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Slow Books — The Patient Reader and Writer

August 12, 2014

Since my son’s birth, I’ve been thinking a lot about time. I think of it in broad, mountain-range ways. How the days are long but the months race ahead. How it doesn’t ever fall backwards. How I will never know my son as a newborn again.

 

I think of it as a choice. How I choose to spend time a certain way, how I struggle in my imperfection, trying to be present in moments, without skipping quickly ahead. 

 

I think of it in minutes on a clock. The next feeding. The next nap. In my loneliness, the sound of the building’s front door, the scuffle on the stairs, how the air passes through the minute my husband returns home from work.

 

As a writer, I also think of time within the stories I want to tell. I’m often chastised for reading and writing stories that move slower than others. So each time I sit down to write, I am conscious of getting to the proverbial there quicker, pulling narratives so tight in revisions, that I remove one line, and the novel unravels like the snag of a knitted scarf.

 

Trying to get published, I read so much of what agents and editors and readers want. There are contests and workshops. Hook me, they say. In the first line. In the first paragraph. The first page. The first chapter. 

 

Hook me, they say, right away. Or I will not read on. 

 

With time so much on my mind, in my writing and personal life, the idea of this immediacy, the hook has been dutifully brought to the forefront. To the point where I have just stopped myself in this blog post, scolded myself, told myself, look Melissa, just look, how long it took you to get here, to this, to the point, when they’ve already stopped reading, I’m sure. 

 

In my revisions, I’m often desperate. Slashing. Burning. Get there, get there. Faster.

 

Last week I read two books and had identical reading experiences. Life After Life by Kate Atkinson. Atonement by Ian McEwan. Two bestsellers. Two critically acclaimed books by beloved writers.

 

Two books I nearly abandoned because they were much too slow. 

 

And, remember, I am someone who loves slow books, who stays with them. For me to say this, it means they are lead-footed and unhurried to an extreme. And they were. They did not hook me in the first line. Heck, they did not hook me in the first 200 pages. No snap, crackle, car-chase pop. No shocking first lines. No run-away, breathless beginnings.

 

They were inherently British. Come along, they said, we’re going to span a hundred terrible years. We’ll take you on a tortured ride through the fog of the howling moors. Come watch the long, slow, painstaking ruin. (What? You know it’s true. It’s a bit like this blog post.)

 

Yes, I stuck with them because I felt I should. I stuck with them because the writing held up. But, with each book, I reached a moment, hundreds of pages in, the sharp, electric epiphany: I was hooked. I raced through the latter three quarters of each book, reached both ends, breathless, impressed. Changed. 

 

I realized the slow beginning was purposeful, beautiful even. With time, I had become entrenched in the psychology of the characters, their worlds, so absorbed in details, I could not escape and I no longer wanted to. I loved both of these books. I was so impressed with their ambitious, epic span. The narratives were carefully and thoughtfully spun. They had their own way of unravelling, remarkably, with time and purpose.

 

I wondered, were it not for the name of their trusted authors behind them, would these books have kept so many rapt in attention? I understand all books need a hook but with so much emphasis on the quick hook, are we, as readers and writers, missing long, evolving stories, that are deliberate in their slow exploration?

 

Should we be more patient? Once we’ve dutifully removed the unnecessary, instead of wondering why, a few sentences in, we are not yet wowed or wowing, should we allow ourselves to get to the wow when we get there? Or, in this hurried and Veruca Salted I want it now life, is there simply not enough time? 

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