A Revolution in Creativity: On Slow Writing

Melissa Matthewson Takes Some Life Lessons From Snails and Lichen

“If creativity is about power to create something from nothing, then believing in impossible things is its most critical component.”
–Oli Mould, Against Creativity
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I’ll invite you to read this slowly. To remember that a voice is embodied in this text, that in this process of following the sentence towards its meaning, in a kind of walking, as in a procession or parade, the writer’s creative process will emerge, a deliberate motion with care as the foundation for which the writer is then able to articulate beauty and suggest some new knowledge, but of course, this will take time.

Let me suggest lichen, for example. To illustrate what I mean by slow. I was struck one day when I was walking and listening to a lichenologist, Kerry Knudsen, propose that lichen was the ultimate resistor to capitalism. Lichen can grow over millions of years, he says, that in the southwestern Mojave Desert, some lichen matures so slowly that some only grow a fraction of an inch per year. From this, he advocates, we should learn how to slow down, urging that this slow growth can help us to see our own position more clearly. To become aware of ourselves. That lichen can’t reproduce quickly makes them even more precious, singular.

Of lichen Mary Ruefle wrote that lichen is so old, “among the oldest living things on earth” that we should give them “considerable respect” and while old and slow are two different things, I think we can say that respect is an earned pronouncement for both. The poet Jane Hirshfield has written that lichens are “transformers unvalued, uncounted. Cell by cell, word by word, making a world they could live in.” So, lichen as the ultimate dissident, quite adaptable and creative, incredibly patient and generally okay with how long it takes to do things.

We should lichenize our writing. And in this, I mean, challenge all the ways we are influenced to rush our composition, to push against capitalism’s engine insisting a kind of efficient production of creative works. Instead, how can we, as writers, contest the urge to produce at real or imagined external timelines?

The OED’s definition of slow suggests a lack of liveliness, deficient in momentum, characterized by sloth, absent of mental acuity, teeming with reluctance and delay, not of the times, dull, without passion and without rouse. This is not helpful in relationship to creative works. It is only toward the bottom where some of the shorter, more nuanced entries in the OED appear and where one encounters fewer negative connotations of slow—the deliberate action, as matched with care and softness. With music, in tempo, related to sensuality. Of something gentle, like fire, from RH Dana in 1840, “We made a slow fire of charcoal, birch bark, brimstone, and other matters.”

And finally, toward process, of which the activity takes time to develop, from G.A.B. Deware, “Another fortnight, and all but the slow oak woods will be in a glow.” Let’s stay there, within the glow of a slow wood providing the process from which we can create the impossible out of nothing, as suggested in the epigraph to this essay. And Tennyson, “The slow sweet hours that bring us all things good.”

How can we, as writers, contest the urge to produce at real or imagined external timelines?

All things good, slow means listening. To allow the inner self to hear what ideas may generate from words placed on a page. I have been writing an essay on vanity, masks, photography, and self-image for over two years and in this slow process, I continually witness new possibilities in listening for these themes as they emerge within my life structures. As an observer of my own life, a documentarian of experience, the painting of a woman seen on social media might suggest a new angle on how women’s bodies are represented in art, might influence the ending of my essay, which has yet to emerge. Or perhaps a dream is remembered, a conversation takes place between myself and a friend in which we consider an aspect of performance in photography—anything in this recognition might lend itself to my slow writing. When will the essay be done? I cannot say, though I am committed to the slow maturity of its final telling.

To allow myself this pace, I discover a tension between freedom and impatience, that is, in the slow, I find a fresh inventiveness and sovereignty from the relentless influence of our economic system. Though within this, I must temper and unlearn my own fixed haste at generating creative work at a rapid measure. I hear an internal voice telling me, write faster, go faster, you’re not doing it right, and it takes might and fortitude to reject this voice obsessed with speed. If I can suggest a slower methodology, then the practice is that of contemplation, deliberate reflection, slow thought, which results in intricate language, in a new kind of assembly as evidenced by the messiness of my hard drive, notebooks, diaries, and iPhone notes apps, of which there are many. I prefer the reprieve of the slow. I like writing more when performed at an adagio. It’s a relief. A sanctuary. Even as I write this, I have no deadline, a freedom as such, an open-ended time frame, which allows for me to convene with my ideas.

