When I received the writing advice to slow down in my prose, it felt like (unintentional) life advice. But life advice, I’m sure we all can take.
Whether you’re reading this as a current/former/hopeful MFA student or as a writer of any stripe, it’s safe to assume you’re a busy person. Fair chance, writing isn’t your only obligation and to slow down seems impossible because you can’t drop your job(s), children, classes, teaching, spouse/partner, etc. And you can’t drop your writing (I’d hope).
But you can slow down in your writing, particularly when thinking about setting and details.
I should have realized sooner that my aversion to sitting in a setting and providing a reader with the unfolding details of a place was a reflection on my aversion to sitting in a setting and taking in the unfolding details of a place in my life. I eat breakfast during my office hours, with a book in one hand and a pen in the other. I meet a friend for lunch and my mind is confetti on the next dozen things that need to get done (the next scene to write, the next paper to grade, the next paper to write, etc) and so place becomes transitory. At lunch with this friend, I won’t be able to recall afterwards whether the chairs were wood or metal, whether the table had both ketchup and mustard but no mayonnaise, whether all the Splenda was gone, but the Sweet n’ Low was packed too tight. If I can’t slow down and notice the details in my life, why was I surprised that I couldn’t slow down and provide those details in my prose?
Chances are, I’m not alone in moving through the world as if each space is only a bus depot to hop to the next transitory location.
I know mindfulness is a buzz word that can feel cheapened recently, but there’s something to say about writerly mindfulness. We learn how to read as writers and (hopefully) read to feed our creative work. Reading becomes part of the work of writing. We learn to dedicate slowness with published work and understand that if we don’t read (and don’t read with the purpose to learn and expand possibilities) then we don’t improve. We learn to read mindfully. Can we also learn to observe mindfully? Can observation become the deliberate work of a writer? I’m a fan of carrying a notebook everywhere, but even then, I don’t take down every detail of every room I enter—that’s exhausting for one, and also when you notice everything you can’t hone in on what’s important. But, I can take down one or two ideas. Just the ketchup bottle alongside the mayonnaise packets. Just the Sweet n’ Low with the bent pink corners.
But even then, taking notes can still be exhausting or cumbersome. Another observation technique is to build your observations into the work you already do as a reader. When I read as a writer, I read for setting. I read for how the writer walks me through a room (or not), how the writer directs my attention. I observe and take notes on the places I would never think to set a story or place a scene.
I don’t expect any of us to get less busy, but I hope that slowing down can create writerly mindfulness so we can observe with intention. I hope that observation can become a part of your writing life, something as integral as reading. The places we inhabit are not transitory and I, at least, needed a reminder of that, in my life, as well as in my prose.
Cheryl Wollner is a first year MFA student in fiction, currently working on an alternate history novel about Bess and Harry Houdini. She 100% believes in magic.