On a BBC Radio 4 Front Row interview, Mark Lawson challenged Donna Tartt about how slowly she seemed to write. An average of a novel every ten years. The prolific Stephen King recently wrote a rave review of Tartt’s latest book, The Goldfinch, and said that time was short and precious and that she should get her skates on. Tartt batted off the advice. She likes to write slowly. It suits her and her work. And she quoted her old Greek teacher who, as mentioned above, advised that speed hampers enjoyment. What a counter cultural statement. One that made me rethink the way I write – and do just about anything.
Through my career as a teacher and Housemistress I have always felt as though I were running, skating, reaching out to keep up. I enjoyed the rush of it. The thrill of being an efficient multi-tasker. It’s a quality employers look for and admire. And it has it’s place. But I also remember that when I was at my most stressed it was precisely because I was tired at this constant treadmill; that I could never take the time to sink deeply into those aspects of the job that I really enjoyed and that really mattered.
I have carried over this speedy efficiency to my writing life. I like to write fast. I like to be productive. My dream is to publish one or two novels ever year. I do not think that I will ever be a Donna Tartt and spend eleven years on one work: my writing habits and style are different, as are the nature of my novels. Nevertheless, she made me think about how adding a little slowness here and there could make my enjoyment of the process richer, how it might stop me from beating myself up on those days when I fail to churn out several thousand words. I’ve also worked out that there is a quick, quick, slow rhythm to my writing process: I write fast and edit slow. Once I have the bones of a story down, as I do with my latest novel, Coming Home, I go over it again and again, honing, embroidering, cutting, shaping. I love this process. There is another area in which I am slow: reading. I read a great deal but I read much more slowly than many of my peers who gulp books down whole with barely a swallow. And I love reading this way, not missing the detail on the way, learning from authors about how I can write better. In this I agree with John O’Hara who, in 1959, said: ‘I read slowly, because when I read…I am intently busy.’
So, some writers will tell you that the best fiction is produced when you don’t have quite enough time or quite enough money. And others, like Donna Tartt, will advise you to write slowly, that it is in this slowness that the magic is found, enjoyed and produced. I believe that both are necessary, that writers need a varied rhythm to their writing lives. A rhythm that, at times, involves a little speed skating, leaving behind sparks of chipped ice, and that other times, involves sinking deep and spending time and looking closely. Quick, quick, slow, like the waltz.