“Slow Writing,” by Louise DeSalvo

May 31, 2010

In my last post, I wrote about my love of visiting writers’ houses.  What I didn’t say was that my husband and I had planned a trip to visit one of D. H. Lawrence’s houses near Gargagno, on the shore of Lake Garda, the one where he wrote Sons of Lovers. He was there with Frieda.  Away from England, he would, in that house, recreate the home he’d lived in with his family; he’d describe his collier father, his proper mother who wanted her children to live a better life.  He’d write about his early efforts at love, and how entrapped loving made him feel.

I was looking forward to visiting that house.  But an accident intervened – I got a stress fracture to my right foot – and we canceled our holiday.  I got the stress fracture because I was racing around New York City for hours wearing ill-fitting, floppy shoes.

To ensure that my foot doesn’t bend when I walk, the orthopedist has fitted me with a shoe with a wooden sole.  I can walk, but slowly.  So my pace is far, far slower than my usual rather rapid rush from here to there, the pace that those of us who live in or spend much time in New York believe is normal.  I’ve been using a cane, too, for stability because my gait has been thrown off.

Slow walking.

Last night, our back fence neighbors had a Memorial Day party, complete with disc jockey, barbecue, games, prizes, an annual event, to which we’re always invited.  We took our grandkids.  I was driven there, even though it’s, at most, a three-minute walk, and I didn’t think I should chance it.  But I was fatigued long before the kids, wanted to leave the party early, and decided to walk home – my first walk outside the house since my injury two weeks ago – so they could continue to enjoy the party.  My husband stayed behind to chaperone them, and so I walked alone, with some trepidation.

What would usually have been a three-minute walk took me fifteen minutes.  I know because I timed it just to see how slowly I was walking.  I thought, at first, I’d be disgruntled, annoyed, irritated.  But on the way home, I noticed many things I ordinarily wouldn’t have, though I pride myself on trying to be “in the moment.”  I saw my next-door neighbor’s grown child’s party.  I was ambling so slowly, I heard their jokes, their “dissing” one another, their sarcastic comments; I heard more conversation from him than I’d heard in years.  I observed, too, how the trees looked in the early evening breeze.  I saw the flowers in my neighbors’ yards.  “This is nice,” I said to myself, “this slow walking.  Why am I always rushing?”  This sense of peace and relaxation was a benefit from my injury, from needing to wear this shoe that I’d never anticipated when I realized the extent of my injury and that I’d have to cancel my trip abroad.

Because I’ve been walking so slowly, I’ve been doing other things very slowly too.  I have to: I can’t rush, I simply can’t move quickly through life.  I made a foccaccia yesterday – the first day I’ve cooked.  It took a very long time, but it was blissful rather than a chore, something to finish in order to move on to doing the very next thing quickly.  I’ve also had to stay put very often, because I can’t walk very much, and so sometimes, when I’ve forgotten to bring something I’d wanted to do to a place I’ve decided to be (the kitchen table, the garden, the family room) – a book I’d wanted to read, a sweater I’m knitting – I’ve been forced to just sit and look until my husband comes along to bring me what I need.  So yesterday, out in the garden, having remembered my book, but having forgotten my reading glasses, I saw the birds washing themselves in our little waterfall; I saw a little triangular space in the rocks in the garden where either bees or wasps are nesting; I saw a chipmunk run into its hole; I saw a dragonfly.  I’ve had this garden for seven years now, and haven’t spent this much “slow time” in the garden until now.

So what does this have to do with writing?

When I realized how slowly I’ve been moving through life, I decided to take down the published edition of Virginia Woolf’s holograph (handwritten draft) of To the Lighthouse edited by Susan Dick. I taught three novels by Woolf this past semester, and I urged my students to go online to look at earlier drafts of the novels they were reading.  I think there’s much to be learned from this – how a work of art changes as it progresses; what an author’s process looks like; whether key scenes in the published text existed in the earliest version.  Indeed, for many years I’ve believed that writers owe it to themselves to study the earlier versions of published novels, and that this study enriches our understanding of the writing process immeasurably because this is the only way we can “watch” a writer writing.

