August | Slow | A Lesson by Jennifer Batchelor
Can I confess something to you? I feel like we’re friends and this is a safe place, so here’s the deal: I’m terrible at slow.
(You are feeling confident in my abilities to lead this lesson already, aren’t you?)
I drive fast, eat fast, and talk fast. I’m happiest working on about 10 different things at any given time, and the hardest adjustment for me going from college to working full time (aside from giving up those afternoon naps) was learning how to stretch my work to fill a full 40 hours. Turns out, they don’t let you leave early if you cross off everything on your to-do list by 2 p.m. on Wednesday.
Because the universe is hilarious, I married a man who is my opposite in nearly every way. My husband, Jon, feels strongly that “thorough” is the only way to do any project properly. Ladies, after eight years of marriage I can tell you that thorough is just another word for slow.
When we bought our first house together shortly after getting married, we had to repaint every room. I would paint three walls (and trim them) in the time Jon would painstakingly cover one. I can clean the whole house in the time it takes Jon to clean one bathroom. There was a time when this made me roll my eyes. I’m even ashamed to say that I poked fun at his slowness, smugly superior in my efficiency. That is, until I realized something.
Sometimes, Jon’s way was better. While you might not want to inspect my baseboards and room corners too closely, you could eat dinner off the floor of the bathroom Jon cleaned. And those walls that I painted might look fine at first glance, but upon closer inspection you’ll see flecks of paint on the floor, where I rolled the paint on too quickly and thickly, causing droplets to land below. The area around Jon’s painted wall? Meticulous, of course.
I’m not sure why a sense of urgency feels so .... necessary to me. I suspect a therapist would point to underlying issues of self-doubt and insecurity. I rush because I think the faster I move, the more important the task (and thus, I) becomes. I equate speed with value, pointing to my bristling sense of efficiency as proof of how invested I am in the outcome.
My children are six and three, which means they are well-versed in taking their sweet time to accomplish the most menial tasks. We need to be out the door in five minutes? I guarantee my daughter is going to insist on picking out her own clothes and will deliberate endlessly over which outfit she wants to wear. My son can turn eating dinner into an hour-long event. As you can imagine, the words “hurry up!” “let’s go!” and “I MEAN it, we need to go NOW!” fly from my lips countless times a day, usually in increasing volume and intensity. My role in our family is to be the Keeper of the Time. Sometimes, that’s useful (like if we need to catch a flight at the airport). But sometimes?
I hate it.
My need for efficiency has ruined enjoying many, many moments. The rest of my family likes to take their sweet time discovering the world around them, and, although I’m still reluctant to admit it sometimes, I think they’re onto something.
Going slow forces my full attention to the task at hand. When I rush through dinner, sometimes I can finish the meal and realize I have no idea if I even liked what I just ate. If I take my time and really savor the bites though, dinner goes from a task to an experience.
The same is true about writing slow.
There was a time when I would only write when inspiration struck. I had my own blog (with exactly 47 followers), and no set publishing routine, so I wrote when I felt like it. I would feel inspired, type out a full essay, give it a quick and cursory glance-over for typos and then hit post. “Done is better than perfect,” became my mantra.
The result was that my posts were infrequent. And also? They weren’t all that good.
Oh, sometimes they were. Every once in awhile I’d catch lightning in a bottle and write something so well that I could go back weeks, months, or even years later and still love what I wrote. But mostly, I can’t go back and read them anymore, because I see too many things I’d like to change.
This made me believe that I wasn’t a very good writer. I thought if I couldn’t write something perfectly on the first attempt, then it wasn’t worth writing at all. I believed all other writers sat down and wrote exactly what they wanted to say in the words they wanted to say it in on their very first pass. I realize how silly that sounds now, but I had honestly never looked at writing as a process before. I thought it was a gift; you either had it or you didn’t.
