Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Susan and Tina on Sloooow Writing

TINA:
Ah, December 1st! That happy time when when millions of NaNoWritMo writers un-hunch themselves from their word processors and take their first post-50,000-word breaths. I missed the excitement this year. And last. Which always leaves me feeling a bit left out . . . until the next November rolls around and I find myself not signing up yet again.

As much as I like the idea and the philosophy behind it — just write, dammit! — and as much as I love a group challenge, I find myself wanting to take a stand for a different type of writing. I want a month celebrating the leisurely wordsmithing that proceeds at the pace of molasses, the kind where you savor each syllable, savor the process, savor the slow craft of word by word.

SUSAN:
I’m getting to that age when a woman’s got to know her limitations. I suppose I could write 50,000 words revising one scene. Does that count? I mean, the possible word combinations in just one sentence are staggering. Jane could walk, stride, stalk, stomp, amble, saunter, or glide to the tall wooden door. And what about that door, one should be more descriptive. Tall wooden door is akin to eating literary cardboard. Should it have iron hinges? Should the wood be ancient?

Jane rushed to the ancient door; its hinges creaked when she pulled the knob.
But now you see, I have a clumsy “it” right there. And semi-colons cause people such problems. That slight relation between two independent clauses.

Redo.

Jane hurried to the ancient door. The rusty iron hinges creaked as she pulled the knob.
I’m thinking “rusty” might be adjective overkill. And “creaked” could be clichĂ©. I think that “as” should be a “when.”

Hmmmm….

Jane rushed to the door. When she pulled the knob, the ancient iron hinges let out a sigh.
Now that just sucks, and I’ve anthropomorphized (is that a word?) the hinges.

Word count so far: around 50.

TINA:
That Jane. She just can't make up her mind. Neither can the door.

When I write fast, Jane gets stuck without any variety in her thoughts or words or deed. At least you managed to make the hinges have some personality -- I couldn't manage that.

Because I can makes words, that's for sure. I can hit a vein and they flow sweet and right. Or, they can just flow, like spilled milk, into something I have to clean up later. 1500 words a day? That would take me about an hour. And it would be a totally wasted hour approximately 95% of the time.

Because as satisfying as that other 5% of the time is, it's much more enjoyable when I can sink into slow writing. It's work, yes, but work like slicing a ripe honeydew into slices and wrapping them in prosciutto, a glass of Muscat at your elbow, jazz playing in the next room. Soul work.

SUSAN:
Soul work. A recent NY Times article said people are happier when they engage in deeper conversations. When the words matter. Slow writing is about just that: words that matter. Communication is volley; you send a message to me and I will respond in kind. Some prose comes wrapped in fast food paper, some odd monster created in a factory far away with ingredients that have more do with return on investment than quality. I will eat those words without thinking and toss the leftovers sentences and such on the floor board of my car. Then several months later, I will be cleaning out my car, see those old words, stuff them into the trash bag and murmur to myself that I need to start reading better. These are expendable words of the over-salted or sugared-up variety. A fast carb hit that leaves you hungry not an hour later.

But then there is prose someone dreamed about, went to the farm and hand selected each word, kneaded with their hands, stood by with some literary spoon, tasting the balance of rosemary, thyme, or pepper. Artisanal writing. This is the writing that reminds me of the small family-run restaurant in the hotel my husband and I stayed at off the coast of Italy. The father, a chef, would go out to the boats and get the fresh catch. Then every course of the meal was created around that fish. The fish was the muse. When you ate, you tasted the chef’s joy and art.

TINA:
Yes, that is the word. Artisanal. Tasting of joy and art and deliberate attention.

When you read words like that, you don’t want them to end. Closing the back cover on such a book is like scraping the bottom of your soup bowl, satisfied yes, but sad to have reached the coda.

Reading organic prose is satisfying. The best writers make the glory look effortless. Real writers know it’s not, that those gorgeous words are most often born from hard work and desperate faith, like the proverbial blood from a turnip.

But today, just for one day, this can be my intention; to fully and joyously inhabit both process and product, with mindful presence, even the tough parts. Good words appear like grace, like the black rook in Sylvia Plath’s “Black Rook in Rainy Weather”:

Miracles occur.
If you care to call those spasmodic
Tricks of radiance
Miracles. The wait's begun again,
The long wait for the angel,

For that rare, random descent.
Let us not rush our miracles. Let them come, word by word. And let us appreciate them for the complex, luminous, lapidary gifts they are.

4 comments:

Katrina said...

This is exactly what I needed to read this morning, y'all.
"Artisinal writing" is exactly what I aim for, every time I sit down to write. I worry sometimes that poems take a LONG time to be right...sometimes I work on one, brood about it, look at it, tweak it, for a year or so before it's what it was supposed to be all the time. In a world where Stephen King publishes a substantial novel practically every year, why does it take so long to write one single poem? Why?
You've reminded me this morning why. Thanks!

Laura Valeri said...

Awesome, girls! I love to read books that make me feel like I just had a fine meal. Tony Morrison, Sandra Cisneros, Louise Eirdrich and recently Leslie Marmon Silko are the ones who do that for me.

Liz Fichera said...

Love this! I prefer a homecooked meal to fast food any day of the week! And I can also picture the two of you having this conversation over a couple of mojitos.

Tina said...

Susan came up with "artisinal writing" and I thought it captured the idea perfectly.

I am learning how to read poetry again (instead of analyzing it to death). I can only imagine that writing one is this way too.

I'll add Isabel Allende to Laura's list and call it mine.

And I'll confess -- mojitos are marvelous conversational liberators. The words may not always be articulate, but they're always profuse.