In Praise of Slow Writing (Part II)

SnailI’m a big fan of slow writing. I love that recent Pulitzer Prize for Fiction winner (Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See) was a book that took 10 years to write. A previous winner, Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, took a decade as well.

(Right now, some NaNoWriMo writers are thinking, “Damn, I’m slowing down! I want a Pulitzer!”)

(In fact, if you want to watch a wonderful short video featuring Tartt talking not only about The Goldfinch, but hear her reveal what happened when she tried writing a book in one year, watch this:)

The Donna Tartt Video

Some of my favorite points from the video:

About the struggle of writing…

“You have to understand, that as a writer, there’s no one coming in at the end of that day saying, ‘Wow! That’s a great passage you just wrote.'”

When asked about how many years she has invested in the three novels she’s written:

“Well, so, it’s been 30 years. They’ve been a decade each.”

When asked how many books she can write in her lifetime:

“I guess not many if I keep going at this devastatingly slow pace…Five would be good. I’d be happy with five.”

When asked if she feels that’s prolific:

“I’ve tried to write faster, and I don’t really enjoy it. I don’t enjoy the process of doing that. I’ve tried to speed up — I thought, ‘Well, I’ll try to write…’ I made…it was a mistake. I thought I’ll try to write a book in a year, and I just didn’t enjoy it at all. It wasn’t fun for me…No fun for the writer; no fun for the reader.”

When asked about the “Good Life”:

“Well…the idea is that — well, there’s several (there are many) — definitions of the good life. Is the good life to be happy oneself? Is it personal happiness? Is it making other people happy at the expense of one’s own happiness? … For me…I think the two great salvations: Love and Work…”

Some odds and ends:

“What’s important for me as a writer, really, is solitude. It’s not so much reclusiveness as — as just a need to be alone when I work.”

“Writing a book is one level deeper than reading a book. As much fun as it is to read a book, writing one is one level deeper than that.”


Finally, when asked if writing has lived up to her hopes, dreams, and expectations:

“My wildest dreams…better, happier — yes!”

Donna Tartt is Not Alone

I can’t say it enough: listen to A Tiny Sense of Accomplishment.

On a recent episode of the podcast, (an all-questions episode — you owe it to yourself to listen!), Jess Walter talked about how books take time. (Some background: it took Walter over 14 years to finish his most successful novel, Beautiful Ruins.)

When discussing the hardest thing to get into the heads of new writers, Walter said:

“I think that’s the hardest thing for any writer, and the hardest thing to explain is patience…Time is a huge part of the creative process, and we don’t want it to be. We want to be able to write a book in two days, but it takes time to rewrite…”

There’s No Shame in Slow

There’s nothing wrong with writing a couple books a year. Many writers make a good living writing two or more books a year. But…many of those writers tell others that writing quickly is the key to success as a writer.

I’ll agree that if one treats writing as a workaday pursuit, that the more is often the merrier. But the notion that one must crank away to make money writing simply isn’t true. In fact, with All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr has made more money in one book than most will make writing many books a year. Donna Tartt is not hurting, either.

True, the odds are slimmer that your one occasional book will rise above so many others, but it happens. (And let’s be realistic: most writers don’t make a living writing fiction.)

So if slow is your pace and success your goal, you’re still in damn good company! (I’d argue even better company than those who hurry.)