Native Americans, for instance, speak and write in elegant spirals, rather than straight lines, which makes sense when you consider their oral storytelling culture, one rooted in the cycles of nature, of life itself. And yet, many Native Americans end up in special education classes as children, because they speak and write and think in ways that our white male-dominated educational system doesn’t support.

No wonder so many of my students have internalized the message that they are bad writers.

So one of my favorite things I do now is to work–outside of formal education–with emerging writers, and especially writers who have been told they are bad students but have somehow held onto a spark of rebellion that says, You’re wrong. I have a story to tell and a way to tell it that is true to who I am. 

These are my favorite writers. They are tenacious. They are feisty. They have a way of looking at the world and articulating their vision in a way that runs counterpoint to our literary market that is saturated with white, male, middle class, cis perspectives.

Don’t get me wrong. I still have clients I love working with, both experienced and less-experienced, who are white, who are male, who are middle class, who still struggle to birth their own creative work.

What I love is the beginner mind (or shoshin, from Zen Buddhism): the one that doesn’t have to unlearn all the trite lessons we more experienced writers have internalized. They are experimental. They challenge my assumptions. They are open and eager and infectious in their desire to grow.

These are the writers who cultivate my own beginner mind.

100 Important Books

books-1850645_1920Because I’m a passionate reader as well as a professor of English, I’m often asked for book recommendations. I’d venture to say there’s no more difficult question for a bibliophile than, “What’s your favorite book?” This is like asking, “What’s your favorite bone? Which cell in your body is the very best cell?”

Here’s the thing: for readers, books don’t exist in a vacuum. They are part of an ongoing conversation about what it means to be human. We can’t understand Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin without understanding that he’s responding to Native Son by Richard Wright. And we better understand both Native Son and Notes of a Native Son through the lens of Franz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks, written an ocean away. And we can trace Fanon’s ideas back to Karl Marx’s theory of alienation from Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844.

You get the idea. I can do this all day. For readers, it’s hard to untangle this web of ideas.

Recently, I received a more interesting request: to provide a list of books one might read to become more “well read.”

That phrase – “well read” – is problematic because it implies a sense of elitism, and heaven knows we have enough snobby people flouting their Literature, their Classics, their Sacred Immovable Canon, when the books they enshrine are in reality a very narrow slice of humanity – overwhelmingly white, Christian, heterosexual, European or American men.

Still, the question intrigued me, and I dashed off a list of sixty books to him. (Yes, sixty. Sorrynotsorry.) I didn’t spend much time on it because, well, we’re all short on time. But since then, I’ve found myself mulling the list over and over. Did I include enough diversity? Did I worry too much about wide representation and ignore important works by white men?

I decided to revisit this idea: What are the books that, taken together as a conversation, offer a broad understanding of Western and, specifically, American culture? (My list would be too unwieldy if I widened the scope.) What if I could limit that list to 100 books – books that intersect race, gender, religion, class, sexuality, nationality, economics, politics, and – because I’m a geek – toss in a few foundational genre books? What would that list look like?

Here I offer you that list. As any reader knows, a list of books is merely a snapshot in time. My list would have looked very different ten years ago, and will look very different, I’m sure, ten years from now, as I continue to follow the trail of ideas through books. Having said that, as I glance through this list I’m painfully aware of my own biases and gaps in my literary knowledge. I’ve recently realized how woefully under-read I am in Latin American literature (although Sor Juana and Jorge Borges made it to my list), as well as LGBTQIA+ literature (though there are several authors on this list who are representative of the LGBTQIA+ community, and a few texts that explicitly address the LGBTQIA+ experience).

Keep in mind, these aren’t necessarily my favorite books (some are). These are foundational books for achieving a deeper understanding of American culture.

You’ll notice the books are organized in alphabetical order, simply because the task of prioritizing or creating a linear reading list was too daunting.

What would you add to or remove from this list?