There’s also something to be said about collating and curating in the slow writing process—facts, knowledge, smells, descriptions, stories, passport stamps, headlines—until the collection becomes part of the transformation process. Through acute and critical attention, away from the drive of production, toward the singularity of studying a branch, rock, story, glance, gesture, word history, repetition, the slow writing process takes control of time and becomes a reclamation act, creating space on which thought and process flourishes, allowing for curiosity to direct you forward. There’s a physicality to it. Muscles loosen.

At the same time, it’s uncomfortable to be slow. We do not like the slow car, the slow human, the slow traffic, the slow Wi-Fi, the lady in line searching for change in her wallet, the person taking too long in the bathroom, the snail, though I do love the wicked beauty of the exoskeleton spiraling, whorls that add with age, all pointing toward a small aperture at the end of the last twist. We would do well to learn from snails. They move at their own pace by pedal waves, their muscles tightening to scoot forward. They slipstream through gardens at night following their fellow snails through the slime onto their next destination. And their favorite food is lichen.

Slow writing is not without delight. Slow writing is passionate engagement, an intensified focus, a process that nurtures the creative artist. The slow (now having become its own subject, like the snail, lichen) and the artist become a synergy that motions for a type of repeated homecoming. It’s almost something of an obsession. Come back for more. You know you want to. Michelle Boulous Walker, in her book, Slow Philosophy, equates the slow as a beginning way of thinking toward complexity, a passion with the world that can determine a kind of responsibility. Walker argues for a kind of dwelling in order to innovate. To inhabit a slow writing framework, then, is to originate a kind of revolution in creativity.

Perhaps it’s something like the wide screen shot in a film like Nomadland, where there is tenderness toward the long image and a settling that occurs because of it. A pause. Suggestion. Taking in the lines of Frances McDormand’s face. The western landscapes at sunset. A collection of figures in the shadows of a fire. Intention with the slow. We might use the process of photography as our model. When a lens has a small aperture, there is an extended exposure time required to replicate an image, the relationship such that the low speed is a reaction to light. Josh Becker tells us in his Guide to Low Budget Feature Filmmaking that “slow film stocks have deeper, richer colors, less grain, and more contrast.”

I was in the Redwoods recently, among trees tall and mighty, hundreds of years old, some over a thousand, their immensity of carbon rich with time and slowness, from the depth of their root system. Here, with these slow trees, I thought about this patience we must cultivate toward the writing that is as important as the outcome—book, essay, poem, story. I was among these giant trees reading the forward to the 2020 Best American Essays in which Robert Atwan provides an insightful analysis of Gertrude Stein’s experimental Tender Buttons. Atwan recommends Gertrude Stein’s approach to writing as one we may consider—writing in the continuous present, that is, writing as an act of discovery where the composition has no plan, which all relates beautifully to slowness and uncertainty and thought.

Taking our time, embracing the slow, creates surprise, revelation. Writing in the continuous present as a practice is something like mindfulness: making notes on heart shaped stickers that say things like Come back to mirror or Who cares about that? Or even, as perhaps the writer Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore has suggested in a recent Tin House talk distributed by Between the Covers, that in our practice, we might drop all our writing into one document to find what can emerge from that method. Of really having no plan. Perhaps an anti-map. Like chaos theory in mathematics: solutions or orbits do not converge into predicable behavior. In the continuous present, there are variable outcomes with the commitment to attention the only rule. The idea that we are devoted to what is in our present focus is that which makes the composition.

Which means accepting white space. I love the edges, or the in-between, in which the CV does not have an award, a publication, but shows in essence that you’ve been out in the open pasture of imagination and art making. Right?