I participated in the first Coffee + Crumbs Known Workshop last year. It was a wonderful experience for a lot of reasons, but one of my absolute favorite parts was when Anna Jordan shared one of her essays in the editing process. I love Anna’s writing; her imagery is evocative and her word choice is always exactly on point. I was certain her essays started out pretty much perfectly and all she did was move around some punctuation during editing.
But guess what? Even for someone as talented as Anna, it doesn’t work that way. Her editing process showed entire paragraphs cut and swapped out. She reworked her introduction completely between the first draft and last and got some input on the conclusion. The best part though? She didn’t let the pressure of getting it perfect the first time stop her from starting to write. She opened my eyes to the world of the shitty first draft.
The shitty first draft (SFD has become our shorthand on the C+C team) is where you just get your thoughts down on paper. Your dialogue might be clunky and your paragraphs might not flow. You might literally type the words “blah, blah, blah” in places, because you know you want to go back and add more to that spot, but you’re not sure exactly what yet. You may add comments that you want to change the wording or look up a synonym or two because you used the word “excited” three times in the same paragraph.
The shitty first draft is about the process, not the product. It’s about the discipline of putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard, as your preferences may be). It’s committing yourself to several rounds of editing and even inviting feedback from others on places where you’re stuck. It takes both humility (to ask for help) and grace (to accept edits and suggested changes). The best part? It pushes writing from a solitary act to one that needs a community. My favorite part of being on the C+C team—aside from working and writing alongside these 11 amazing women—is the availability of well-thought, spot-on editing.
By its very nature, SFD writing can be slow-going, though. This will feel comfortable for some of you, but my fellow Keepers of the Time may have a hard time adjusting. You won’t finish an essay in a day, which means there is no immediate gratification. You will get frustrated, and you’ll probably complain at least once that you are officially the worst writer ever.
Writing the shitty first draft is like mining for gold. It requires more patience than skill. Oh sure, you need to pick the right spot and be prepared with the right tools, but it’s really just a matter of having the time to sift through a whole bunch of ordinary rocks to uncover the nuggets of gold. Sometimes, you get lucky and it’s an easy route to treasure. Sometimes it’s hard enough and tedious enough to make you curse the day you took up gold-mining.
The secret lies in understanding that your frustration is a universal emotion. You’re not the first writer to stare, uninspired, at a blinking cursor on a white screen, and you won’t be the last, either. What separates the good writers from the rest? Writing anyway. Commit to the practice, and trust that if you keep showing up, eventually the right words will find their way onto the page.
Talent isn’t always what makes a writer a writer. Persistence is.
“Getting completely lost, coming unstrung and unbound, arriving at unknown and unexpected places, is, for me, a critical part of writing.” - Louise DeSalvo
our favorite editing tips + tricks
First things first, click here to download the
Coffee + Crumbs editing guide!
Next, revisit one of the essays you wrote earlier this year with fresh eyes. Edit it using some of the suggestions in this month’s editing guide. You’ll cut clunky, heavy prose, but you’ll also have to kill a few darlings. Here’s a secret though: I never really kill my darlings. I recycle them. If I really love a sentence or paragraph or anecdote, I move it to a new document and save it to work with later. Set up your own "Save the Darlings" file this month, so you can keep the good stuff even when it doesn’t fit.
If you’re usually a speed-writer, commit yourself to writing slowly this month. Start your essay on August 1, and edit and revise it until August 31. If it helps, here’s a process that Anna Jordan uses with her writing students to get you started:
1. Write a long, fat draft. Don't overly edit yourself, just write like you always write.
2. Once you've finished that draft, scale it back to one page. Cut out everything that isn't completely necessary. This isn't a summary. It's literally a single page essay.
3. Cut that single page down to a single paragraph. Again, this is not a summary. You can save the sentences you love and keep that funny anecdote—whatever you think is *critical* stays.
