#Throwback Thursday: What Do Louise DeSalvo and Aesop Have in Common?

Greetings! Happy 2018!
I’ve elected to re-publish one of my early posts – back when I had about four followers!- while I figure out what I want to do with folklore & literacy this year. Enjoy!
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 succeeds 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 Louise DeSalvo‘s 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 Louise DeSalvo‘s 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?


  1. Thank you for the return visit to this post, which will draw me back to the book… slowly, of course. My characters are waiting patiently for me, even letting me come up with other characters/other authors in essays about them as I get ready to go back to the book. Meanwhile, I read 31 books in 2017, including spending most of Dec. 31 finishing no. 31 so that it stayed on that year’s list, not this year’s.
    Happy new reading and writing year!

    1. Hi Margaret – happy new reading and writing year to you, as well!
      I am interested that you discovered new characters while writing essays about the existing characters of your book. Did the use of another format allow you to see the need for these other personalities? I have to be reminded to approach my writing from different angles, and when I do, I learn something “new” about the story I’m telling.

      You read a lot in 2017! Was there a personal challenge or special research driving your reading or was it pleasure and happenstance?

      1. Dear Leslie,
        Thanks for your reply. Yes, the new format let me see the need for the other personalities and gave them room. “A Literary Mosaic,” one of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s lesser-known but still marvelous stories, provided a clue to what to do. I recommend trying that story. (Sorry, Arthur and Leslie, I couldn’t resist the “clue” part.) Much of what I found was pleasure, and other parts were to fill time — what I call “bus books,” reading to get something out of travel time — but there was a challenge: I wanted to re-read all of Doyle’s original Sherlock Holmes stories, over 1,300 pages, in a year. Let’s just say I read them the first time straight through in another year that ended in a seven. The other challenge was adopting some of my dad’s books and discovering the middle of William Manchester’s biography of Winston Churchill, “The Last Lion.” It ended in 1940, not a year to leave as “to be continued,” and by happenstance (love the word, thanks!) I found part three first and part one last. I spent much of New Year’s Eve finishing part one.

  2. Good question. I think it depends on what it is. Blog posts tend to be kind of hare-ish sometimes (even those depend on the topic), while publications tend to be more tortoise-ish.

    1. Hare-ish and tortoise-ish – love it! Kathy, I’m going to have to take a class from you and Susanne with regards to being quicker with my blog posts – I tinker and re-write so dang much! I would like to develop a less time-intensive process for my blog posts.

  3. Thanks for reprinting this post for the new year. I find it inspiring as I prepare to return to my memoir writing class next week.

    I think for a long time before I write a word. Then I quickly write a first draft. After that, I spend days re-writing. Almost. Every. Single. Word.

    I LOVE “suck on words and chew on phrases!”

    1. Hi Andrea – Okay, I’m loving that you brought up THINKING. Does this also include ruminating, reflecting, daydreaming? Do you sit and think for a long time before you write or is the thinking going on for days, weeks, etc., woven in and out of the fabric of your daily life? I’m not sure that people who don’t write understand that it’s not just a matter of sitting down at the keyboard and banging something out.

      I think I used “suck on words and chew on phrases” to remind myself to savor the writing process, to not be so quick with the frustration when the words and phrasing aren’t shaping up!

  4. So much to mull over here, Leslie. I’m a slow reader in the sense that I rarely have time to read for more than 1 hour a day so I’m lucky to finish 1 book a month. In 2017 I ready 18 books and was proud of that. I can’t imagine reading 50 in a year! But I also read magazines and NY Times and our local newspaper on-line. I subscribe to a couple of lit mags and read short stories constantly, none of which I itemize (but thinking now I should, even just to remember some of the amazing “unknown” writers i’ve encountered).

    When I write a blog post, I’m pretty speedy. I don’t “dump” things into my blog because I try to respect that people are taking their valuable spare time to read my scribbles but I don’t polish the posts the way I work on a personal essay or a short story or a poem. I just finished a piece of flash non-fiction that I started in November 2016. Is that slow? I don’t know. Other times I’ve written stories that I’m happy with after minimal tinkering.

    I like the sound of the craft book you reviewed. I’m a craft book addict! On my table right now is “How to Write Short” by Roy Peter Clark. Like the one you reviewed, the chapters are short and there are exercises at the end of each. I think its important for writers to keep doing these kinds of exercises in the same way that athletes keep training when they make the big-leagues. We’re working on our creativity muscles and stretching them to try new forms.

    Whew. Long-winded response. All to say, GREAT POST!

    1. Susanne, thank you for your long-winded response?. You’ve touched on a lot of things that feed one’s writing process: reading books and other media for pleasure as well as to stay informed; experimenting with different writing formats and having some that we labor less over/labor more over; exploring books on craft. I, too, have a crush on writing craft books! Do you have a favorite?

      I like this: “working on our creativity muscles and stretching them to try new forms.” Yes!

  5. I am a tortoise. I like to take it slow, and like you give it a chew or two. Although I write to hopefully be read, I’m all about being “me” on the page, as I am in daily life. Speaking from my limited experience, writing speeches, college essays, designing PowerPoints, Sparkyjen, and a short story here and there, I am first into using prose and punctuation that both speaks loudly AND carry’s a big stick. Haven’t you noticed my frequent use of exclamation points?

    Researcher is more my avatar. I love doing that. I’m surprised my work ever makes it to being seen because I love doing the research that I feel should come before more.

    1. Sparkyjen, you said the magic word: RESEARCH. Do you ever have to yank yourself back from endless research to get down to composing text?

      Being you on the page is what makes us “hear” your unique voice – I love it!

  6. I have been listening to books for the past two years after vowing I never would. It turns out I read way too fast to really appreciate many writers. I still read mysteries and chick lit since there is no point listening to them. They don’t merit the time. I hear my own words when I write, so it makes sense that I would savor listening. I am a tortoise with my thought process but a hare when it comes time to put the words down. I tend to shape texts in my mind, then write.I am not one of those who finds what they think as they write as do many writers.

    1. This is so interesting, Elizabeth. For prose-writing I always thought I needed to “shape text in my mind.” I once had an instructor who suggested I “try to write into discovery;” but I couldn’t understand what she was talking about. Years later I found myself writing and being surprised by what came unbidden. I love those moments, now.

      How did you come to be such a rapid reader? Was it intentional?

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