Creativity Lesson: Slow
Can I confess something to you? I feel like we’re friends and this is a safe place, so here’s the deal: I’m terrible at slow.
(You are feeling confident in my abilities to lead this lesson already, aren’t you?)
I drive fast, eat fast, and talk fast. I’m happiest working on about 10 different things at any given time, and the hardest adjustment for me going from college to working full time (aside from giving up those afternoon naps) was learning how to stretch my work to fill a full 40 hours. Turns out, they don’t let you leave early if you cross off everything on your to-do list by 2 p.m. on Wednesday.
Because the universe is hilarious, I married a man who is my opposite in nearly every way. My husband, Jon, feels strongly that “thorough” is the only way to do any project properly. Ladies, after eight years of marriage I can tell you that thorough is just another word for slow.
When we bought our first house together shortly after getting married, we had to repaint every room. I would paint three walls (and trim them) in the time Jon would painstakingly cover one. I can clean the whole house in the time it takes Jon to clean one bathroom. There was a time when this made me roll my eyes. I’m even ashamed to say that I poked fun at his slowness, smugly superior in my efficiency. That is, until I realized something.
Sometimes, Jon’s way was better. While you might not want to inspect my baseboards and room corners too closely, you could eat dinner off the floor of the bathroom Jon cleaned. And those walls that I painted might look fine at first glance, but upon closer inspection you’ll see flecks of paint on the floor, where I rolled the paint on too quickly and thickly, causing droplets to land below. The area around Jon’s painted wall? Meticulous, of course.
I’m not sure why a sense of urgency feels so ... necessary to me. I suspect a therapist would point to underlying issues of self-doubt and insecurity. I rush because I think the faster I move, the more important the task (and thus, I) becomes. I equate speed with value, pointing to my bristling sense of efficiency as proof of how invested I am in the outcome.
My children are six and three, which means they are well-versed in taking their sweet time to accomplish the most menial tasks. We need to be out the door in five minutes? I guarantee my daughter is going to insist on picking out her own clothes and will deliberate endlessly over which outfit she wants to wear. My son can turn eating dinner into an hour-long event. As you can imagine, the words “hurry up!” “let’s go!” and “I MEAN it, we need to go NOW!” fly from my lips countless times a day, usually in increasing volume and intensity. My role in our family is to be the Keeper of the Time. Sometimes, that’s useful (like if we need to catch a flight at the airport). But sometimes?
I hate it.
My need for efficiency has ruined enjoying many, many moments. The rest of my family likes to take their sweet time discovering the world around them, and, although I’m still reluctant to admit it sometimes, I think they’re onto something.
Going slow forces my full attention to the task at hand. When I rush through dinner, sometimes I can finish the meal and realize I have no idea if I even liked what I just ate. If I take my time and really savor the bites though, dinner goes from a task to an experience.
The same is true about writing slow.
There was a time when I would only write when inspiration struck. I had my own blog (with exactly 47 followers), and no set publishing routine, so I wrote when I felt like it. I would feel inspired, type out a full essay, give it a quick and cursory glance-over for typos and then hit post. “Done is better than perfect,” became my mantra.
The result was that my posts were infrequent. And also? They weren’t all that good.
Oh, sometimes they were. Every once in awhile I’d catch lightning in a bottle and write something so well that I could go back weeks, months, or even years later and still love what I wrote. But mostly, I can’t go back and read them anymore, because I see too many things I’d like to change.
This made me believe that I wasn’t a very good writer. I thought if I couldn’t write something perfectly on the first attempt, then it wasn’t worth writing at all. I believed all other writers sat down and wrote exactly what they wanted to say in the words they wanted to say it in on their very first pass. I realize how silly that sounds now, but I had honestly never looked at writing as a process before. I thought it was a gift; you either had it or you didn’t.
I participated in the first Coffee + Crumbs Known Workshop last year. It was a wonderful experience for a lot of reasons, but one of my absolute favorite parts was when Anna Jordan shared one of her essays in the editing process. I love Anna’s writing; her imagery is evocative and her word choice is always exactly on point. I was certain her essays started out pretty much perfectly and all she did was move around some punctuation during editing.
