Why Slow Writing is the Only Kind I Want to Do

The past six weeks have been among the busiest of the past year…and the least productive. Perhaps I would take pleasure in noting the irony if I were less frustrated and tired, and my bank account less in need of checks from paid writing assignments.

There’s no getting around the fact that schools cram every special event—every concert, art show, award ceremony, field day, stage performance, and staff recognition—into the final weeks of the school year. Because I’m a frequent (if sometimes reluctant) volunteer, few events are optional, and I have some responsibility for many of them. (My friend Kelly asked me last week, “Can you imagine if we were getting paid for all our volunteer hours?” I can imagine, but try not to, because it makes me want to cry.)

Between school events, driving my kids around, and volunteer tasks, I’ve managed to purchase groceries, pay bills, fix meals, do enough light cleaning to keep the worst chaos at bay, and care for pets. But not to write. When I’m not writing, I feel lazy and unproductive (even though I’m fulfilling more than my share of other responsibilities), poor (even though the money I make from writing is paltry at best), and afraid (one of my biggest fears is that I’ll fail to live up to my potential as a writer—in other words, that I’ll die without having written what I’m capable of writing).

I keep a notebook with me in which to jot down ideas, images, and sentences. But in busy times like these—when a 30-minute change to one child’s schedule throws off the entire precision machine of our family calendar, when my email and voicemail boxes ding and buzz with continual reminders of what I need to make, bring, tell, see, do—the lack of space and quiet makes it hard to complete a meaningful thought. I strain to decipher whatever insights or wisdom might be calling out to me amid the chaos. It feels like riding in a car with the windows down and the radio on; I can hear enough random, disconnected sounds to know there’s music playing, but the incessant background noise makes it impossible to know what song it is.

That we need space and quiet in which to work is a common understanding among writers and other artists. Wendell Berry’s poem “How to Be a Poet,” featured in a recent Brain Pickings, starts with this command:

Make a place to sit down.

Sit down. Be quiet.

But cultural messages equating stillness, solitude, and quiet with inefficiency and laziness are powerful. Further, social media have allowed some writers to make a good—even a great—living by embracing the bustle of the 24-hour-a-day virtual world. I can think of a dozen writers, Christian and secular, who have nurtured successful writing careers by building a brand. They publish multiple short posts every day that reinforce a few core messages. They supplement online writing with speaking gigs focused on the same core messages. Every year or two, they publish a book that either compiles a bunch of their online writing in one place or explores a key theme in more detail.

For many years, I watched such writers build their careers, listening carefully to advice distilled from their success: Post regularly, daily if possible. Keep posts and sentences short. Make only one or two main points. Include lots of photos and images. Share the same link multiple times on multiple platforms.

It’s good advice—if you want to produce a certain kind of writing, the kind that plays well to an online audience. But these processes and structures leave little room for exploration, uncertainty, and nuance. The incessant drive to post, post, post quickly renders silence and rumination both rare and useless. Why ponder questions from many angles if in the end I’m going to write a 600-word post with a single, crystal clear point? As my friend Amy Julia explored in a recent post for Her.meneutics, a number of long-time, well-known bloggers have recently given up on blogging in favor of work that requires more time to both produce and to read.

I respect writers who have created a successful online brand (and envy both their reach and their income). But I know what kind of writer I am and want to be, and that’s not it. I’m a writer who needs fallow time, both because that’s how I work best, and because the writing I’m most proud of has required many hours of reading, conversation and thought. I want to tell good stories and ask (but not necessarily answer) hard questions. I want to invite readers to come alongside me to seek wisdom that can’t be summed up in three points or 140 characters, to produce and partake of writing that changes hearts and minds—and ultimately, the world.

The Patheos Public Square topic this month is “slow living”—a term encompassing trends in many areas of life, from food and family life to career and church. Slow living prizes quality over quantity, depth over efficiency, meaning over marketing. I want to produce “slow writing,” which won’t make me rich or famous, but will satisfy my soul—and when I get it right, the souls of those who read what I write.

The irony of slow living is that it requires an awful lot of work. Slow living sounds relaxing but demands effort and attention. Slow eating, for example, might involve planting a garden and cooking from scratch—endeavors that require much planning, time, and physical and mental energy. My engagement with “slow writing” likewise requires hard work—the discipline of setting and keeping limits on household tasks and volunteer work, the willingness to sit down and be quiet even when the inspiration isn’t coming and the bathroom needs cleaning. And after years of trying out various “slow living” approaches (e.g., hanging my wash on an outdoor line or keeping a kitchen garden), I’ve realized that take-out pizza, Trader Joe’s heat-and-eat entrees, and well-functioning appliances are necessary for me to be the writer, mother, wife, and person I want to be. For me at least, there’s only so much slow living I can do before the whole project falls to pieces.

Earlier this year, when I was stuck in another frustrating time of getting little writing done, my friend Alison reminded me that fallow times are as necessary for writers as they are for fields and gardens. We see only silence and stagnation, failing to recognize the necessary preparation that’s happening under the surface. Alison wrote:

We need to expand our idea of what writing is. For us, reading and ruminating are key parts [of the writing process]. I was in the desert for years [not writing], but I was always reading and thinking. Although I didn’t know it at the time, I was teaching myself how to write.

Normally, when we want to learn how to do something new or better, we get busy. We read, discuss, practice, do. But when it comes to writing—the kind of writing I need and want to do—I aim instead to sit and do nothing. And read and think and question and keep on writing even when I know what I’m writing isn’t very good.

Now and then, I write something on a news story or controversy. But for the most part, I’m not all that interested in telling you what I think of the Duggars, Caitlyn Jenner, or Tony Campolo’s stance on gay marriage (though for the record on that last one, it’s HOORAY). I am very interested in writing about relationships and sexuality and families and children and culture and the church and medicine and disability and incarnation in a way that invites reflection and revelation, questioning and conversation. Sometimes my reflections and our conversation will lead me to take a stand on some issue du jour. Most of the time, they won’t.

With this approach to writing, I probably won’t go viral, make it on to any top blogger lists, or earn a lot of money. But I will teach myself how to write, again and again and again.

Note: Later this week, I will be attending and speaking (on contraception and reproductive health) at Sojourners’ Summit for Change, and then my family and I will head out west to visit some national parks. I have one or two more posts that will go live in the next few days, and then it’s back to radio silence until I return from my travels. I’m hoping for lots of good ruminating to happen in the meantime.

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