Thursday, September 01, 2011

How to Write Faster

September has wandered in, almost unassumingly, bearing on its bull's back that traditional academic greenlight, Labor Day. For many colleagues, classes have already begun, for me, they resume in a few weeks. I have gotten a jump on my two courses for this fall, my syllabi are almost done, and I'm looking forward to both.  But as always I will miss the imaginative time and space--or, as Elizabeth Nuñez once put it at writers' conference some years ago, the "dream time"--the tiny door of summer opens for attending to my own work, especially my creative work. From Monday through Friday from the time I got back until yesterday, a few short trips notwithstanding, when my golden key returned to its issuer, I daily went to the New York Public Library to write.  And read. I probably did more of the latter, but I did a great deal of the former. Even still, I have more work still to do, because I write slowly. So slowly it's sometimes frustrating.  I have always written slowly--fiction, that is.  One thing I always say to friends is that I wish I could write faster. (These truncated and sometimes semi-coherent blog posts do not count.) Especially fiction. And I'm not the only one, I see: earlier this month in Slate, Michael Agger published a charming article entitled "Slowpoke: How to Be a Faster Writer." Before I recount what he suggests, I will say there are some obvious sparks that work: a contract dependent upon finishing a book by a given deadline; help in writing the book, as in, assistants or an assembly line producing the book you stamp your name on; the academic requirement that you do so (we put the undergraduates through such paces, as I'll describe at some point in the next few weeks); or some more draconian, imminent spur, like death. And then there is graphomania, which is awful in a different way. Also: turn off the TV (very hard to do), stay away from the Internet (cf. above), and just do little but write (not possible in my line of life or work).

When I say writing fiction faster, I don't mean churning out...whatever. I'll say no more about that, but we can all identify candidates to fill that profile. I mean rapid writing that produces high quality work, high quality fiction--writing as fast and as good as, say, Roberto Bolaño (1953-2003), who was admittedly facing imminent liver shutdown when he managed to polish (though he considered it incomplete) 2666 (2004) off, and to a high sheen.  Bolaño wrote about 13 or so books in 10 years, some of the monumentalities like The Savage Detectives and, well, the nearly 1000-page diamond mentioned above, 2666. I think of J. M. Coetzee, who issues a superb novel every 3-4 years or so. To give an example, between 1980 and 2003, he produced: Waiting for the Barbarians (1980), Life & Times of Michael K. (1983), Foe (1986), Age of Iron (1990), The Master of Petersburg (1994), The Lives of Animals (1999--this later became the central chapters of Elizabeth Costello), Disgrace (1999), and Elizabeth Costello (2003). Many very fine writers would produce ONE such book in 10 years. And, Coetzee doesn't repeat himself, or write variations on the same book as some great authors (Bolaño, for example, or Patrick Modiano, David Markson, etc.) do. But he is an exceptional case. Nevertheless, many other writers do come to mind.  Alice Munro, Gabriel Garcia Márquez, Samuel R. Delany, Juan Goytisolo, Jennifer Egan, Haruki Murakami, John Edgar Wideman, Jorge Volpi, etc Two younger very productive fiction writers I know are Tayari Jones and Renee Gladman. They write at a very high level, produce work that echoes no one else, and they aren't rewriting the same book. They make butter but they don't churn.

Against the examples of those who write a lot and quickly and well, there have of course always been the examples of those who write or wrote not so much but quite well. Among the fiction crowd, some who come to mind would include: Scott Fitzgerald, Elias Canetti, Jeffrey Eugenides, Witold Gombrowicz, Jorge Luis Borges, etc. One might also mention a late bloomer like Toni Morrison, who nevertheless has published 9 or so novels, of which 5 (The Bluest Eye, Sula, The Song of Solomon, Beloved, Jazz) I think are very good to exceptional (I haven't yet read A Mercy, I must confess). These writers exemplify the take-your-time-but-get-it-right camp. Or that's one way to read their fictional careers, and I champion it. Tortoise and hare. Take your time. Quality, not quantity, though I think it's fair to say that what's usually rewarded is quality in great quantity, though great quantity with bursts of quality also goes a long way too.

But back to Agger: he first reads Malcolm Gladwell's (ugh!) Outliers and comes across the "10,000-hour rule", the temporal hurdle beyond which one begins to achieve mastery.  I'll do the math for you: that's 417 days worth of writing (or playing the tuba or studying Chinese flash cards or anything else). 24/7/417. Which is to say, a little over a few years or so in reasonable-person time. Agger is frustrated, so he follows a lead Gladwell offers to Saint Louis University professor Ronald Kellogg's The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance, which doles out all kinds of expertise-laden suggestions about writing and anything else requiring expert performance.  Professor Kellogg underlines what anyone who writes regularly knows--writing is difficult, writing long(er) works is difficult, writing anything of quality is difficult. DIFFICULT. What else does he say?  Some people are Beethovians who compose rough drafts to get things out, others are Mozartians who plan out and delay composing/writing to let the ideas steep. Productivity is equal for both styles. Also: more concrete writing is more memorable, to you and the reader (pace Clarice Lispector). Getting paid for what you write works. See above. Take notes before you write something but don't looking at them as you write. Binge writing is bad, regular writing on a schedule is very good. (A friend once wowed me with an account of how the very productive Caryl Phillips would go hole up in a hotel and bang out a book, then go do exciting things for months on end. Cf. the dole, which is non-existent in the US. So, regular writing alongside whatever else you have to do to make a living.)

Professor Kellogg's trove continues: "Knowledge-crafting" is that state at which the writer is able to be both artist, editor, and reader-reviewer.  You are in your creative zone; you know what works and are able to apply it as you write; and you have a grasp of how it will look at the end. What Kellogg doesn't say is that this often comes in revision, but if you get it right earlier rather than later, so much the better.  But above all, to get to the "knowledge-crafting" state, write regularly, avoid distractions, give yourself breaks, have realistic goals and deadlines, and "maintain low emotional arousal." I.e., if something is stressing you, it's not good for your writing. And, something I advise and do stick to, if you are a writer: you should always be reading, because it gives you a storehouse of knowledge and information to draw upon.  Unfortunately, Agger doesn't receive any shortcuts to writing faster. But what he gains, as does anyone who has read the précis above, is some tips for making his writing a more regular and potentially effective process.  Still: how to write faster? I know, there's always Nike's dictum: Just do it....

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