I decided to open the transcription of To the Lighthouse to a random page to count how many words Virginia Woolf wrote on a given day.  I wanted to know whether she was working quickly, or whether she was working slowly.  My sense of Woolf’s process from studying it for years has been that she worked very slowly, though she worked regularly, except for those stretches when she didn’t work at all because of illness, and sometimes those hiatuses from writing lasted a long time.  But I’d never before bothered to count the number of words she wrote during a given writing session.

Now she is a writer who changed the shape of the novel, who innovated in every work she wrote, who set herself completely new writing tasks with each work, who structured each of her works differently, a writer who wrote some of the most lauded novels of the 20th century.  How much did she write in one day?  How much did she expect herself to accomplish in one writing session?  And what does finding this out mean for us, for our writing practice?

I opened to a passage Woolf wrote on Sunday May 9th, 1926.  It appears on p. 215 of Dick’s transcription (p. 166 of Woolf’s manuscript).  And I counted the words.  Slowly.  I’d like you to guess how many words Woolf wrote by hand into her notebook on this particular day, during this particular writing session.  How many words of this draft of To the Lighthouse did Woolf write?  You should know that Woolf ordinarily worked for two and a half to three hours on her fiction; she also read, wrote nonfiction, wrote journal, wrote letters at other times.

Did she write a thousand words?  Two thousand?  Did she scribble at the pace Lawrence did as he raced through Lady Chatterley? Two and a half to three uninterrupted hours is surely a long stretch of time, more than enough to write, say, an entire scene, one might expect, especially because at this stage of her career, Woolf was at the height of her powers.

Once you’ve estimated how many words Woolf wrote, think about what you expect of yourself.  If we sit down to write for two and a half to three uninterrupted hours, what do we expect of ourselves?  To revise an entire piece of writing?  To draft an essay?  To complete five, six, seven, ten typewritten pages?  How many words?  (Keep in mind that a page of Times New Roman carries about 350 pages.)

Okay.  Here’s the answer.  And I think it might shock you: I hope it does.

Woolf penned roughly 535 words during her writing session on To the Lighthouse on May 9th, 1926.  And she crossed out about 73 of those words, which netted her about 462 words for that day’s work.  Let’s say she worked for two hours.  That’s 231 words an hour.  Set a timer; write for ten minutes; count your words.  I bet you’ve written more than 231 words; I bet you’ve written more in ten minutes than Woolf expected herself to write in an hour.

Four hundred and sixty two words.  Two hundred thirty-one words an hour.  Write those numbers down; post them on your desk so when you feel you’re accomplishing not very much, you can compare your progress to that of an undisputed genius.

Less than two pages in two hours.  Two hours.  About page an hour.

What do you expect of yourself?  And why?

Woolf.  Slow writing.

If you dip into Woolf’s letters and diary around this date, you’ll find that England was in the midst of the most disabling strike it had ever experienced.  Woolf was moving about slowly during this time.  Everyone was.  They had to.  There was no rail, no subway, no bus, no taxi.  A few busses made their way through London, driven by special constables, but they were a dangerous ride because strike sympathizers threw stones at them.  Most people stayed put.  Woolf worried about provisions.  Loads of meat were driven through London in armored cars.  It seemed as if the country was poised on the brink of civil war.

What you’ll also find is that, for the first time in composing To the Lighthouse, Woolf began to write about working class characters at length.  It’s almost as if she became aware of how the working class were responsible for keeping civilization working, of how the very fabric of her life depended upon someone else’s labor – something she’d perhaps not truly understood before.  And so, on Sunday, May 9th, 1926, in that extract I described, we have a description of that memorable character, Mrs. McNab, who restores the Ramsay summer home by her hard labor from the state of disintegration to which it has fallen during the family’s absence.

Perhaps because Woolf worked so slowly, perhaps because she expected so very little of herself on any given day, she was able to really “be” with her work, to let it evolve in ways that, had she rushed, she might not have.  Can it be that we owe Mrs. McNab to Woolf’s “slow writing”?  That Woolf’s ability to work so slowly enabled her to try things she might not have had she worked more quickly, for the more quickly we work, I believe, the more likely we are to do what has worked before?

So just imagine what you might gain from slow writing, from really “being” in the work, rather than rushing through it trying to accumulate a pile of pages.

And remember that number: 231 words an hour; 462 words a day.

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