Saturday, April 13, 2013

On Slowness

In the late 80s and early 90s, I turned out eight books at what was, for me, a rapid pace.  I was involved at the university by that time, and remember a number of people observing that I was "prolific" and "cranking them out"—phrases used with contempt, as though I was spreading germs by sneezing in an elevator.   They always observed this under a mask of objectivity, a mask that didn't hide the curled-up lip very well—the expression of disdain that we academics always use for something we don't understand.

They're wrong and they're right, you know.  At least given my current writing rhythm and rate of production.  I see people caught up with a kind of marketing fever, preoccupied by the fear that they will pass from the knowledge of readers if they don't publish a couple of books a year.  And they, too, have a point:  a friend of mine wanted to do an article on my work for Louisville Magazine back in the late 90s, only to have the proposal rejected because "he hasn't published in five years" (I'd published two books in the five years in question, so whoever said this was mistaken, but the observation tells you something—that publishing is, understandably, fascinated with what is most recent).

But I don't work that way anymore.  Writing a book is, for me, a long gestation, as ideas, plots and subplots, and additional characters introduce themselves over the course of several years, and in ways that connect and deepen what I'm working on, ways I could not hope to attain if I kept up the pace I set twenty years ago. 

I think of two models of creation.  God made the world in seven days, according to Genesis 1 and 2.  I don't believe for a moment that this is a literal account of how the world got done (whether or not it's helpful as a metaphorical account is the subject for someone else's blog); far more reasonable to assume that creation was the slow process all the scientific evidence indicates.  That's how good things get done in nature, and as I grow older, I have come to appreciate that process, to know in my bones that faster is not better.

And no, you young 'uns out there: it's not that I'm old and tired.  My age and weariness may show itself in other things, but a slow writing is to me harder work.  Instead of thinking about a book for six months, I think about it for two or three years, turning its possibilities in my hand, seeing it from various angles, like you'd do when you were a kid tilting a prism to the light.  I love working on books, and I love doing the work at my pace, in my time.

I do want to publish, mind you, and I do dread the possibility of being passed by in an industry that, as Shakespeare said of Time, "hath a wallet at its back/Wherein it keeps alms for oblivion".  But don't be too quick to delight in the fact that I'd like to see my books in print: the best part of this job—hands down, nothing else about it even remotely close—is the writing itself. 

So I'll take my time and see you down the road.  Wait for me.