Slow Writing: Julia Alvarez on the craft of writing

# 2. How the idea of slow writing came up

As a kid I hated long car trips. Sandwiched in the back seat, between the two sisters who always got the windows: the oldest because she was the oldest, the youngest because she was the youngest, I thought I would die of boredom. Up front sat our parents, listening to whatever radio station they got to choose because they were the parents.

Always the same questions from the backseat. How much longer? Are we almost there? Always the same answers from up front. Not much longer. We're almost there.

Who would have thought that as an adult, I would welcome long car rides? Those hiatuses from my fast-paced life that allow me to slow down. No emails coming in. No faxes. No phone calls. True, the cell can still ring, but driving through the Green Mountains of Vermont, there are long stretches of winding road where you can't get any reception at all.

A few months ago, Bill and I were on our way to Boston, a three-and-a-half hour drive we make several times a year. It's a time when I do a lot of reading and Bill, who likes to do all the driving, does a lot of daydreaming.

I was reading an introduction by Carlo Petrini, founder of the Slow Food Movement, to Woody Tasch's Slow Money. "We have to discover new economic relationships that move at a more natural pace," Petrini writes. "The rhythms of this new economy will be similar to our own metabolism."

I began to daydream about poetry, specifically about a lecture I heard John Frederick Nims give at the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference over thirty years ago. Nims was talking about poetic structures, how they are not abstract concepts, academic inventions, but deeply connected to our bodies. Nims held up his two hands and declared, "This is what iambic pentameter is all about, ten syllables of five iambs. Why five, why ten? " He wiggled his fingers. "This is our basic counting unit: five fingers, two hands. And what do we call each of these five units? A foot?" By now he had two hands up and a foot in the air. "And what's an iamb, puh-PUM, puh-PUM, puh-PUM? It's our heartbeat!" Poetry, he declared, as he tottered on one foot at the podium, is in sync with the deep, mysterious rhythms of our bodies, with the very shape and structure of our physical being. This is how a poem can cast a spell on us. We are responding to an enchantment that begins in our own bodies, at the cellular level.

As we rode in the car, I thought about how poetry was like this slow money idea of Petrini. Relationships that move at a more natural pace. . . rhythms similar to our own metabolism.

Why then, if it's so close to our bodies and beings, why do so many people fear poetry? Poetry is hard, they claim. They don't get poetry.

Poetry isn't hard if you slow down for it. But the problem is that like everything else in our fast-paced lives, we want poetry to be something we can "get" right away. But poetry doesn't work that way. We have to read a poem again and again and again. My friend Jay Parini claims that poetry cannot be read, only reread. We have to read it, preferably out loud, and let its rhythms enter us. We have to muse over a line, an image, a rhyme. Maybe even write it out in long (slow) hand. Memorize it for recitation, that old art.

Poetry makes me stop--why I like to return to it, to reread it, to write it. I get reacquainted with words again: their little weights and valances, shapes, meanings, reputations. "No approximate words in a poem," Emily Dickinson once wrote. In a poem, we have to pay close, intense attention to details, sounds, sentences, silences, line breaks. We actually have to do this with all writing, but poetry slows us down even more, a slow motion version of slow writing.

"Slow writing," I said aloud. By then, we were close to Concord, New Hampshire. Heading south from Vermont in May, we get to slowly see the progression from early spring (green fuzz on the distant tree line, a green cast on some of the pastures) to deep spring (daffodils! crab apple blossoms! grass that already needs mowing!).

"S-l-o-w writing," Bill repeated, smiling. He got it.

Or maybe he was smiling because it's wonderful to find a name for something that up to this point has only lived and stirred in that shadowy subverbal level of howls and grunts and rumbles. I've always loved that moment in Genesis when Adam gets to name the animals--what writer doesn't? And to name something is a baptism, you become that newly-named thing's godparent, its steward. According to the poet Rilke, that's what we're here for: "to say "house,/ bridge, well, gate, jug, olive tree window--/at most pillar, tower, but to say them, remember,/ oh to say them in a way that the things themselves/never dreamed of existing so intensely."