4. Cut it down to a single sentence. One shining, beautiful sentence. This sentence is the point of the entire essay.
5. Rewrite the entire essay using that sentence as the launching point. Now, I've had students use their single page as their launching point, too—they add a few extra paragraphs here and there to flesh it out—but basically you're going to scrap that fat draft in its entirety. However, even if you're totally in love with your single page essay, you should still cut it all the way down to the sentence. It's always good to practice killing your darlings. The point here is really to figure out exactly what you want to say. It may be quite different than what you set out to say, and I think that's good. I think writing tends to feel heavy-handed when we enter into it with a *BIG GOAL.* Let the writing lead you.
everyone starts with a shitty first draft (even us!)
Mad props to Anna Jordan, who is not only sharing screenshots of her shitty first draft and editing process, but volunteered to talk us through it over video! The password is yocslow.
Children are often the best instructors in the beauty of going slow. So, spend a day moving at your children’s pace. Let them choose the day’s activities and how long is spent on each one. Put away your phone, and try to observe things from their vantage point. Journal about what happens when you abandon the phrases “hurry up!” and “let’s go!” for one 12-hour period.
Find some solo time in the car, and take a nearby scenic route. If you’re an overachiever, create a playlist just for this drive. Stop frequently (and safely) and snap some pictures. Immerse yourself in the experience of driving the route, and not in where you’re going. Journal about what it feels like to drive for no reason other than to enjoy it. Did you like it? Feel like you were wasting time?
Build a Spotify playlist. It can be for anything: running, cleaning the house, writing, calming your kids in the car. Take your time and try to build a mood with your song choices. There are only two rules: it must have at least 20 songs and it must be something you love. If you want, share your playlist with everyone else in the Facebook group. Here’s my work playlist, as an idea to get you started.
One of the most natural places to slow down can be in the kitchen. Baking bread is a notoriously slow process—kneading, letting the bread rise, punching it down, then letting it rise again. Try your hand at this Rustic Rosemary Garlic Bread recipe (a good option even for beginner bakers).
Artist Interview With Louise DeSalvo
Not only are you a writer yourself, but as a professor you are also actively helping others develop their creativity. What’s your favorite lesson to teach and why?
I am now retired, though I lead a group of women writers. But I always loved to do the following. I'd tell the writers I worked with to write freely for ten minutes, then to count the number of words that they wrote during that time and to write that number down. I'd ask them what they learned. And most were stunned at how much you can write in a short period of time and they learned that if they write consistently even if for short periods, they will eventually accumulate enough material to work on in a serious way. Next I ask them how much they think Virginia Woolf wrote in one of her two or three hour writing sessions and to write that number down. I then read them what she wrote during one writing period. I forget the exact number of words, now--I describe this in The Art of Slow Writing--but it's something like 500 or so--they are startled that a writer working at the height of her powers worked so slowly. I then ask them to compare how much they wrote to what she wrote and to think about the lessons learned from the exercise.
In your most full or challenging seasons, how have you still managed to create? What have those seasons looked like?
Throughout my life, I have broken a leg (required a few operations), a foot, had disabling asthma for years, several rounds of very serious Lyme Disease requiring IV antibiotics, breast cancer, and now, metastatic breast cancer (both requiring chemotherapy with all its attendant side effects). Continuing to write through all these challenges to the extent that I could has always been a goal of mine though, of course, the more serious the illness, the more difficult it is. And the one I have now isn't going away. In fact, I have been ill in one way or another for the majority of my writing life. I have a timer that I use. And I tell myself that if I can write for 25 minutes I'll consider it a successful day. I learned about the 25-minute goal when I read about the Pomodoro method--you work for 25 minutes, setting a timer, then you take 5 minutes off. After a certain number of sessions you take more time off. (There are online descriptions of this.) I find that if I commit to just one session a day I'll often do more. And when I do even one, I feel proud. Continuing to write through illness helps the immune system, I know. I have always meditated, written journal, and done some aerobic exercise every day. And I now do Qi Gong--Lee Holden DVDs, also on You Tube. All these practices keep me as healthy as I can be considering my illnesses and they make the writing possible.
