I joked recently on Meg Vann’s facebook page that I think there should be a movement called Slow Writing, as there is the Slow Food movement that began in France when a farmer drove his tractor into a fast food restaurant in rebellion against a culture that is about immediate gratification, rather than about slow savouring and the conviviality of a shared meal.
But it’s not just a joke. It’s for real, for me. I am a Slow Writer. Which is kind of weird to come to realise, since I often write rather quickly; blurting words out in big, streaming puffs and blows. The slowness isn’t so much in the process of putting the words on paper, or typing to screen. The slowness is in what comes before and after. It’s in the opening and pondering and dreaming and stewing that comes before, and in the processing and digesting that comes after.
This all takes time. And time, for me, is space. This is something I’m still learning to trust. Being different, moving at a different pace, feeling like a slowcoach, can be hard to trust sometimes. You feel lonely, sometimes, when everyone is streaking ahead. Like the little caboose at the end of the train. Like the tortoise being left behind by the hare. The plod of your own steady footsteps your only company, until you recognise the ever-present company of space – the space you’re in, that you’re taking, that you’re held by, that you have and that has you.
This morning, after a long walk in the hills and valleys around my home, winding a wide circle down gravel road and orchard rows, across creeks, among trees, along fence lines, I came back and picked up my very first book about writing: Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. This was apt, seeing as the thoughts that kept bubbling up on this particular walk had been thoughts of old friends, past relationships, memories. It’s an old book I don’t often turn to any more.
But it is such a good book, a kind book, a gentle and wise book. Maybe it is a book more for poets than for novelists. Maybe not. I don’t know. Maybe it’s not just for writers at all, because it has a lot of Zen Buddhism in it, and that can be for anyone.
I noticed this morning, while flicking through the pages, something I hadn’t noticed before. There is a lot of talk about space. About taking space, giving yourself space, opening to space. This morning, this is what seemed most resonant to me in her words. It was the same thing my walk had been telling me. Maybe it’s the same thing my whole life has been telling me.
Natalie Goldberg talks about haiku at one point, about how, when you read a lot of it, you start to see that there is a leap in it; “a moment when the poet makes a large jump and the reader’s mind must catch up. This creates a little sensation of space in the reader’s mind, which is nothing less than a moment’s experience of God, and when you feel it, there is usually an ‘Ahh’ wanting to issue from your lips.”
This is what being a Slow Writer can be then, this is what a Slow Writer might be doing, in the savouring of space. A Slow Writer might just be someone who likes hanging out with God.
Japanese kintsugi bowl. Broken crockery is joined with resins and then the cracks (spaces?) are accentuated by gold lacquer.
Here is Goldberg’s haiku exercise:
Write a series of short poems. You only have three minutes to write each one; each one must be three lines. Begin each one with a title that you choose from something your eye falls on: for example, glass, salt, water, the window. Three lines, three minutes. Without thinking, write three deft lines. Pause a moment, do another.
Here are some of mine from this morning:
Flag-like, moved by wind
Touched by air
And the private places of our bodies
Handled daily and nightly, still
Little ants bless you
Discarded, the busy hungry life
Has been eaten
I forget the wound that made
This slender line of light
Shining from beneath
There is another section in her book titled ‘Writing Is Not a McDonald’s Hamburger’. I guess this is her version of a Slow Writing manifesto, but being Zen-like, it’s not very manifesto-ish. In this piece she gently distinguishes the writer from the achiever. “We want to think we are doing something useful, going someplace, achieving something – ‘I am writing a book’”. When you give yourself space, she says, to learn to “trust the force of your own voice” it will naturally “evolve a direction and a need for one, but it will come from a different place than your need to be an achiever.”
I like this idea. It helps me to trust the Slow Writer I am, helps me to listen to her and to pay attention to the things she pays attention to. I can see that the achiever wants the things the Slow Writer is capable of making. What the achiever needs to learn is how to let go and let it happen.
This is something else she says in that piece, that takes me back to the haiku exercise: “Let go of everything when you write, and try at a simple beginning with simple words to express what you have inside. It won’t begin smoothly. Allow yourself to be awkward. You are stripping yourself. You are exposing your life, not how your ego would like to see you represented, but how you are as a human being. And it is because of this that I think writing is religious. It splits you open and softens your heart toward the homely world.”
Amen to that. Amen to space … the breath in between things, actions, thoughts, words. The room of it. Space holds, gently; a cupped hand. How fortunate I am, you are, to be held like this. Even in the tightest places, there are paths to tread, tiny alleys, ladders that lead to rooftops, and the sky.