And this, too, connects with what Carlo Petrini has to say about Slow Money, how it eschews "endless cycles of consumption and a relentless focus on markets" and instead embraces "a new economy that is focused on quality and human relationships, on our relationships to one another and to the land."

This is true of slow writing. Our airy nothings have to connect to what Shakespeare called a "local habitation and a name." (We're back to the pleasures of naming!) Slow writing nurtures and fosters a sense of stewardship for this earth and the people in it, each and every one of us. The devil is not in the details, the devil is in forgetting the details.

Some years ago I taught a writing workshop in which I asked my students to write about the extraordinary people and places in our small Vermont town or further afield in our rural state. Get out beyond the campus. At first, my students reacted as if I had asked them to find a pirate or a lion tamer here in "the middle of nowhere." (This was a few years before local, rural, sustainable, place-based education became sexy buzz words.) I explained that the extraordinary was all around us in the ordinary. Did they know there was an Egyptian mummy buried in the town cemetery? Or that there was a woman who trimmed hair in her trailer and had an extensive collection of pig knickknacks, a pig door knocker, pig salt-and-pepper shakers, a crocheted pink pig slipcover for the extra toilet roll in the tiny bathroom. I'd recently found out about the wig goddess in Montpelier, who welcomes "all communities," including bald women and children with cancer but also "the lovely ladeez of the T-community," transgendered men who need a shank of long blowing-in-the-wind hair to be a wannabe Cher or a burst of yellow curls to be a blonde bombshell. Let me know what your dream hair is. I know I can help.

My students resisted. They wanted to write about their roommates or friends. Quick and easy writing. They preferred writing that didn't require they leave their computers, their cellphones, the campus. Many of them had been at the college for two, three years, and it's as if they had not yet arrived here. They could have been living anywhere else. They had not yet noticed their local habitation, had not gone on to name what they saw, and therefore become its stewards, commit to this piece of earth.

And to think, some people live this way their whole lives!

Slow writing puts a stop to that. It's writing that connects to a place, to the people in that place, their relationships to one another and to the land.

If we don't connect, who will sing the world alive? The indigenous Australians believe that invisible songlines or dreaming tracks lie under the earth, holding it together. Every generation has to sing them again to keep the land alive. To keep our selves and our ancestors and our future human family alive. To preserve the land/the story/the dreaming of the ancestors, and recreate it in their oneness of past, present and future.

And why is this so deeply gratifying? This noticing, this singing, this caretaking of the souls of things?

My "answer" comes from a favorite poem by Elizabeth Bishop. True to her style not to hype up things but to let their own natural lustre shine through, she titles this gem of a poem, "The Filling Station." We enter a filthy gas station thinking, seen one, seen them all. Our guide seems a little reluctant as well, the place is so dirty. . . But her eye doesn't miss a thing: the father in his filthy monkey suit, the quick, saucy, greasy sons who assist him, the cement porch behind the pumps. Deeper and deeper she moves into the intimate lives of these attendants through the details she notices. At the end of the poem, she asks herself who put these loving touches in this trashy place? Who attends to these details? (She does, for one!) "Somebody loves us all," she concludes.

That is why good writing is so deeply gratifying. Somebody loves us all could be the phrase we utter after every satisfying book we read. Somebody has taken the time to create a world of detail and specificity and meaningfulness. "Nothing human is alien to me," the Roman playwright Terrence is said to have proclaimed. And this, too, could be every writer's motto. The murderer and the hair stylist, the prince and the pauper, the bald woman with cancer, the cross-dressing small-town businessman with a fervent secret-- all have their stories. Slow writing slows down and pays close attention to the otherwise unremarked but remarkable details of this wondrous, baffling universe.

Somebody loves us all.

Julia Alvarez
July 6, 2009
3 blades of grass
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una babosa -- a slug at Alta Gracia in the Dominican Republic
una babosa
a slug at Alta Gracia in the Dominican Republic

Slow Writing: Julia Alvarez on the craft of writing
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