What is one of the best ways a writer can develop the discipline to write through creative slumps?
The best way to learn to write through a creative slump is to keep writing no matter what is happening on the page. It helps to know that the middle of every process is fraught with problems, and that if you quit then, you will never develop. It is in writing your way through difficulty that you grow as an artist. I like to tell writers about people who have written on toilet paper in prison, people who have written while ill--compared to many writers, the circumstances under which we write aren't bad. I ask my students why they think writing should be easy, why it should always work, why it should always be just fine. Doing our work despite how we feel is an essential part of the growth process. Do we just feed our kids when we feel like feeding them? Do we just parent them when it's easy? We can use what we learn from parenting through the good and the tough times and apply it to our work as writers and artists. You just do it no matter what. You might not like doing it, but you do it anyway. I don't like to think that this takes discipline because then people believe they need to develop discipline before they become writers. You develop discipline by writing no matter what. There's no mystery to it. But we are sometimes inclined to let ourselves off the hook. I'm a great believer in not doing that.
What inspires you: as a wife, mom, and artist?
I have lived in a family of jocks. Both of my sons are elite athletes. My eldest was a bicycle racer, followed the Tour de France, now does long distance riding; he also trained for and ran in marathons. My youngest is a world champion in Shukokai karate and runs and teaches in a karate dojo. My daughter in law is a world champion in Shukokai karate and a specialist in teaching karate to kids with learning issues. My husband, in his late 70s, still teaches karate. When I was in my early 70s, I began to train myself though I had to stop because of a serious illness. What inspires me, what has always inspired me, is watching and learning how elite athletes go about their work, how they train, how they live their lives, how they deal with success and defeat. The reason for this is that such training is an every day, not a once in a while kind of thing. It is the way a life is lived, not something you just do. I have always applied those lessons I learned from watching my family to writing. You must work daily; you must take proscribed rest periods; you must eat well, sleep well, live well; you must learn to lose gracefully and to learn from your losses; you must learn to keep at it even when nothing seems to be happening; you must learn to evaluate what you're doing well and do it better and what you're not doing well and do it better.
What or who do you read to help inspire your work? What other resources do you recommend to fellow creatives?
I have always read widely, and often with a goal in mind. When I was writing Chasing Ghosts about my father's and my family's life during WWII, I read novels written during WWII. When I was writing about Virginia Woolf, I tried to read everything she'd written. I am always reluctant to recommend reading programs to other writers because I've learned that part of the process is going out and finding what it is that we ourselves need to read to help us. What helps me won't necessarily help you. And I am suspect of reading too many book about writing, especially if they are written by writers who only write books about how to write and don't have a significant body of their own work. Reading about writing without actually writing seems counterproductive. What helped me immensely at the beginning was reading Anne Tyler's "Still Just Writing" that appeared in The Writer on Her Work. You can find it online. It is a stunning glimpse into how this novelist wrote when her kids were small, her dog was sick, her husband's relatives visited--it tells of the impediments to and the rewards of writing while raising kids. I read it and told myself that if she could do it, so could I. And...I love to read interviews with writers, like those in The Paris Review about process, though of course, we have to take them with a grain of salt--they can tell us much if we understand that what happened in the writing of a book can't necessarily be remembered and described.
Do you have a scripture, word, or mantra that guides your work?
"Yes you can." I have described how I found this crudely lettered sign inscribed inside a cut-out arrow in a place where I had gone to give a talk. It was just sitting there on a table, and I took it, and I still have it. The reason it spoke to me was that, from childhood, I had been given inhibitions--"No you can't"-- about so very many things, that this sign became an important source of strength to me.
How do motherhood and creative work complement one another?
