No. 102: Slow art, fast art
I’m not a fast writer. Not when it comes to stories.
Newsletters are different. I can belt these out somewhat quickly, so long as an entire day is considered quickly. Which, to me, it is.
I wake up. Let things flow. Edit. Edit. Edit. Carefully select a song, something to read, and something to view for the Weekly Three. Move everything I’ve written to Substack. Edit again. Choose an image. Freak out as I scan the page for little errors I’m bound to miss. Then say a Hail Mary and click Publish.
Such is life writing newsletters. I enjoy it. And I do what I can to replicate this one-day efficiency in my storywriting.
But the fact remains.
Storywriting, for me, is slow going.
And that’s okay.
Stories should take a long time. At least that’s what I’ve realized, embarrassingly, five years after graduating from my writing program.
Time spent a.k.a. attention, care, and love are what set the short story, the novel, the poem, and other forms of Lit-truh-cha apart from their more bloggy counterparts. There’s no deadline. The story is done when you decide it is. (Or, when it decides it is.) What matters is quality, which means taking your time, because a story needs to be damn good, especially fiction. I’m not reading about Jack and Jill unless they go up the hill.
Which isn’t to say my newsletters aren’t also damn good.
I hope they are.
It’s just, when reading a great short story, the countless hours the author spent writing and editing are immediately apparent. The polished sentences shine. The story proceeds with splendid economy. It’s no off the cuff ordeal, but the work of a craftsperson working tirelessly to get the thing right. Some of its beauty no doubt comes from the writer giving up a chunk of themselves — of their life, of their time, of their peace of mind — to make it. Sacrifice is required, and that’s hardly a word I’d pair with the adjectives quick or painless.
So, I get the slowness. I’ve had no choice but to get it as I enter my second month of working on a story that, I believe, has promise. It’s taught me that “productivity is not necessarily in a linear relationship with time spent,” which, leave it to George Saunders to summarize the realities of my life before I’ve even had a chance to attempt an explanation.
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What a thing it would be to be a fast story writer, if such an exotic being exists.
Once upon a time, I fancied myself one of these rare creatures. My fantasy was whipping up a masterpiece a la Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral” in a burst of passion lasting only a few hours, the way I imagine Picasso did with his simpler pieces.
Know that I tried.
One weekend, I went up to my family’s cabin alone and cranked out a story in one long, painful day. Getting the story on the page was great. My mistake was calling it done instead of realizing I had only taken the first step down the long path of storywriting.
Which very belatedly brings me to my point.
If you’re involved, like me, in a work of “slow art,” it’s interesting to consider practicing a “fast art” on the side — by which I mean, an artform that moves a little faster than, in my case, storywriting.
Because isn’t it true? Some art forms just seem to move slower (composing music, writing a screenplay, painting with oils, sculpting) while others move faster (playing an instrument, drawing, taking photos, stacking rocks on top of one another at the beach).
Of course any person could spend any amount of time on any artform. And if you want your work to be great, it’s inevitably going to take time.
But storywriting being my slow art, I find a lot of enjoyment dabbling in faster mediums. Enter, for example, this newsletter. The acoustic guitar that sits in my living room, awaiting a few daily strums. The playlist I listen to when waking up in the morning. My sudden desire over the last couple of weeks to rearrange my house. My new love for cooking. My little notebook of bad poetry (and all my other notebooks). My 35mm film camera. My speakers and turntable combo for impromptu DJ sessions.
For some, all this is unnecessary. The primary objective is enough. But spending two months’ time on only a short story is just not enough output for me. I need to make and finish something I’m proud of on a daily basis, if possible. I want to be constantly busy, a disposition that probably comes from my dad.
On Wednesday my tía Blanca, my dad’s sister, and my tío Eduardo visited during a layover on their trip from Mexico City to Rome. Sipping on hot chocolate, I listened to stories of the Mexican side of my family’s early history, which included a few anecdotes featuring my dad. The short of it? My dad, and most of my family in Mexico, worked hard. While still kids, my dad and his brother would wake up before the sunrise to milk cows. After school, they would help their dad, my abuelito, in his welding shop until late at night.
