What Do Louise DeSalvo and Aesop Have In Common?

 

DeSalvo & Aesop

Some folks they rip and run/Some folks don’t believe in sign/ But you get me babe/You got to take your time/ Because I’m built for comfort/I ain’t built for speed….”  —excerpt from Willie Dixon’s “Built for Comfort Not for Speed

The appearance of Aesop dates back to around 2500 years ago and he is said to be of Greek origin.  However, many argue that the presence of African elements in his fables indicates that he could have been Egyptian, Libyan, or Ethiopian.  Might the universal messages in his tales have made people all over the world want to adopt Aesop as their own?  At any rate, Aesop’s fable, “The Tortoise and The Hare”—about how a slow, modest Tortoise succeeded in winning a race against a proud and speedy Hare is proof that human beings have been feeling the tension of whether to prize speed over slow-and-steady for a long, long time.

Before I aspired to write, I was a young person who loved to read.  And even though it was fun to say that I had read a certain number of Nancy Drew mysteries, reading didn’t become a quantifiable activity until 2011 when I joined Goodreads and saw that people were reading 50 books, 100 books, 150 books per year and more!  I didn’t even know such a thing was possible, especially not for adults with jobs, relationships, and other interests and responsibilities.  And when I saw that many of these people not only read profusely, but managed to write several in-depth reviews of their readings as well, I began to think that I had a lot of catching-up to do.  So, in 2012 I set a goal to read 20 books and thought I was really doing something when at year’s end I had read 23!  In 2013 I read 41 books, and the 44 books I read in 2014 are definitely a symbol of time well-spent.  Still, when I read Louise DeSalvo’s book The Art of Slow Writing, I realized that if I wanted to write more, and better, maybe I was going to have to give up some of my reading!

It also got me thinking about the art of slow reading, too.  How “wrong” would it be to spend time with a text, without an expectation of how soon I ought to be finished with it? But maybe that should be the subject of another post….

To my mind, it is ironic that Louise DeSalvo would deliver a book with slow writing as its subject. After all, this woman—who is a Virginia Woolf scholar, to boot—has kicked out about 10 independently-authored books and at least five collaborations in 34 years while also being married and a mother of three who teaches memoir writing in CUNY Hunter College’s MFA Program in Creative Writing! What’s “slow” about her process?

Reading The Art of Slow Writing (subtitled Reflections on Time, Craft, and Creativity) made me realize that I was hungry to love the questions, challenges, and craft of writing.  How had I grown so frustrated with the process of not being able to produce something beautiful, quickly? Why was I always measuring myself against prolific, masterful writers—envying their “easy way” with words, and the regularity with which their work appeared on “must read” lists, in “definitive” anthologies, and nominated by various committees of tastemakers as Greatest-Book-Ever!? In my anxious desire for recognition I had allowed external measurements and expectations to crowd-out passion and respect for my own creative process.

Could Aesop’s tortoise and hare co-exist inside one person?

While I may have thought that there was mental, emotional and spiritual work in writing, a part of me was resistant to getting into the full perspiration of the technical work and self-discipline required to become a craftsperson. Why? Because it was too slow.

But writers and artists aren’t industrial machines, and creative processes are not one-size-fits-all. In many cases there is an agricultural element to creative work, and by that I mean the cultivation of the soil from which creative work grows.  I am also talking about allowing work to ripen and mature according to its season and not just forcing it into being (—because you imagine people are standing around looking at you and wondering what’s taking so long?)

Some of what I love about writing is being able to step away from what other people are filling-up my mind with (like advertising jingles, for instance; or reality show stars’ bad behavior— which tends to encourage me to rehearse having verbal showdowns with people who I don’t even know!) While writing I get to indulge in thinking about what is important to me. Temporarily removed from scheming how to manifest ever-more dinero, ducats, and “bread,” writing allows me to tap a kaleidoscope of dreams, questions, ideas, memories, fantasies, and feelings.  I get to suck on words and chew on phrases. Try out sentences that work and don’t work.

Even while the 306 pages [in 55 short chapters] of The Art of Slow Writing advocates for the meditative approach to writing, I still found it to be a heavy-duty toolbox loaded with practical bolts, bits, tools, and industrial adhesives culled from her own and other’s experiences writing. (If you’re interested, some of those others include Zadie Smith, Michael Chabon, Jeffrey Eugenides, John Steinbeck, and Virginia Woolf).

