The Art of Slow Writing: Reflections on Time, Craft, and Creativity

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Overview

In a series of conversational observations and meditations on the writing process, The Art of Slow Writing examines the benefits of writing slowly. DeSalvo advises her readers to explore their creative process on deeper levels by getting to know themselves and their stories more fully over a longer period of time. She writes in the same supportive manner that encourages her students, using the slow writing process to help them explore the complexities of craft. The Art of Slow Writing is the ...

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The Art of Slow Writing: Reflections on Time, Craft, and Creativity

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Overview

In a series of conversational observations and meditations on the writing process, The Art of Slow Writing examines the benefits of writing slowly. DeSalvo advises her readers to explore their creative process on deeper levels by getting to know themselves and their stories more fully over a longer period of time. She writes in the same supportive manner that encourages her students, using the slow writing process to help them explore the complexities of craft. The Art of Slow Writing is the antidote to self-help books that preach the idea of fast-writing, finishing a novel a year, and quick revisions. DeSalvo makes a case that more mature writing often develops over a longer period of time and offers tips and techniques to train the creative process in this new experience.

DeSalvo describes the work habits of successful writers (among them, Nobel Prize laureates) so that readers can use the information provided to develop their identity as writers and transform their writing lives. It includes anecdotes from classic American and international writers such as John Steinbeck, Henry Miller, Virginia Woolf and D. H. Lawrence as well as contemporary authors such as Michael Chabon, Junot Diaz, Jeffrey Eugenides, Ian McEwan, and Salman Rushdie. DeSalvo skillfully and gently guides writers to not only start their work, but immerse themselves fully in the process and create texts they will treasure.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
★ 06/30/2014
Memoirist and writing teacher DeSalvo (Writing as a Way of Healing) turns what might have been an exercise in navel-gazing into a lively and inspiring guide for writers of all stripes. Whether readers are taking their first stab at the Great American Novel or have a shelf full of books to their credit, they’re sure to benefit from DeSalvo’s insight into the many different methods employed by luminaries, such as Virginia Woolf, John Steinbeck, and Henry Miller, and contemporary authors, such as Michael Chabon, Stephen King, and Jonathan Franzen. DeSalvo also addresses the problem of not writing, sharing how authors like Anne Tyler and Alice Munro deal with everyday distractions, and ancillary topics such as the dreaded rejection letter, and the best way to deal with criticism. Readers can take solace in tips, such as “relax into the story,” practice daily, and be comfortable with the time it takes for work to become fully formed—and gain confidence in themselves, thanks to the knowledge that they’re not alone in their struggles. Buy two copies—the first will quickly sprout dog-ears. Agent: Joanne Wyckoff, Carol Mann Agency. (Oct.)
From the Publisher
"Leavened by her own elegant and energetic prose, The Art of Slow Writing distills the wisdom of long experience. Whether in the classroom or on the page, DeSalvo is that rare teacher who is both exacting and inspiring."—Kathryn Harrison, New York Times bestselling author of Enchantments, The Kiss, and The Binding Chair

"I want to hand a copy of Slow Writing to every writer I know and every writer I don’t know. This book is a gift. Its insights are unparalleled. Louise DeSalvo takes the reader on a joyful, unforgettable journey of reflection and pathos. I can’t thank DeSalvo enough for writing this wise, accessible yet intensely researched master meditation on writing. Read it more than once— the first time for pleasure and many more times for its invaluable insights into the craft."—Margaux Fragoso, author of Tiger, Tiger: A Memoir

"In this wise and insightful book, Louise DeSalvo draws from her own rich experience - as well as from that a variety of writers - to make the persuasive case that good writing takes time. As I read, I found myself underlining, dog-earing pages, writing notes in the margin, inspired by DeSalvo's passion and focus. Deep immersion in the process of writing, she says, yields results that surprise and delight us; our work is stronger, more nuanced, and more compelling. The Art Of Slow Writing is a welcome reminder that in this fast-paced world, some things should not be rushed."—Christina Baker Kline, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Orphan Train

"DeSalvo  turns what might have been an exercise in navel-gazing into a lively and inspiring guide for writers of all stripes.  Buy two copies—the first will quickly sprout dog-ears."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

Kirkus Reviews
2014-06-25
Note to aspiring writers: Slow down.Such is the primary advice from the author ofWriting as a Way of Healing(1999) and of assorted memoirs and biographies. DeSalvo (Creative Writing and Literature/Hunter Coll.;On Moving: A Writer's Meditation on New Houses, Old Haunts, and Finding Home Again, 2009, etc.) structures her book in tiny chapters, some lists of things to do (with bullet points) and myriad examples from the works of writers whose methods mirror those she’s recommending. Not surprisingly, Virginia Woolf appears continually (DeSalvo has published books about her), and there’s a passage about Tobias Wolff, as well. Among the others making numerous appearances are Michael Chabon, Zadie Smith, Ian McEwan, Jeffrey Eugenides, Paul Auster and Joan Didion. DeSalvo also tells us in many chapters that she is currently at work on a book about her father and World War II, and she recommends highly her own ruminative style, which features multiple revisions. Although she mentions Joyce Carol Oates in a different context (writing about difficult experiences), she does not consider Oates’ enviable productivity and her mastery of the art of fast writing. Similarly, she mentions Anthony Trollope’s use of a writing diary but neglects to mention that speedy Anthony wrote his nearly 50 novels (and numerous other works—longhand) in only 35 years. DeSalvo does have lots of useful advice, however, much of which reduces to this: If youreallywant to write, you will make the time and organize yourself in ways that will make possible both your writing life and your “real” one. She offers many tips—some borrowed from others—that will help novices do so. Perhaps the book’s most useful feature is its genial optimism—the you-can-do-this tone that beginning (and insecure) writers will find encouraging.Elementary in many ways but infused with the faith of a true believer.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781250051035
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press
  • Publication date: 10/7/2014
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Pages: 336
  • Sales rank: 185,154
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.20 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

LOUISE DESALVO is an award-winning teacher and writer. She is currently the Jenny Hunter Endowed Professor at Hunter College where she started Hunter’s MFA in Memoir program. She has published seventeen books, among them Virginia Woolf, named one of the most important books of the 20th century by The Women’s Review of Books, and the groundbreaking Writing as a Way of Healing. She lives in Sag Harbor, NY, and Upper Montclair, NJ with her husband.

