The Art of Slow Writing: Reflections on Time, Craft, and Creativity by Louise DeSalvo, NOOK Book (eBook) | Barnes & Noble
The Art of Slow Writing: Reflections on Time, Craft, and Creativity

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

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by Louise DeSalvo
     
 

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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

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.

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)

#1 New York Times bestselling author of Orphan Tra Christina Baker Kline

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.
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.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781466851986
Publisher:
St. Martin's Press
Publication date:
10/07/2014
Sold by:
Macmillan
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
336
Sales rank:
507,741
File size:
565 KB

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Read an Excerpt

The Art of Slow Writing

Reflections on Time, Craft, and Creativity


By Louise DeSalvo

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2014 Louise DeSalvo
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-5198-6



CHAPTER 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 other Knot.

CHAPTER 2

Finding Our Own Rhythm


Interviewers always ask writers "When do you write? What's your writing schedule?" I love learning how writers organize their lives because I hope I can apply something I've learned to my own writer's life.

J. D. Salinger, author of The Catcher in the Rye (1951), started work each morning at 6 a.m., but not later than 7 a.m., and he wrote, without interruption, throughout the day, and sometimes well into the night. Margaret Atwood, author of The Handmaid's Tale (1986), writes from ten in the morning until four in the afternoon. Peter Carey, author of Oscar and Lucinda (1988), writes "[m]ostly in the mornings"; "making stuff up for three hours, that's enough," although he sometimes returns to the work late in the day to revise it. Jonathan Franzen, author of The Corrections (2001), has said that he can write eight to ten hours a day.

Often, I compare my own writing regimen with that of other writers—I write for about two hours a day, fewer when I'm teaching—and sometimes chastise myself for not writing longer. I imagine setting my alarm so I can be at my desk early like Salinger, and working throughout the day and into the night. But I soon realize Salinger's rhythms aren't mine; his life wasn't like mine.

One of my jobs as a writer is to learn what my rhythms are. That's not easy because when it's best for me to write changes throughout the year, when I'm teaching, from one year to the next, from one project to the next, sometimes even from one day to the next. For years, I worked mornings. Then when I wrote my memoir Vertigo (1996), I discovered I worked best on this particular book during the afternoons. (I later read memory functions best then, so that might be why.)

Edward M. Hallowell's CrazyBusy: Overstretched, Overbooked, and About to Snap! (2006) suggests strategies we can employ so we can understand our work rhythms, reclaim the time we need to write, and discover when we work best.

• Limit your commitments so you have time to do what you want to do.

• Reserve time to do what matters rather than frittering time away on what isn't important.

• Use the time of day when you're most alert on what matters most to you.

• Train yourself to stay on task—write down what you're working on and post it close to you.

• Sculpt your day to do what matters most to you.

• Keep adjusting the way you spend your time until you find what works for you.

• Find your own rhythm. Don't assume someone else's will work for you.

• And understand that sculpting your day will be an ongoing task.


Early in my writing life I read Virginia Valian's essay "Learning to Work," which taught me how to work at writing. Set a timer, Valian said, and work however long you decide to write. Begin with only five minutes and move on from there. Learning how to sit at our desks without interruption is a necessary skill we can learn. It's the first—and one of the most difficult—assignments I give my writing students. I like to use a meditation timer; it keeps me focused and helps me regard my writing time as a meditative task.

These days, when I'm not teaching, I'm at my desk, and writing, by 10 a.m. I can't settle down to write unless I meditate, exercise, write in my journal, shower, and dress in something I wouldn't mind being seen in. I sometimes chide myself for not getting to the desk earlier. But I know that's when I work best now. As Hallowell suggests, I must sculpt my day to do what matters most to me right now—write that book about my parents' lives during World War II—during the morning, my most productive time, when I've found I work best on this book. And each day, I'll assess what worked and what didn't, and make changes when necessary. I also ask my students to discover, and continually reassess, what time of day works best for them.

All of us can write. Few of us know how to work at writing. And even fewer of us know how to sculpt our lives so we can write. These are learned skills, acquired through time and practice. And, Hallowell says, it seems more difficult to practice these skills now, because learning how to think deeply about our writing lives is different from just being busy. Reflection takes time, quiet, and patience.