Paradoxically having less time to work than the writers I knew who didn't have kids made me a more diligent writer because I knew I had to grab the time I had. I learned to enter and leave the work and not get precious about it. I never understood writers who said, "I need blocks of time or I can't do my work." I didn't have blocks of time. I had the time in the car while I waited for a kid to emerge from school; the time in the speech pathologist's waiting room while my son had his lessons. I learned to "grab and go" in terms of my work. So having kids and having less time for work meant that I worked better, that I didn't procrastinate. As important is this: as you watch kids grow, you realize that you can't make an infant raise her/his head before they're able. Growth takes time. For me, watching my youngest son learn how to speak--he was born with a hearing problem--taught me that what I was doing, in comparison, was easy.
How has your perspective on creativity shifted during the course of your career?
When I first started writing I believed that you had to be gifted, you had to have talent. I thought that "real" writers wrote their work pretty much as it was published. I had no model for how "real" writers write. I set myself the task to learn about that, and so discovered that there are stages of the creative process, that it is impossible to get to the end of a project without feeling confused and overwhelmed: this is an inseparable part of the project. So that now I understand that if I just keep working, no matter how bleak it seems, the book will eventually get done. I, as a beginning writer, was less able than most of the students I taught. What I learned, though, was that though it might take me sixteen drafts to get where I wanted to, I would eventually get there. Many of my more gifted students expected too much of themselves in the early stages and quit when the work bogged down. I had to teach them to keep at it. I learned how slow the process is and that you can't speed it up no matter how much you yearn to: the work will tell you what needs to be done if you give it enough time, and that's what I have tried to pass on. I often say, "Such and such a writer took eleven drafts to get to the finish line. Why do you think you can shortcut the process?"
What’s one goal you have that you haven’t accomplished yet?
I can only choose one? Hmmm. I have always written down ideas about books I would like to write someday even as I was engaged in writing something. Right now I would like to finish a book I started years ago about my sister's suicide. I'd like to finish a book I've begun--a memoir in third person--about having cancer. I'd like to turn some of my blog posts into a book about writing memoir. Then there is the novel about a woman who's writing a non-fiction researched work about adultery who decides to do a little non bookish research. For me, the idea is to work at the book currently under my pen (or sometimes the more than one book I'm working on) while allowing myself to dream of others and scribble towards them while still completing the work I'm doing. So there are a lot of things I haven't yet accomplished. And of course, organizing my drawers, which I will never do, and that's all right, because the saddest thing my mother said after my sister died was that she was so well organized.
If you could tell moms who long to create as they raise little ones a word of advice, what would it be?
Children learn by watching parents, so that if we want them to be creative, we ourselves have to do creative work and model how it is done and that it is done. I have been struck by how many parents (moms, so very often) work very hard to ensure that their children are exposed to dance, music, sports, etc., yet neglect to allow themselves to do their own creative work. Postponing our own creative work until the kids grow up will (almost certainly) make us resentful, sad, and miserable--at least that is the way it was for me. And that kind of parent can't parent well. Some simple practices allowed me to continue to write (and knit and paint) when my kids were small, and I offer them here. 1) Do household chores when kids are awake; if they nap and when they nap and if they are at school or when they are at school and we are a stay-at-home parent, do our creative work during those times. So many of my friends would spend that time doing laundry, cleaning house and then complain that they had no time to do their work. We learned that kids are better off having happy satisfied parents who, though we of course must make sacrifices, don't put off our dreams until they grow up. Kids don't always fulfill our dreams for them or repay the sacrifices we made for them--that's the human condition; sacrificing our dreams entirely for them doesn't make much sense. 2) If we work while raising kids, as I did, then finding time is necessarily difficult. But I was not the kind of parent who played with my children; I did my creative work while my children played. I set them up to do something when I was home with them, and I worked alongside them. Not ideal, but doable. Once on a rainy weekend day while their father was working and I was "in charge" I gave them a basket of yarn and they tied the house up--it took hours; it was gorgeous; and later they learned about artists like Christo and Jeanne-Claude who tied things up. I always had lots of stuff they could play with in a creative way: paper, crayons, pens, boxes. They knew I wrote books; and they were happy to sit in my study writing their own work as I wrote mine.