Slowness

Ted Kooser is a short man with the soft, gentle voice of a grandfather telling his grandchild a bedtime story. In the first year of his tenure as Poet Laureate, I sat in a small, hot, crowded room and fought sleep as he read us his own hand-picked selections. I don’t recall the specific poems he read, but I do remember two things: 1) His face and ears caused my friends and I to affectionately call him the Hobbit Poet; and 2) Kooser was a calm, patient man, every bit as kind as you’d imagine, who seemed to care for each word.

Immediately after the reading, my friends and I discussed our thoughts excitedly. When it came to me, I explained (with a great deal of guilt) that about halfway through I had dozed off, but I was sure that whatever had been read was top-notch. My excuse, I told them, was that the reading was too slow, that Kooser had lingered on each word for too long. “How could you hear that silken voice and not fallen to sleep?” I asked.

I always imagine poets like Kooser sitting in an armchair in their living room, sipping a cup of coffee with the window open, a pen in their hand, scribbling words in an aged notebook. They strike out phrases they dislike and revise within their ever-thinning margins. Perhaps they find a quiet spot in nature, surrounded by trees and amorphous clouds chugging along in the breeze.

This isn’t just for poets. I feel the same way for my favorite novelists. When they’re writing, they’re doing it on a typewriter in the quiet of their study. Or they’re sitting in a quaint little coffee shop that’s nearly empty, sipping on an Earl Grey with milk and honey. This romanticization is reinforced when I read stories about J.K. Rowling writing the first Harry Potter book on a typewriter. Or when Cormac McCarthy auctioning off his beloved typewriter makes headlines. I mean, take a look at what was written over at Flavorwire:

There’s something magical about catching a glimpse of one of your favorite authors at work–even a photo of the epic event can send an anxious thrill down your spine, as if you might be able to see some hint of literary genius in posture or setting, in attire or facial expression. And it’s even better if they’re working on a typewriter.

However they’re writing in my imagination, they’re doing it slowly, methodically, with great care for every word. When I contrast this to my writing method, I want to weep with disappointment. I’m typing this now in my cramped apartment with the TV on in the next room, the laundry machine running, a used coffee grinder sitting on the table, and a mug with a fast-drying coffee ring at the bottom. And I’m certainly not using a pen or a typewriter.

In fact, I’ve got an internet window open, a tab with Twitter ready in case I have a sudden witty thought (I usually don’t), a Facebook tab, reddit tab, and a few news articles I’m saving for later. Kooser, I’d like to think, would not approve.

Looking back on his reading, I admire his slowness. He seemed content to linger on every word because he knew the time he’d put into it. Whenever I let distraction take over, I think of nights like the one listening to Ted Kooser. I think of Cormac McCarthy and J.K. Rowling using typewriters. I think of the slow, romantic, methodical way these writers engage the page, and I use this as inspiration. Take any creative writing class and you’ll most likely hear the phrase “Just write.” Just get it out. Who cares if it’s bad or you’re stuck or unhappy with it, get to writing. This is because getting started is the difficult part. Writing is like an engine that’s slept dormant throughout winter and when its time to put ink onto paper, it takes a few turns of the key to get it running. But once the engine finishes sputtering, it smooths out and regains its former strength.

I find inspiration in the slowness of literature. It takes time to write and to read. Perhaps that’s why I imagine my favorite writers doing it even slower than I. If they can spend years honing their craft or finishing their masterpiece, I can spend a few hours each day working toward the same end. Now, I just need to find a good typewriter.


Steven E. Athay is an aspiring story designer and connoisseur of all things awesome. Follow him on Twitter at @steveneathay, or read his blog Afflatus.

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2 thoughts on “Slowness

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  1. In today’s increasingly full world, it is more and more difficult to avoid distraction. That tacking of the mind is sometimes reflected in the word that makes it to the page, which makes it imperative that both writers and editors read and re-read what has been written to be sure it still forms a cohesive whole.

    That is unless your name happens to be Douglas Adams, at which point everyone expects your chapters to abruptly change course.

    On an aside note, the mental picture I get of most authors is very rarely the “bent over a notebook” variety. Instead, it is of the photo that graces (and I use that term very loosely) the book cover or author biography. Shel Silverstein is a perfect example: why, oh why, did they select the “grimace of hunger” photo for his anthologies of poems?

    1. This is true–writing needs to be checked to see it makes sense. But even though this is a completely different meaning than what you’re talking about, your remark puts me in mind of a lesson I learned editing here, particularly with Ceil’s columns.

      I found that there’s such a thing as too much clarity. Stripping an essay or a book of soul and personality at the expense of having it make more “sense” is not a good bargain, unless you’re writing instructions for an angle grinder. The job of an editor is to find that balance, and the job of a writer is to make it easy for the editor to do that.

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