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

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

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 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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250051035
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 10/07/2014
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 332,931
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Louise DeSalvo (1942-2018) was the multi-award-winning author of such memoirs as Vertigo, Breathless, and Crazy in the Kitchen: Food, Feuds and Forgiveness in an Italian American Family. She was also a renowned feminist scholar and essayist who wrote about such literary figures as D. H. Lawrence, Henry Miller, and Virginia Woolf. Her book Virginia Woolf: The Impact of Childhood Sexual Abuse on Her Life and Work was named one of the most important books of the twentieth century by the Women’s Review of Books.

A professor of English, Louise taught creative writing and literature at Hunter College where she implemented the school’s MFA in Memoir program, and she wrote several books on creative writing including Writing as a Way of Healing: How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives and The Art of Slow Writing: Reflections on Times, Craft, and Creativity.

Read an Excerpt


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

Table of Contents

Preface xi

Introduction: The Art of Slow Writing xv

Part 1 Getting Ready to Write

Introduction 3

1 Learning How to Work at Writing 7

2 Finding Our Own Rhythm 11

3 Where to Begin 15

4 Routine 19

5 Tools of the Trade 23

6 A Writer's Mise en Place 28

7 Deliberate Practice 33

8 Writing and Real Life 38

9 Raw Material 43

10 Walking and Inspiration 48

Part 2 A Writer's Apprenticeship

Introduction 55

11 Apprenticeship 59

12 Writing Outside and Elsewhere 63

13 Process Journal 67

14 Patience, Humility, and Respect 71

15 Learning How to Learn 76

16 Labor and Management 81

17 Game Plan 85

18 No Excuses 89

19 Writing Rehab 94

20 A Writer's Notebook 98

21 The Creative Act 102

22 Support for Our Work 106

23 Radical Work Takes Time 111

Part 3 Challenges and Successes

Introduction 117

24 Failure in the Middle 121

25 Doubt 125

26 Writing as Collaboration 129

27 Creative Problem Solving 134

28 Rejection Letters 139

29 Hailstorms 144

30 Turning the Corner 148

31 Practice Deciding 152

32 Successful Outcomes 157

33 Ship's Log 162

34 What Worked and Why 167

Part 4 Writers at Rest

Introduction 175

35 Dreaming and Daydreaming 179

36 Dumbstruck 184

37 Taking a Break 188

38 Why I'm a Writer Who Cooks 192

39 Slow Reading 196

40 Fresh Air 200

41 Waiting for an Answer 204

42 A New Perspective 208

43 What's in Your Drawer? 212

Part 5 Building a Book, Finishing a Book

Introduction 219

44 How Long Does It Take? 223

45 Over Time 227

46 Architecture and Design 231

47 Turning Pages into Book 235

48 Structuring Our Work 239

49 The Second Sleeve 243

50 Tied Up in Knots 247

51 Writing Partners 251

52 Revision 255

53 The Toughest Choice 259

54 Self-Censorship 263

55 The Finish Line 267

Epilogue: Beginning Again

Sources 277

Acknowledgments 305

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