Sunday, June 10, 2012
Words Per Minute - a noted author ponders the speed at which he writes
Illustration by Joon Mo Kang
I share my name with an aerobatic bird that can whiz across a whole summer sky in seconds. A swift is so equipped for speed that it can scarcely cope with being stationary. I once came across an unlucky young specimen that had somehow grounded itself on a lawn and, with its minuscule legs and long encumbering wings, couldn’t regain the air. I lifted it on the perch of my finger and it was gone in a flash.
But I am a novelist, so I also know about slowness. Novels, in my experience, are slow in coming, and once I’ve begun them I know I have years rather than months of work ahead of me. This doesn’t worry me. I like the slow pace of novel writing, the feeling that I have employment for a long period. I don’t crave the quick result that would only leave me with the problem of what to do next.
All novelists must form their personal pacts in some way with the slowness of their craft. There are some who demand of themselves a “rate of production,” for whom it’s a matter of pride to complete, say, a book every year. But I think most novelists, after writing their first two or three, take philosophical stock of the fact that in an average lifetime they will produce a finite and not so large number of novels and that the point of being a novelist is not to see how many you can write or how quickly you can do it. Quite a few novelists, I suspect, even carry in their heads the notion of the one, all-sufficient and perfect novel they might write, which would render all further effort redundant. It’s only because this ideal and singular novel is unattainable that they have to keep writing another, then another.
It can be dismaying, all the same, for a novelist to compare the slowness of the writing with the speed of the reading. Novels are read in a matter of days, even hours. A writer may labor for weeks over a particular passage that will have its effect on a reader for an instant — and that effect may be subliminal or barely noticed. The vibrations of thought and feeling that a single sentence in its context can release in a reader may be too rapid for measurement. “It leapt off the page” is what we say of a happy reading experience.