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Read an Excerpt

1.

Learning How to Work at Writing

I remember a meltdown I had in college when I was writing an essay. You were given an assignment. You had to hand in a perfect paper on a due date. There were no opportunities for revision, no comments on a draft to help you improve.

So there I was, sitting at my desk. I’d reel a sheet of erasable paper into my typewriter and begin. And I’d expect myself to do everything at once—present a coherent argument; write an organized essay in syntactically correct, perfectly punctuated prose.

I was writing about Dostoyevsky, my favorite author. I knew what I wanted to say. But I had no notes, no draft. I had an outline, but it felt like a straitjacket. I kept having new insights as I wrote, but instead of tossing my outline, I tossed away my pages. When I wrote an incoherent sentence, I’d tear the paper out of the typewriter and begin anew.

Halfway through the night, I was so muddled, so incapable of working, that I began crying and couldn’t stop. A friend calmed me down and sat beside me while I did the best I could. But the paper was a disaster. “You write primer English,” the professor commented. Afraid of making a mistake, short on time, I’d simplified my writing and my argument.

I wanted to be a writer. But if this was what writing was like, I couldn’t do it—I didn’t have the necessary skills. I didn’t know it was all right to start anywhere. That most writers compose more than one draft. That it was impossible to do everything at once. But that’s how I thought writers wrote, and no one—not my professors, not the books I read about literature (we were steered away from biography)—told us anything different about how writers worked. The closest I came to seeing a writer’s process was when I typed a few drafts of a collection by a poet who taught at my college.

Now, when I teach the craft of memoir, I invite Kathryn Harrison to my class to describe how she wrote The Mother Knot (2004), her memoir describing her tangled relationship with her mother. My students are eager to pen their first full-length work; still, many want to rush the process and don’t yet know how to work at writing. Hearing Harrison discuss the many stages of her work provides them with important information about how to write their own memoirs.

Harrison arrived in class with a stack of manuscripts—ten drafts of The Mother Knot that she composed from autumn 2002 through summer 2003. She began the work as a long essay; she realized she was writing a book in the seventh draft. Seeing that pile of drafts was an important learning experience for my students. As one said, “I realized that if it took Harrison that many drafts, it’d take me that long, too.”

Because Harrison knows she’ll work through many drafts, she gives herself permission to write badly at first. Although the book’s skeleton—having her mother’s body exhumed and cremated—existed in the first draft, Harrison deleted or shortened self-indulgent material that wasn’t germane to the book. Other subjects—her anorexia, for example—that she raced through, she had to later develop. In time, Harrison deepened the meaning of what breast-feeding and her mother’s sadism meant to her. And what she’d reported—her mother’s behavior, conversations with her own therapist—she later revised into scenelets and full-fledged scenes.

Harrison took time between drafts—a few days, a month—and that helped her understand how to fix problems. She often dealt with challenges one draft at a time—how she presented character A, how she presented character B. In another draft, she focused on how she treated images of water that had been present early, refining and expanding them. In later drafts, she worked by association to fill in the blanks of her narrative.

The structure of Harrison’s work had been established from the beginning: a linear narrative combined with flashbacks in scenelets, scenes, or exposition. But until almost the last draft, Harrison didn’t know how the memoir would end. From the first draft, it began with a scene of her finding frozen breast milk. She thought she’d end with casting her mother’s ashes into the water. But she intuitively wrote a scene describing her Quaker wedding, which, she realized, was a more apt resolution to the theme of how she came to terms with her mother’s adverse effect upon her.

Witnessing how Harrison wrote and revised The Mother Knot helped my students understand that it takes many drafts to create a work of art, that we can’t tackle all our challenges at once, and that composing and revision proceed in stages. After Harrison’s visit, we discussed the stages of the writing process.

First, you imagine the work, think about it, and take notes about it, perhaps long before you actually begin writing. (Harrison, though, began the work immediately after a telephone conversation with the undertaker who would exhume her mother’s body.)

Second, once you start, you work provisionally, knowing you’ll have many opportunities to get it right.

Third, you work in stages, writing, revising, letting yourself learn what your subject is really about as you work.

Fourth, you figure out order, structure, and image patterns late in the process, though you may have some ideas from the start. You revise accordingly.

Fifth, you fine-tune the work, tightening where necessary, adding information your reader needs when necessary. You go through the work word by word, sentence by sentence, and paragraph by paragraph.

Sixth, you don’t show your work until late in the process. And then you revise again, based upon feedback. (After Harrison showed a draft to her editor, she deleted a hospital scene, material about her son, and revised again.)

Whether we’re beginning writers or beginning a new project, understanding that working with the stages of the writing process, rather than against it, can help our work immeasurably, as my students learned from Harrison’s visit and her generosity in describing her composition of The Mother Knot.

Copyright © 2014 by Louise DeSalvo

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