But guess what? Even for someone as talented as Anna, it doesn’t work that way. Her editing process showed entire paragraphs cut and swapped out. She reworked her introduction completely between the first draft and last and got some input on the conclusion. The best part though? She didn’t let the pressure of getting it perfect the first time stop her from starting to write. She opened my eyes to the world of the shitty first draft.
The shitty first draft (SFD has become our shorthand on the C+C team) is where you just get your thoughts down on paper. Your dialogue might be clunky and your paragraphs might not flow. You might literally type the words “blah, blah, blah” in places, because you know you want to go back and add more to that spot, but you’re not sure exactly what yet. You may add comments that you want to change the wording or look up a synonym or two because you used the word “excited” three times in the same paragraph.
The shitty first draft is about the process, not the product. It’s about the discipline of putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard, as your preferences may be). It’s committing yourself to several rounds of editing and even inviting feedback from others on places where you’re stuck. It takes both humility (to ask for help) and grace (to accept edits and suggested changes). The best part? It pushes writing from a solitary act to one that needs a community. My favorite part of being on the C+C team—aside from working and writing alongside these 11 amazing women—is the availability of well-thought, spot-on editing.
By its very nature, SFD writing can be slow-going, though. This will feel comfortable for some of you, but my fellow Keepers of the Time may have a hard time adjusting. You won’t finish an essay in a day, which means there is no immediate gratification. You will get frustrated, and you’ll probably complain at least once that you are officially the worst writer ever.
Writing the shitty first draft is like mining for gold. It requires more patience than skill. Oh sure, you need to pick the right spot and be prepared with the right tools, but it’s really just a matter of having the time to sift through a whole bunch of ordinary rocks to uncover the nuggets of gold. Sometimes, you get lucky and it’s an easy route to treasure. Sometimes it’s hard enough and tedious enough to make you curse the day you took up gold-mining.
The secret lies in understanding that your frustration is a universal emotion. You’re not the first writer to stare, uninspired, at a blinking cursor on a white screen, and you won’t be the last, either. What separates the good writers from the rest? Writing anyway. Commit to the practice, and trust that if you keep showing up, eventually the right words will find their way onto the page.
Talent isn’t always what makes a writer a writer. Persistence is.
Children are often the best instructors in the beauty of going slow. So, spend a day moving at your children’s pace. Let them choose the day’s activities and how long is spent on each one. Put away your phone, and try to observe things from their vantage point. Journal about what happens when you abandon the phrases “hurry up!” and “let’s go!” for one 12-hour period.
Find some solo time in the car, and take a nearby scenic route. If you’re an overachiever, create a playlist just for this drive. Stop frequently (and safely) and snap some pictures. Immerse yourself in the experience of driving the route, and not in where you’re going. Journal about what it feels like to drive for no reason other than to enjoy it. Did you like it? Feel like you were wasting time?
Ready to practice some slow writing?
If you’re usually a speed-writer, commit yourself to writing slowly for a whole month. Start your essay on the first day of the month, and edit and revise it until the last. If it helps, here’s a process that Anna Jordan uses with her writing students to get you started:
1. Write a long, fat draft. Don't overly edit yourself, just write like you always write.
2. Once you've finished that draft, scale it back to one page. Cut out everything that isn't completely necessary. This isn't a summary. It's literally a single page essay.
3. Cut that single page down to a single paragraph. Again, this is not a summary. You can save the sentences you love and keep that funny anecdote—whatever you think is *critical* stays.
4. Cut it down to a single sentence. One shining, beautiful sentence. This sentence is the point of the entire essay.
5. Rewrite the entire essay using that sentence as the launching point. Now, I've had students use their single page as their launching point, too—they add a few extra paragraphs here and there to flesh it out—but basically you're going to scrap that fat draft in its entirety. However, even if you're totally in love with your single page essay, you should still cut it all the way down to the sentence. It's always good to practice killing your darlings. The point here is to figure out exactly what you want to say. It may be quite different than what you set out to say, and I think that's good. I think writing tends to feel heavy-handed when we enter into it with a *BIG GOAL.* Let the writing lead you.