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On Writing Slowly
Trying to write against productivity.
“If someone were to ask me what the most important thing is when creating a new animated work, my answer would be that you first have to know what you want to say with it [...] people sometimes overemphasize technique instead.”
—Hayao Miyazaki, Starting Point: 1979-1996
“Content is the illusion myriad stylistic factors create when viewed at a certain distance.”
—Samuel R. Delany, “About 5750 Words”
“Reality, however one interprets it, lies beyond a screen of cliches."
—John Berger, And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos
A mentor of mine, after reading an early draft of one of my stories, said to me that many of my sentences contained thirteen words. This was an unconscious tick, one I was embarrassed to confirm when I went back and counted, something I’d never done before. Since then I’ve been mostly successful in stamping out this habit in my writing, but occasionally, when I’m feeling tired, the familiar thirteen-beat heartbeat creeps back in. There may be a writer out there capable of producing a beautiful and meaningful story made exclusively of thirteen-word sentences, but I am not that writer.
There is a dilemma when studying syntax and style in that both are inextricable from the subject you are writing about, and thus, it’s very difficult to study them in an isolated manner, divorced from subject, theme, characters, and plot. This is one reason why I think studying syntax is like studying geology: you can hold a rock in your hand or a sentence in your mind, but you can’t really understand the full register of it divorced from its surrounding bedrock, be it mountain or novel. Great forces of will and imagination are required in order to reconstruct the deep time of a mountain range and shift the terrain of your personal style, and both will take much longer than you can imagine.
I’ve been trying in one way or another to do the latter for the last decade, and it still feels like I’m only just at the beginning. This is another thing the study of geology and syntax have in common: large scales of time. We understand intuitively the time needed for a landscape to take shape; writing, however, provides us with the illusion of ease. The fossilized precursors of a sentence are not available to the naked eye, and drafts of great books are preserved less and less these days. But the study of syntax is a slow process, its lessons only absorbed over years.
To help better my sentences, I keep a running document of lines I pluck out of stories because I want to understand their nuts and bolts. This document lives on my phone, and each time I add a new one I go through and reread all of them. Some of these sentences I’ve been living with and looking at for the last seven years. Two examples:
“It seemed that the virtually endless mediations that constitute a fortune—equities and bonds tied to corporations tied to land and equipment and laboring multitudes, housed, fed, and clothed through the labor of yet other multitudes around the world, paid in different currencies with a value, also the object of trade and speculation, tied to the fate of different national economies tied, ultimately, to corporations tied to equities and bonds—had rendered immediate relationships irrelevant to him.”
— Hernan Diaz, Trust
“That’s when she sensed, like something blurred and moving glimpsed through a partition whose glass is clouded, both that love was coming for her and the nothing she could do about it.”
—Ali Smith, How to Be Both
These are not sentences that can be written unconsciously. They have a strong unity between what they are saying and how they are saying it—between subject and form, in other words. The sentence from Trust is a particular marvel for how it travels inside and back out of the many relationships that mediate capital and dilute social relationships with a structure “like a wallet,” according to one of my students. And they were right, it’s so perfectly symmetrical in its financial geometry.
You’ll notice a paradox here: in order to write a really good sentence, you need to know very precisely, or be willing to spend the time and find out, exactly what it is you want to be saying. And yet many of us have had the experience of not knowing what we wanted to say until we’ve written it down. Hopefully you see what I’m getting at here. It goes back to time. So often when writing we don’t take the time to think about what it is we want that sentence to communicate—we think about technique or content, but not both, which requires a slower process. How we can wring as much meaning and feeling out of a sentence as possible? When was the last time you took more than five minutes to write one sentence, from scratch? Can you summon to mind the sentence you’ve written that took you the longest? It’s not that I think revision has no role in stye and syntax, because it very much does. Most of my sentences that make it into a story have been revised at least once, and a good deal of them many more times than that. (Though I’d argue that revision is less painful when you spent the time initially thinking about how to join your subject and form as closely as possible.) There is no timer here, and if you don’t yet know what you sound like when you slow down, slow way down and think about what it is you want to say, then that might be something for to try.
I'm not particularly interested in writing op eds or striving harder these days. In regards to writing, Im mostly trying to work out a set of ideas in my head and on the page, in my sentences. Sometimes that snowballs into story, a novel. Other times the sentence is challenge enough. Somedays I might only write one sentence, but I might spend two hours on it. This is not productive. That is sort of the point. I (try to) write against productivity, and against the idea that more begets more. I don't necessarily write it as an ideological stance. I'm trying to delete the pedantic tone from my words, and it's hard because taking a stance is staking a claim is building a brand is making it, and that's what I'm supposed to want. To make it. Even though each time I achieve something it's quickly eclipsed by wanting something else, a new worry or desire. I don't want to emerge continuously, and I don’t want to arrive: I want to sit suspended in between, which I think means I am here, in the present.
This isn’t just about writing good sentences. It’s about moving past those received versions of the world from cliches and techniques that drift in the upper current of our brain, and in doing so, providing answers as to why the world is so different from what we thought it was going to be.
My workshop Publishing Trans Stories starts February 19 in person at the Independent Publishing Resource Center here in Portland, and there are still a few spots left. Sliding scale.
*sigh*ence class starts on March 8 on Zoom, and runs for 5 weeks. It’s very in the spirit of this newsletter, in which participants try to reclaim and embody feeling in their work and in the way they move through the world. We also talk & write a lot about moss, ghosts, and science fiction. It’s fun!
smoke and mold is wrapping up two submissions periods: comics for issue 8 (spring 2023) will be received until February 21st, and work in translation will be considered for a few more weeks, for publication later this year.