When hard work becomes part of your life so young, I’m not sure it ever goes away. Even after coming to the United States and settling down with a wife and kids, my dad apparently never got the memo that he could chill. He wouldn’t be my dad if, getting home from a long day at work — which was no desk job, but the work of a blue-collar tradesman — he didn’t immediately pick up another job around the house or in the yard. The idea was, go go go, and don’t stop.
Hearing my tía Blanca’s stories, I couldn’t help but imagine his fatherly perspective watching his kids grow up so luxuriously relative to to his own blood-sweat-and-tears childhood. For better or worse, I was never asked to milk a cow before sunrise.
Surely, it wasn’t always to easy to see his kids whining about getting the latest video game when, as a kid, he was lucky to get a pair of shoes that fit his growing feet. But although our privilege often showed up in ugly, materialistic ways, isn’t the point of all that hard work to give your children a better life? To give them opportunities you never had? To give them what I have now, the freedom to apply myself to my passion for writing? To be the first in a long line of hard workers to apply that work ethic to the pursuit of being an artist?
I don’t work with my body so much as my brain (unless I want to via self-induced suffering a.k.a. exercise). But in the work that I do, I bring the same zeal, effort, and discipline that my dad learned as a kid and exemplified in his lifestyle. I have the same distaste for idleness. I wake up (usually) before the sun and work into the night. I like to go go go, and not stop, like him.
It feels good. It’s what fuels my work and my need for both slow and fast art. In a way, it’s my reason to exist. It’s life itself, that voice in the back of my head that says, Your time on Earth is short, so
So long as I do something, it doesn’t really matter if I go fast or slow. ♦
HEAR: “I Go” by Peggy Gou, DJ Koze
READ: Barbara Tuchman’s “The Proud Tower,” or really any of her books if you like history. I shared three of her titles in the chat. Come chat with us and share what you’re reading.
VIEW: My dog Archer.
Oof. I wish I could say that my newsletter is my fast art. That's what it started as, or at least, what I wanted it to be. I started writing my newsletter so that I had an outlet for quick pieces and so that I could build a safe and honest place for community without Zuckerberg or Musk telling us what we can and can't do/say. I wanted my newsletter to be fast art so that my slow art could be working on my next book. But it turns out, with being a working Mom of a 16-month old, I only have the time to write the slow-art-newsletter and the book hasn't been touched in 10 months. My Substack is growing, though, so I am grateful. But I still have the pull toward working on a larger work. How do I write my newsletters faster while still keeping them good? That's what I'm trying to figure out.
This was beautiful, the way you brought it home, the generations of hard physical labor to bring forth a child who can follow a path where he doesn't have to strain his back or risk his life. You, like me and many others, have the privilege to make slow, passionate art.
I too write slowly, even though I often had to write to a deadline and do all-nighters in a row with cat naps in between.
I still marvel at Dickens, who poured out stories, solid entertainments, for newspapers on a weekly basis. You can see how he matured in that style. "Oliver Twist," for instance, was his second novel and it's weak with a plot that loses confidence midway only to turn around and repeat itself like a passage in a fugue. 10 years later Dickens is turning out solid masterpieces against the same weekly deadline. "David Copperfield," "Bleak House.' And 10 years after that, "Great Expectation."
The quantity of the text, the quality of the writing, the entertaining highs of the books, the characters brought to life who still live. These were truly Dickens' gift, and his fast writing holds its own against the slow writing of many a masterpiece.
However, I found it pointless to envy fast writers. To create a book, it takes what it takes. The book I'm serializing here on substack took 13 years to write and became so large, I divided it into 4 books. I spent a lot of time in those early drafts fussing over sentences. Finally, I was amazed how little of the first-draft prose got into the final version. I learned the hard way that the purpose of the early drafts was not to be perfect or precise but to find out who everybody was and where everybody was going.
Here’s how it worked. First, you tell yourself the story in a clumsy, verbose way, then once you know who everybody is, the narrating voice, which you may have fretted over ever finding, comes to you effortlessly. Now the fun part begins. You get to be the producer, to put on a big Vegas extravaganza version of your story, with cliffhangers and tightrope walkers, flying monkeys and melting witches.
So three cheers for writers, slow and fast.