So where to begin?
I have a confession: I feel guilty sometimes that I write poems and stories so quickly. I also revise quickly and send out work quickly for publication.
Hemingway, I know, supposedly wrote 47 possible endings to A Farewell to Arms. And I have spoken to fellow poets and fiction writers who agonize through dozens of drafts of their work over the space of many years.
As for me, I tend to take a couple of hours to write a poem. That includes revisions, which are done as quickly as I can type, and often involve extensive cutting. I will also, often, take two or three poems that I wrote at separate times (but that didn’t satisfy me), and cut and paste them into a single poem. That takes about twenty minutes.
Short stories usually take longer, of course, but it is not unusual for me to finish a story within a week or so of when I placed the first word to the page.
Serious writers, I sometimes tell myself, take longer. Serious writers sweat more. They revise and revise until every word shines.
But here’s the thing: I have learned over the years that the longer I spend on a poem or a short story, the more likely it is to never find a publisher or readers. The works I labor over tend to fall flat, while the works that have been my most successful—as measured by the eagerness of editors to print them, by readers to appreciate them—have often been written quite quickly.
In Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, Malcolm Gladwell writes about the ways that spontaneous decisions can often be as accurate or even more accurate than decisions that take more time. He also discusses “analysis paralysis,” which I think nicely describes the woes that come my way when I write slowly.
In other words, I don’t write quickly because I am lazy. I have my own kind of work ethic (my daughter used to announce that, at the very least, I wasn’t allowed to write on holidays like Christmas . . . so I would make sure to get up far earlier than she did). I write quickly because the quality is higher when I move at a speed that doesn’t allow my conscious mind to interfere. The pages are stronger when I let them create themselves, when I think: Fine, fine . . . say what you want . . . I’ll just sit back and listen.
This is also true for some of the writers in my creative writing classes. I have seen students leap up in quality once they stopped trying so hard, once they let their poems or stories go where they wanted, without trying to force their wills on the work.
Of course, this doesn’t work for everyone. I have also had students who write slowly, who know where they want to arrive at the end, who move laboriously through drafts, and finally achieve their best work.
It just doesn’t work that way for me. The more quickly I write, the more likely it is that I will tap into something that surprises me . . . and so surprises readers.
But I do feel guilty sometimes. I feel guilty, especially, that I so often enjoy the writing process. If it’s serious literature, shouldn’t I see it as hard labor in the salt mines?
I confess: I don’t.