Friday, January 19, 2007

THE SPEED OF BULLSHIT

Evil Monkey:
You write too slow.

Jeff:
Who asked you, banana breath?

Evil Monkey:
No need to get huffy.

Jeff:
Yeah, well...

Evil Monkey:
You said it on your blog.

Jeff:
I did.

Evil Monkey:
More or less.

Jeff:
You pass judgment too quickly.

Evil Monkey:
If you wrote faster, you'd be richer.

Jeff:
If you moved slower I'd wring your furry little neck.

Evil Monkey:
If you wrote faster but slept slower I'd be able to get all of that poison into the porches of your ears by dawn.

Jeff:
If you drank slower I wouldn't have to drive you home every night.

Evil Monkey:
If you drank faster maybe you'd stop posting so many pointless blog entries.

Jeff:
If you were faster on the uptake you'd realize appearances are reality.

Evil Monkey:
If you were quicker-witted you'd realize this whole discussion is pointless.

Jeff:
You'd make a terrible slow writer.

Evil Monkey:
You'd make a terrible fast writer.

Jeff:
I don't write to deadline! (*Beats chest*.) Look at me!

Evil Monkey:
That's because nobody cares if you finish anything.

Jeff:
Nobody cares if I finish you off.

Evil Monkey:
If a tree falls on you in a forest while you're writing your slow fiction, would there be a news report?

Jeff:
If a middle class, middle-aged writer throttled a sock monkey in the privacy of his own home, would said sock monkey make a sound?

Evil Monkey:
Yes, he would.

Jeff:
Oh.

Evil Monkey:
Why dost thou hate the fast writers, Jeff. Is it because thou are so slow?

Jeff:
I don't hate the fast writers, but try to ask a bleepin' question and the bullshit rises to cover everyone!

Evil Monkey:
But slowly, my friend. Slowly.

3 Comments:

At 3:40 PM, Anonymous matt peckham said...

Ha!

You know, not to transfer the debate here, but I'm kind of shocked (oh who am I kidding, I'm no more shocked than Judith Regan upon her HC axing) to see the question being seriously asked, y'know? Aside from those of us who are genuinely interested in a comparative "So you do this? But I do that, so how do you get the other thing in half as much time?" I'm not sure why anyone would care about the length of time it takes to complete something.

Oh right, I know, the whole "Mozart was 6 when he wrote..." prodigy thing, and between writers I imagine there's plenty of measuring up going on. I certainly hope no one's actually end-judging anything on the basis of its compositional velocity, though. Even in a tangential capacity!

 
At 6:59 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

So, Matt...how long does it take you to write stuff?

Jeff

 
At 6:35 AM, Anonymous matt peckham said...

Too long, alas. I used to think that somehow writing would ultimately be like practicing the piano, where you can do Hanon finger exercises for an hour a day and eventually turn your hands into hopping tarantulas.

But no, the more I write, the longer things seem to take. And that's even talking nonfiction. (I haven't written fiction-fiction since working on the graduate degree, a situation I desperately need to correct.)

To get specific, I actually clocked myself last year for simple accounting purposes. Since I'm freelance, and full time, and at the mercy of some fairly erratic publisher pay cycles, I threw everything into Excel for tracking words and amounts and who owed what and when. For 2006, I turned in exactly 147 articles. Those article ranged in length from 300 to 2,500 words with the average coming in at around 1,000. If you figure that out on the 365 day cycle, I think it comes out to about 400 words a day, which is pretty pathetic measured against Stephen King's 5,000.

Part of the problem with more journalistic writing, of course, is that you rarely have time to give it more than one or two passes, or to write it and sit on it for six months. So the incentive to plow ahead irrespective of quality so you can revise a dozen times later just doesn't apply. Consequently I can sit for up to eight or more hours playing with a mere 500 words, trying to find a good opening hook, juggling paragraphs, scrapping, rescuing, scrapping again, tweaking punctuation, combing the net for better references, consulting a thesaurus for "better" words, etc. Those days when everything you write looks stupid can seem endless.

In undergrad I studied briefly with the writer J.F. Powers at St. John's University in Collegeville, Minnesota. This was back in 1991 or 1992, about 7 or 8 years before Powers passed away. The guy wrote a single book's worth of short stories and two medium length novels over the course of his life, and he was full time at it. Irish author Frank O'Connor called him "the greatest of living storytellers" and he's often lumped in alongside Welty, O'Connor, and Carver. The joke among his friends (notably writer Sean O'Faolain, who it was said wrote 2,000 words a day, rain or shine) was that Powers would spend whole work sessions struggling over whether to use a comma or semicolon in a single sentence. And he was never pretentious about it, at least he never came off as even slightly such to me.

I guess the whole thing with Powers for me, after getting away from academic deadlines, is that his entire career feels like a kind of permission. Permission not to rush, or think in the way I imagine a certain number of writers must feel compelled to, to keep themselves in the mainstream eye. Maybe this sounds too conservative or traditionalist, but for me, writing (and by that I really mean writing fiction of one sort or another) is a long, meticulous process where much of the real writing doesn't even begin until you're well into the third or fourth draft.

I imagine some of the best stuff I've ever read by others may have been written in half a day, and I can think of several writers who seem to be unimaginably prolific without appearing to dull their narrative blades. I imagine that has as much to do with genetics as anything. If it means I have to work a lot harder at it than others, that's fine by me. It's not the best analogy, but if you can't see or hear, or you're missing an arm or even the use of all four limbs, you work around it, right?

 

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