Fast and slow writing in the accelerated academy

What does it mean to write? For a long time, it carried a sense of total immersion for me, letting the world recede in order to lose yourself in the production of a text. This is ‘binge writing’ and it was my standard mode for the six years I spent doing a part-time PhD. I wrote my first paper in a weekend. I wrote my first chapter in a couple of days. I wrote a disturbingly large amount of the thesis in the final few months. Without preparation, it is not possible to write like this. The thoughts have to germinate, ideas have to take shape before words can flow in this way. Binge writing entails a form of life, incorporating an orientation to continuous thinking as well as extended periods of time for writing intensively. It is demanding on a number of levels and it is something I have found decreasingly possible since then.

My experience of succesful binge writing suggests it is not simply a matter of making the time available. There is a degree of unpredictability because inspiration and writing time have to coincide. If you can get this to work, writing can be the most immersive and engaging activity in the world. It is certainly the purest experience of flow states I have ever known. There’s an extract from Neitzche’s Ecce Homo which has always captured this experience for me:

The notion of revelation – in the sense that suddenly, with ineffable assuredness and subtlety, something becomes visible, audible, something that shakes you to the core and bowls you over – provides a simple description of the facts of the matter. You hear, you don’t search; you take, you don’t ask who is giving; like a flash of lightening a thought flares up, with necessity, with no hesitation as to its form – I never had any choice.

– Friedrich Nietzsche, Ecce Homo, Pg 68 (Duncan Large translation)

Under these conditions, it is as if writing works through you. I’ve sometimes written as much as 4000 words in a day like this, often good words requiring minimal editing. It is physically and mentally draining but at no point do I find myself grasping for words. They flow until they do not anymore. Then I feel satisfied in the awareness that the idea which had welled up within me have been expressed onto the page and I move on from  them.

This is slow scholarship, even if the act of writing is intensified. It rests on synchronising your creative rhythms and your working routines, requiring a great deal of flexibility for it to operate. It isn’t simply a matter of autonomy because it necessitates being free from the constraints of your own choices, able to set aside time for intensive writing even when you have (freely) committed yourself to other things. It is something which I haven’t been able to do since my PhD. Even in the last year of my PhD, I could only do it out of necessity. In fact, I’ve been struggling to move away from this mode of writing since spending a year working full time at the LSE half way through my PhD. Other demands mean writing has to become more extensive, flowing beyond neatly defined periods of immersion into the gaps that inevitably spring up throughout one’s week.

It is so easy to fall into simplistic dichotomies concerning a matter as intensely personal and emotionally charged as writing. Binge writing versus writing routines is one of them. It is a distinction which fails to capture the difference which matters, reducing a rich spectrum of ways in which thought and writing knit together into brute differences of scheduling. But fast and slow scholarship is another, as I’ve written about on numerous occasions. I find myself increasingly bothered by the idea that fast writing is inevitably hasty writing, as propounded by the Slow Scholarship Manifesto amongst others. It isolates the act of writing from the life of which it is part, lending a singular quality to an act which is an expression of a mode of being in the world. Fast writing can be hasty writing, much as slow writing can be tedious writing. But the relationship is not a necessary one.

These dichotomies often confuse preparation, process and outputs. What is often seen as extremely fast writing (e.g. producing multiple blogs posts in an afternoon) can in fact be slow scholarship. If we dispense with the assumption of writing as teleological, orientated towards producing texts which ought to persevere and be preserved, it becomes easier to see writing as something iterative. When we write, we struggle to put things into words. Through that struggle we gain greater clarity concerning what we are trying to say. The act of writing is the crucial point in a much broader process of making sense of the world (or at least some particular aspects of it). On this view, slow writing is a recipe for a failure of intellectual development. Rather than being a reliable route towards profundity, it risks leaving one mired in intellectual immaturity because it denies a crucial mechanism through which we develop our thinking and elaborate our understanding. What happens to a thought when you put it on hold? When you suspend it and categorise it? When it goes from something which grips you in the moment, as if it were a force taking hold of you from outside? My experience has been that these moments give rise to the most profound feelings of creativity, lifting one out of the mundane realities of daily life and into the making of something. Whereas foreclosing that moment of inspiration by noting it down on a ‘to do’ list is just depressing.

My argument is not that temporalities of writing aren’t significant but rather that fast and slow fail to capture what is at stake in them. It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently, as I’ve realised that my writing is more yet less successful than ever. I write everyday, easily meeting a 500 word goal across my blog and book projects. It has become a reflex, something I can sit down and do with little effort. But it is sometimes too easy and I no longer struggle with ideas, as much as merely express them. The automatic quality of my daily writing has begun to undermine the reflexivity of my writing practice. I can so quickly and easily meet my quota that I don’t sit with ideas as I write them, relying on reading and thinking outside the writing window to ensure they have fermented in the way I hope. They often have.

But the ease with which I tend to meet this target creates other problems, as it easily lends itself to the mentality of hitting the target on days when it would be a challenge to write immersively or expensively. It sometimes leaves me picking at low hanging fruit rather than pursuing a topic or theme because it grips me on a particular day. It often leaves me stopping at 500 words so I can move onto other things. This is when the fastness of the writing begins to undermine the slowness of the scholarship The problem is compounded by the impulse to slot writing into random windows in my life, ‘doing my 500 words’ on trains and planes, in hotel rooms and sitting on park benches. In building it into the fabric of my life, making it an unquestioned part of my daily existence, I’ve managed to devalue it. It is everywhere yet nowhere. Crucial yet never prioritised.

In the last month, I’ve been thinking a lot about how I can change this, building on the work I’ve done but opening it out so writing has a more respected place in my life. What initially prompted this was the difficulty in finishing things i.e. drawing the strands together and editing them into finished pieces. But I’m realising the problem is broader than this and it’s proving an interesting issue to reflect on.

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4 Comments

  1. Mark,
    Loved reading this piece. That thought about having a more respected place for writing is identifiable. I do not write as prolifically as you and haven’t published either, but trying not to write during those windows of time (traveling on planes, trains etc) is often motivated by the same thought – of not making it commonplace and banal. And then this leads to very low amount of writing done. 🙂 I do not quite know when does my vest writing happen, although I agree that when it does it comes like a torrential rain.

    1. I think it’s definitely necessary to write during those windows (or at least not to wait for the perfect moment) but I’m increasingly seeing how easy it is to take this attitude too far once you start with it :-/

  2. Regarding finishing those various projects, someone recommended the book “Finish: Give Yourself the Gift of Done” by Jonathan Acuff. I haven’t actually read it, yet – it’s next on my non-fiction reading list.

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