This question of slowness arose for me out of curiosity for my own process as I have been writing a second book, one that is research heavy, and in this research and writing process, the crafting of the prose is slow, at a snail’s pace, much slower than the writing of my first book. I wrote my first book over several years, but it felt more natural, more sustained. Still a thrust, but less immediate. Does that feel right?

To inhabit a slow writing framework is to originate a kind of revolution in creativity.

I was recently sitting at dinner among colleagues pitching my second book idea, trying to make sense of the complexity of what I’m trying to write, the sound of the party and restaurant buzz too loud to construct my pitch effectively when both colleagues replied “Sounds good!” over clanking margaritas and refried beans. I had mentioned my anxiety over the need to quickly write a second book. We continued to drink. That was it. In addition, I’m aware of my classification as a contingent faculty with only one book who must produce another one soon to perhaps even keep my job. There is a kind of privilege inherent in taking time. Those who must meet institutional requirements cannot rest on their heels, so to say.

I teach multimedia writing to undergraduates and many of my assignments are timed in which the writers must produce content within a two-hour time frame. I think of the immediacy of the internet, the amalgam of voices all racing for attention, the multitude of content developers struggling to produce something of value that people will care about. To be heard in fast culture, all of us scrolling without ever really reading, is a demanding pursuit. As I write this, I’m already constructing the revision of my multimedia writing course to suggest an alternative, to redirect the pace, but then I pause, wonder whether this may be a disservice to young writers.

I don’t have an answer for this dilemma, though I was recently struck by a interview I read in Craft Literary with Jo Ann Beard, an essayist I admire, in which I learned it took Beard twenty years to write her most recent book, Festival Days, a commitment to the craft which both astounds and inspires me. One of the essays in her new collection is 64 pages and took three years to write. In the interview, the writer Melissa Febos recalls advice Beard once offered as the two discussed the impossibly long time it took to write good works: “It takes the time that it takes.” In a review by Michelle Filgate, in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Beard, who calls herself a slow writer, is quoted as saying, “There’s transcendence to be found in these connections—in the nebulous and nebulae, ducks and darkness—if we have the patience to wait for them.” There is that word patience, related to slow, related to commitment to a process that can advance over years. I am an impatient person, easily bored and highly distractible—are these traits in accordance with or in opposition to slowness? They are connected.

Yes, staying committed to a slow writing process takes determination, as does writing at all, and a continual retrieval of the writer’s intention. So if we return to the “continuous present” as suggested by Stein, it becomes imperative that our writing process take detours, all weighted with an increased attention to the details as it all unfolds today, this moment. Here. You are writing even when you stare at the basketball hoop on Tucker Street and the vine clapping at your window. You are writing while you read this. Let chaos be the leader with interruptions that are mindful.

A final example to consider is John Cage’s composition, ORGAN2/ASLSP, which is currently performing at a rate of 639 years, until 2640. What trust did he have in this slow composition before he died? Again, another layer of the slow process. He’s gone, yet his work continues to play on. He trusted this idea of slow composition, that his music will play as slow as possible, as long as the organ lasts, as long as peace continues in this particular location. This commitment to the slow nature of interpretation and art is a brilliant gesture toward longevity.

Like lichens, these brilliant organisms mapped in places like Greenland, aged 3,000 years old, complex composite beauty with a commitment to durability and permanence, and in addition, subject to whatever specific ambiguous situation may occur at some undetermined time. Ideas and creative works should remain like this, relevant over a long period of gestation, evolving with the demands of culture, but if we recall the snail and follow the trail through the incredibly uncertain dark, we may celebrate a new concentration rising toward complex thought, all arising from the slow.

Melissa Matthewson
Melissa Matthewson
Melissa Matthewson is the author of a memoir-in-essays, Tracing the Desire Line (Split/Lip Press, 2019), a finalist for the 2021 Oregon Book Award in creative nonfiction. Her work has appeared in Guernica, Longreads, Oregon Humanities, The Rumpus, and American Literary Review, among other publications. She teaches in the MFA Creative Writing program at Eastern Oregon University and in the Communication program at Southern Oregon University. Find her on Twitter at @melmatthewson.





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