My favorite chapters were “Learning How to Learn,” “Labor and Management,” and “Game Plan.” Across all chapters DeSalvo has important things to say about honoring our efforts and the things that go well with our process. She also encourages a compassionate view of “failure”:

“If we believe that creativity is—or should be—success after success, we’ve got it wrong.” (p. 119)

“Without failure, we’re not frustrated enough to seek new solutions to the challenges we’re confronting.” (p. 122)

“Even works put aside deliberately aren’t failures. Paradoxically, they can teach us more about writing than easily written, successful attempts. They can teach us that there are limits to our ability, that sometimes we have to admit defeat, that our willingness to redirect our efforts indicates the kind of flexibility we need to develop as writers.” (p. 249)

“But it takes grit and determination to climb back into a work and revise and revise again and again. It takes humility, too—a willingness to say ‘This isn’t good enough yet; it needs more work.’ And a dedication to the process of doing the work, coupled with a belief that, in time, we’ll likely produce a completed work.” (p. 256)

When it comes to writing, are you a tortoise or a hare?

12 Comments

  1. Leslie,
    I was mesmerized by the beauty of your words. I’m a tortoise when it comes to answering your question. I need to think about it before I can answer.

  2. I think I’m going to echo Margaret just above me – must get this book. Your post is so beautifully written and the timing of it perfect. I know about “slow” crafts – the hours it takes to spin enough yarn to make a sweater should have made me realise that writing and reading are also best savoured rather than devoured like a glutton. Then Louise herself has commented on the “shoulds” in our lives – so, there’s no should here at all anymore – simply thank you for allowing me to see the connection between something I already know and something I, too, am learning to do.

    1. Yes, Margaret, aka Marmalade and Roses you should get this book! Meanwhile, I look forward to reading your meditations on your process as a “slow” craftsperson. Artists who make things with their hands have long been a source of inspiration for me—and not only because of the beautiful end results but because they remind me to respect the integrity of process and materials.

  3. Thank you so very much for your post. And I love what you said about reading. Henry Miller once said that he wanted to take a year to read a book–I mention it in “The Art of Slow Writing.”–I think it was “The Magic Mountain.” I think it’s the “shoulds” that are the problem for us: I should read more; I should read more slowly, whatever. We seem to be obsessed with scoring ourselves and comparing ourselves with others: they read x number of books; I only read x.

    In terms of my productivity: I’m 72 and I’ve been writing since 1974 or so. I work most days, not weekends, not nights. And I rarely write more than two hours a day, except when I’m finishing a book. I’m privileged in that I love to teach and that I don’t have to worry about making money to support myself from my writing. My sons are grown men now but when they lived at home, I worked at my teaching and writing when they were at school or, when they were babies, when they napped or slept and I did household work when they were home or when they were babies when they were awake. It is the tortoise story, really. A little work every day most days. I wanted a life that included time to write, time with family, time to cook, exercise, meditate, read, relax. And I’m very lucky and privileged that teaching allows me the time to do all these things. I do, however, lead a quiet, monastic kind of life which might not suit everyone.

    1. Hi Louise DeSalvo! Thank you for reading my post and leaving a comment. The fact that you “rarely write more than two hours a day,” and manage to keep your weekends free illustrates the tortoise story really well. Maybe one day I’ll have got the knack of using my time as effectively. I’m not ready for a monastery, but I know its easy to spend a lot of time being-busy-being-places and otherwise using up all the solitudinous energy needed for writing. Thank you for writing The Art of Slow Writing—reading it slowed me down and helped me think about my writing in an important and refreshed way.. AHhh, yes. I’ve been such a consumptive reader but there is something savory about Henry Miller’s idea to take a year to read a book.

  4. Well Leslie I haven’t been writing long enough to know which one I am, but I’d probably peg myself as a tortoise. That’s because I’m a major procrastinator and I am not confident at all in my capacity to write creatively. People always tell me I should write a book from the stories I tell, but you and I both know it isn’t as easy as that. Needless to say this book The Art of Slow Writing is something I really probably should pick up. It might get me off to a better start with my creative writing. Thanks for this post. It’s the helpful insight I need to get started. 🙂

    1. Didi- I recently saw something funny related to procrastination—hopefully I can locate it and share! If there is a natural storyteller inside of you then I hope you’ll find a way to explore translating that into your creative writing. I recommend The Art of Slow Writing so let everybody know it is on your ‘wish list’!

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