Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The slow prose movement

I've always been a slow writer, probably because I'm both a slow thinker and a maniac about rhythm and sentence construction. When I'm drafting I force myself to write without looking back, just to get words and half-formed thoughts on the page--but the rest of my writing process is a slow and laborious series of revisions. I try not to get too hung up on sentences until late in the game, since a beautiful sentence that does fuck-all for my argument will just get deleted in the end.

But since writing sentences is how I think, it's hard to tell the difference, sometimes, between what sounds good stylistically and what sounds right argumentatively. I don't have a thought, which I then put into words, which I then tinker around with a bit to clarify. I just start writing something that includes a few key concepts or half-baked ideas, and only through the process of rephrasing, recombining, and substituting that word for this do I come to any real knowledge of what I might mean.

I've more or less made my peace with my process, and feel confident that it will eventually produce the results I want, but it's hard when I'm on a deadline. Last night I sat down to revise the first two or three pages of the essay I'm currently working on--in other words, THE MOST IMPORTANT PAGES--and was seized by the sense that things just weren't right. Not terrible; I'd already worked over those pages several times, and they read clearly enough, but they felt wrong on the sentence-to-sentence level. It wasn't adding up, somehow.

I began my usual process of interlineating changes by hand, but it got too messy for that, and I could feel myself beginning to panic. It's dispiriting to be stuck on the same page for hours. So I took out my legal pad and started rewriting each paragraph in longhand, incorporating changes as I went, but also copying out in full the phrases or sentences that I was letting stand. I have nice handwriting when I try, and I enjoy writing in longhand, and slowing down allowed me to think about each word, clause, and idea as it passed through my pen. It was like being in an extraordinarily focused meditative state.

And I remembered that I used to do this with poems I loved in high school and college--I'd copy them out repeatedly by hand, registering each word and image and slowly memorizing them, although memorization usually wasn't the point.

Is this my final round of revisions? No. But it was a really good one. Maybe next time I'll re-invent the alphabet.


Renaissance Girl said...

I think my favorite part of this post is your memory of copying out poems that you loved in high school or college. I cannot think of an activity that better expresses the (can I be goofy?) transformative power of poetry. I suspect that many of us are in this gig because of precisely that impulse, though sometimes the pleasure of the text gets subsumed beneath the deadlines and the drafting and the imperative toward critical authority.

Capcha: oogods. Precisely.

Dr. Crazy said...

I'm such a nerd, but I still copy out parts of poems, passages of novels, that strike me. I write them in the front/back pages and covers of my journals. And yes, there's something about writing them out that is awesome.

But also, lest you question your process too much, I still do all of my research notes longhand, from copying out passages of critical/theoretical books that I might quote (I've got a big binder) to brainstorming and outlining and jotting down of random ideas (in a research journal), and whenever I'm stuck, or when I'm doing a conference abstract, I revert to longhand composition. It slows me down enough to really think. I've never revised something already typed by copying it out longhand, but maybe that's because I do so much of the other stuff longhand?

Sisyphus said...

Chiming in on writing via longhand or recopying a paragraph by hand to "warm up."

But what I really love about this post, and what I want to totally embrace, is the equivalent of "slow writing" with the "slow food movement." This is awesome! Know why? 'Cause if you are a member of the slow writing movement, you charge more for your work and it is in demand by all the fancy people, and it is served along side stuff like fresh farmer's market roasted asparagus and locally sourced roast beef. And probably a good wine as well. Mmm. Yes.

Tell your tenure review committee they need to spend hours and hours savoring your work on a sunny patio in Italy while drinking vast quantities of wine.

Anonymous said...

I did the same with poems, song lyrics, passages from novels. For a long time, I only wrote on one side of the page in my journals and saved the facing page for precisely this activity.

Z said...

"it's hard to tell the difference, sometimes, between what sounds good stylistically and what sounds right argumentatively"

the question of whether there really is a difference between these two is one with a long theoretical history!

ntbw said...

Fantastic post! Some of my friends mock me because I always, always compose longhand. Every word of every book I've written existed first on a legal pad in my very messy scrawl. Well, maybe not every word, since some did get added on the backs of printouts during revisions. But they all were first inscribed by my hand on a piece of paper, not typed onto a screen. I absolutely cannot think complex things through except with pen and paper.