What Slow Writing Actually Feels Like
What Slow Writing Actually Feels Like
by Callie Feyen
I am writing an essay on how I write slowly at a point when I am frustrated and overwhelmed with a project I’m working on. It has to do with Romeo and Juliet, specifically, the part when Tybalt kills Mercutio, and before anyone can say, “WTF,” Romeo kills Tybalt.
I’m supposed to write about how I teach this scene to middle school students. This will eventually be a book, and what I’ve done for 11 chapters so far is intertwine memories of my life and my students’ lives into the play, therefore establishing the play’s relevancy and urgency in our lives today.
It’s been successful up to this point because up until now, Romeo and Juliet has been child’s play. Up until now, nobody’s died. Up until now, nobody’s teenaged son or nephew has been slain. Up until now, nobody’s teenaged son or nephew is a murderer. I’m worried about being too melodramatic, or not dramatic enough. I don’t want to write this chapter as a story with a moral: Don’t kill. Don’t be prejudice. It ruins everything.
I’ve begun the chapter on Act 3, Scene 1 with situations having to do with adolescents (myself included) goofing off without concern or thought of the repercussions. Here’s one:
It was one of the first days of my teaching career when a stringy, blond-haired, lanky, Kurt Cobain lookalike picked up an eraser from the chalkboard, and with the grace and force of a wildcat pouncing on prey, whipped the eraser at his buddy’s head. It slapped him so hard, puffs of chalk dust poofed above his brown hair. His pal barely flinched before picking it up and returning the favor, this time, he went for the t-shirt, and a perfect chalk residue rectangle marked him the rest of the afternoon.
I was in the middle of a lesson on Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time.
“What were you thinking?” I asked these boys, trying not to scream.
The boy who started it looked at me, his blue eyes wide, but not from fear or regret, rather, interest. His eyes said, “That’s a really good question, Mrs. Feyen.”
“I don’t know,” he told me, and I could tell he wasn’t being snarky or flip. He genuinely did not know what he was thinking.
Here’s another: I was in 8th grade when Percy Julian Junior High took a field trip to the Field Museum in Chicago. The entire 8th grade piled into a few yellow school buses holding brown paper bag lunches and excitedly discussing the mummy exhibit—the one we all remembered as kids that we were afraid of, but now that we’re so much more mature, surely walking into that tomb and seeing an ancient body wrapped in gauze won’t give us the creeps.
I remember sitting on the bus with a girl named Gigi, who had spiral-blond, shiny curls, wore pearls around her neck, and perfectly coordinated outfits in navy and pink. She fished a pencil out of her LeSportSac, and nudged me in the side, then wrote a swear word and accompanying stick figure on the bus seat.
What I found most humorous was the clash of how Gigi looked, her name, even, and what she just did. It didn’t make sense. It was a paradox.
Then, when we got to the museum, it seemed what once captured our attention—the T-Rex skeleton, the mummies, the man-eating lion from Africa, was nothing compared to the fact that we could see each other across the balcony. This revelation led to an experiment: if we could see each other across 40 or 50 feet, could we throw something that far?
I was a pretty good kid. Not studious, but quiet, and I had a good sense for right and wrong. I didn’t throw anything, but I did pick up a pillow from a colonial exhibition, tap on my friend Corey’s shoulder, and ask, “Do you think this will fly?” He was thrilled to give it a go.
They’re charming, precious anecdotes, really. Which is to say, nothing is at stake. The more I wrote this chapter, the more bored I got. Usually what happens when I get going is my stomach fills with butterflies or my head feels like it’s spinning. I feel as though I’m holding hot lava and I’m not sure how long I can grip it before my hands melt. Not this time. The lava has cooled. In fact, I’m not sure there was any lava to begin with.
So I’ve put the chapter aside. I went on a bike ride with my kids. I had a conversation about The Wrinkle in Time movie trailer with a writer friend (we are so confused—who is Oprah’s character?). I read a book. That’s the first trick to writing slow.
Walk away, and find something else to do. This will allow you to put your mind in neutral long enough for an “a-ha” idea to pop up. Sure enough, while I was driving my girls home from a baseball game, and doing my best to ignore the continual stream of butt and poop jokes, a memory showed up. It is a memory that is horrifying and that makes me sad and a little sick to my stomach, and I am afraid to explore it on the page, but it also illustrates perfectly that line between teenage messing around and teenage tragedy.
When I was a senior in high school, there was a double suicide. I had seen the girls, classmates of mine, the night before. We danced together in a parking lot of a burger joint everyone would meet up at between wherever else we were going. I had no idea what was going to happen. The next day was a Saturday, and I found out in between aerobics classes at my neighborhood gym.
We were all just messing around those early days of Spring 1994, glad to have been accepted into college, looking for Prom dates, coasting through those last weeks, and then we weren’t. News cameras lined the front doors of our high school. Instead of going to classes we were going to funerals. I promised my mom I would never do what these girls did, and my mom—a woman who at the age of five literally escaped death and got on a boat to come to America—collapsed in relief at my statement.
I don’t know if I can pull this chapter off. I don’t know if I should try, which is precisely why I will, and it is why I decided to expose my slow writing process at a point in my writing when I don’t know if it’ll work out.
My original plan was to show you a before and after draft, but that is an “everything worked out” story; a happily ever after for a writer, if you will. I want to capture how uncomfortable and doubtful I am right now.
Here’s what I have going against me:
1. I have three days to pull this chapter off.
2. It’s summer, and my writing time consists of sitting poolside jotting sentences and mostly thoughts down on paper while trying to look friendly (I’m in a new town and have no friends), and also making sure my children don’t drown.
3. My editor could hate it.
4. If my editor hates it, I’ll be behind. What’s more, I’ll have to come up with something else to capture the devastation and horror of this scene.
5. Finally, and what will be the main reason I will pursue this—I can’t see how this essay will come together. I am holding a couple of fragments, like a mismatched pair of socks, hoping to find a common thread. I am addicted to stepping into the mystery of creating, and that is why I write. It is redemptive to bring all my doubts—about myself and my writing—and step into the dark that is the blank page.
This is what slow writing feels like. It is running up a mountain with a 10 lb weight in your hands; it is exploring a new city without a map; it is making beef Bolognese sauce without a recipe. You have no idea if you’ll make it, but the mountain air stings your lungs alive, the skyscrapers pierce the blue sky, and that onion sautéing with the butter and the celery and the carrots smells delicious, so you refuse to look away. You refuse to stop. You have to see where this goes.