Michael Chabon, author of Wonder Boys (1995), has described how he and his wife, the novelist Ayelet Waldman (who was a lawyer before she became a novelist), plan their writing around the demands of raising four children. When an interviewer asked, "How do you make space to craft your work?" Chabon responded that, during the school year, when their children are at school, Waldman works "almost entirely during that period," getting "her word count in every day," a routine that "works well for her."

Chabon's "natural rhythm," though, "is to work at night, stay up late and to sleep late." But "that schedule does not work at all well in a family with small children" because Chabon likes to be with them early in the morning. He envies Waldman because she works so well during the day. He's been struggling with his schedule of "staying up late, and getting up early" for years. To work with, rather than against, his natural writing rhythm, he has to "go away [to write]," to a writing colony, a friend's cabin, or a hotel. Then he can write late into the night, sleep late, get sufficient rest, and "get a lot done." In a few days, he can compose what would ordinarily take him a month to write at home.

Chabon and Waldman have accepted the reality of their lives with children, and sculpt their days so they can parent their children but also write. Waldman's solution is different from Chabon's because their writing rhythms are different.

Colum McCann, author of TransAtlantic (2013), has said that although he would work every waking hour if he could, he's chosen to limit his writing time: "there is also a life to lead—travel, family, the odd jaunt down to the pub." Writing is an essential part of McCann's life. Still, "I don't live my life as a writer," he says. "It's what I do, but not necessarily what I am." McCann has reflected upon what matters most to him, and he organizes his life so that writing, though it is an important part of his life, doesn't dominate it.

CHAPTER 3

Where to Begin


When my students begin their first major projects, they often say, "I don't know where to begin," and they sometimes ask me where I think they should begin. I'm inclined to say "Just begin, and see what happens" because there's no right answer to this question. Successful writers have different ways of launching their works, and it takes a period of experimentation to learn what works best for each of us. And I know, too, that many writers shift the way they enter their projects from one time in their writing lives to another.

What worked best for me when I began writing was to begin a book by writing an essay for someone else. I wrote for a magazine and for other people's essay collections as often as I could. Beginning a book without having something in hand was too scary for me. But if I wrote for someone else's magazine or book, I felt far less pressure and far more freedom than if I were beginning to write the same material for a book of my own. This wasn't my book; it was someone else's, I'd tell myself. And although I was responsible to make my work as good as I could make it, I'd have an editor's help in refining the work for publication. This freed me to figure out the voice of the book beforehand so that when I turned from writing the essay to writing the book, I had a sense of what the work would sound like, what its subject matter would be, and how it would be structured.

I began my biography of Virginia Woolf by writing an essay about when she was fifteen for a friend's collection. I began my novel, Casting Off (1987), by writing a story, "Gluttony and Fornication," for Chicago magazine. I began my memoir Crazy in the Kitchen (2014) by writing an essay called "Cutting the Bread" for The Milk of Almonds: Italian American Women Writers on Food and Culture (2002) that I was editing with Edvige Giunta.

Getting a book off the ground is sitting down, starting to work, witnessing what happens, and moving on from there. As Anne Tyler, author of The Beginner's Goodbye (2012), a novel about a man dealing with his wife's death, has said, "It doesn't take very long for most writers to realize that if you wait until the day you are inspired and feel like writing you'll never do it at all." She's learned "just to go to my room and plug away." She keeps a quotation by Richard Wilbur from the poem "Walking to Sleep" in her study about plunging directly into the work—to reassure her that once she begins, she'll figure out what to do.

Tyler has described the challenges she's faced as a writer in "Still Just Writing"—her kids' vacations, a sick dog, visits from repairmen, a sick child, long visitations from foreign relatives, grocery shopping, bathroom scrubbing. She feels she's always "hewing ... creative time in small, hard chips from ... living time." She's learned the necessity of boundaries: how to write when she can but to be fully engaged with the rest of her life when she's not writing.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from The Art of Slow Writing by Louise DeSalvo. Copyright © 2014 Louise DeSalvo. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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.


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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