  1. 1984, George Orwell
  2. A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories, Flannery O’Connor
  3. A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf
  4. A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold
  5. A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, Yiyun Li
  6. A Wrinkle in Time, Madeleine L’Engle
  7. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Sherman Alexie
  8. The Age of Reason, Thomas Paine
  9. “Ain’t I a Woman?” Sojourner Truth
  10. All About Love: New Visions, bell hooks
  11. American Gods, Neil Gaiman
  12. The Analects, Confucius
  13. Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy
  14. As I Lay Dying, William Faulkner
  15. The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Malcolm X (El-hajj Malik El-Shabazz)
  16. The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath
  17. Beloved, Toni Morrison
  18. Beowulf, translated by Seamus Heaney
  19. Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates
  20. The Bhagavad-Gītā
  21. Brave New World, Aldous Huxley
  22. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Díaz
  23. The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  24. Ceremony, Leslie Marmon Silko
  25. The Christian Bible (New Testament)
  26. The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde, Audre Lorde
  27. The Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx
  28. Crazy Brave, Joy Harjo
  29. Desert Solitaire, Edward Abbey
  30. The Dhammapada
  31. The Dispossessed, Ursula K. LeGuin
  32. Don Quixote, Miguel Cervantes
  33. Dune, Frank Herbert
  34. The Essential Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Ralph Waldo Emerson
  35. Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury
  36. The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan
  37. Ficciones, Jorge Luis Borges
  38. Flight Behavior, Barbara Kingsolver
  39. For Whom the Bell Tolls, Ernest Hemingway
  40. The Foundation Trilogy, Isaac Asimov
  41. Frankenstein, Mary Shelley
  42. Fun Home, Alison Bechdel
  43. The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf, Mohja Kahf
  44. The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck
  45. Great Expectations, Charles Dickens
  46. The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald
  47. The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood
  48. Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad
  49. The Hebrew Bible (Old Testament)
  50. Howl, Allen Ginsberg
  51. Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens)
  52. Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison
  53. Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman
  54. Letters, Christopher Columbus
  55. The Liar’s Club, Mary Karr
  56. Lord of the Flies, William Golding
  57. Lord of the Rings, J. R. R. Tolkien
  58. Madam Bovary, Gustave Flaubert
  59. The Metamorphosis, Franz Kafka
  60. Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides
  61. Moby Dick, Herman Melville
  62. My Antonia, Willa Cather
  63. My Life: Impressions of an Indian Childhood, Zitkala Ša
  64. The Narrative of The Life of Frederick Douglass, Frederick Douglass
  65. Native Son, Richard Wright
  66. Night, Elie Wiesel
  67. Notes of a Native Son, James Baldwin
  68. The Odyssey, Homer
  69. Oedipus, Sophocles
  70. On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin
  71. Paradise Lost, John Milton
  72. The Perks Of Being a Wallflower, Stephen Chbosky
  73. Poems of Emily Dickinson, Emily Dickinson
  74. Poems of Phillis Wheatley, Phillis Wheatley
  75. The Poet’s Answer (La Respuesta), Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz
  76. Politics and Poetics, Aristotle
  77. Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
  78. The Prince, Niccolo Machiavelli
  79. The Qur’an
  80. The Red Badge of Courage, Stephen Crane
  81. The Republic, Plato
  82. The Round House, Louise Erdrich
  83. Silent Spring, Rachel Carson
  84. Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut
  85. Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Joan Didion
  86. Solar Storms, Linda Hogan
  87. The Souls of Black Folk, W. E. B. DuBois
  88. Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston
  89. Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe
  90. To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
  91. Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe (read alongside James Baldwin’s essay, “Everybody’s Protest Novel” to understand the underlying racism of the text)
  92. The Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Mary Wollstonecraft
  93. The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith
  94. What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, Raymond Carver
  95. White Noise, Don DeLillo
  96. White Teeth, Zadie Smith
  97. The Woman Warrior, Maxine Hong Kingston
  98. Women in the Nineteenth Century, Margaret Fuller
  99. The Works of William Shakespeare
    • Comedy: The Tempest
    • History: Henry V
    • Tragedy: King Lear
  100. The Yellow Wallpaper, Charlotte Perkins