Writing, Fast and Slow

fast and slowOn Monday of last week, Pat Thomson published a very interesting post about writing fast. I don’t use the exact approach she describes (though I might, one day, now I know about it) but I do often write fast, so the post resonated with me. I was writing fast that very day, and the day after as well; Pat’s post kept flitting through my mind.

Then last Wednesday, the fourth full day of my writing retreat, I ground to a halt. I did some good thinking, and a little actual writing, but not much. I told myself I was tired – and I was: a big storm had disturbed my sleep on the Monday night, and a recurrent car alarm on the Tuesday. So I did bits and bobs at my desk, in between going out for a walk, and making food, and having a nap. But I knew, really, that the slow-down was part of my process.

I’m good at writing, and part of being good at writing is getting the words down on the screen (or the page, if you’re that way inclined). But now and again there is a day, or part of a day, when the words won’t come. This isn’t me waiting for the muse, or procrastinating, or suffering from writer’s block. Though I much prefer being productive, I know that sometimes I need to do a kind of active waiting. It’s not taking time off, it’s like what musicians do during the rests in a piece, attending closely to the pauses between notes which are as much a part of the music as any of the sounds.

Last Wednesday evening arrived, which was a relief because I could declare myself off duty, fairly sure that the words would be flowing again by next morning. I spoke to my partner on the phone, ate a cheese salad washed down with a glass of wine, and read some more of the terrific Amanda Palmer and Neil Gaiman-edited issue of the New Statesman. Then I retired to the sofa with a novel and a cup of cocoa, enhanced with a dash of spiced rum, and some salted caramel chocolate. All this with a gorgeous sea view. Bliss! So relaxing.

Around 9.45 pm I got up to head for bed, looked out of the window, and saw a low red moon rising from the Channel between England and France. I have no idea why ideas began to flow just then, but they did, and generated so much energy that before I knew it I was pulling on a jacket and trainers and heading out of the door, over the road, and down the steps onto the beach. The waves thundered onto the shore in rhythm with the insights thundering into my mind. I stomped towards Dungeness, then back towards Dover, shingle crunching underfoot like an army eating popcorn in synch. The moon path followed me, patient and attentive, a French lighthouse winking to its right as if to remind me not to take myself too seriously. I walked until all the ideas had settled, and felt as relieved as if I’d just had a good [insert bodily emission of your choice]. And of course the next morning I was back to working at full speed.

In his great book Thinking, Fast and Slow (which the observant reader will notice inspired the title of this post), Nobel prizewinner Daniel Kahneman explains the difference between our fast, intuitive thinking, and slow, rational thinking. He says, ‘The mental work that produces impressions, intuitions, and many decisions goes on in silence in our mind.’ (2011:4) His central thesis is that human reasoning is flawed, and I’m sure he’s right. But I wonder whether creative thinking is rather different from rational thinking. From learning about my own writing process through several decades, I am certain that now and again I need to make time for slow, intuitive thinking. Perhaps particularly in our world of information overload, I need to make space for the silence in my mind so that the mental work can happen. Sometimes I can do this consciously, such as by booking a writing retreat, or by thinking of a writing problem as I fall asleep and trusting my silent mind to solve it overnight – which it usually does. But sometimes, like last Wednesday, my process tells me it’s time for some slow writing. In practice, that means a few hours or a day with little or no increase in the actual word count. I know from experience that if I ignore this, and try to struggle on, I just get more stuck and cross and frustrated. I’m much better off going for a walk or pottering around the house, actively waiting while the mental work happens, silently, in my mind, which I can’t hear but I can choose to trust. So, although they don’t always come at times that I would deem convenient, I’ve learned the value of my slow writing days.

2 thoughts on “Writing, Fast and Slow

  1. It’s the same with the art process! If up against a problem in a painting, I go do something else and low and behold…when I come back to it…the problem has been solved! Secretly I think my subconscious is smarter than I am 😉


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