Relative Speed and Distance

The speed of reading is not the same as the speed of writing. 

There are many metaphors for the shape of a story, but the one that recently resonated with me is the image of an accordion—the completed story is the instrument at rest, and the experience of the story, whether by the author or the reader, is the instrument come alive. 

When we read a story, we fill the empty spaces with our own experiences and expectations, just as the writer did when she crafted that story. The writer has poured into the story all the intimate details of her life and experiences. The reader will never know that the writer wept over a single line of text, or that she wrote the pivotal scene in a single furious pass. All of that is hidden inside the finished story, all the time spent shaping the story and agonizing over each part folded away neatly, packed into a single thing.

A good story may be written in the course of a single month, or over twenty years. A good story may be read across the course of a month, or in a single afternoon. I often confuse the speed of writing with the speed of reading.

I always thought I would be the same kind of writer as I am a reader. I have always loved reading fast and swallowing stories whole. I crave long stories, with intricate plots and characters that fall down and learn to pick themselves back up again. I adore fantasy novels, with awe-inspiring worldbuilding and imagery that brings my soul to the edge of the cliff (and sometimes drops me right off). 

I always imagined that I would write fast and long, just like I read. 

I don’t. 

I am a slow writer. My stories are mild and strange. They contain quiet images and gradual transformations. I like to write snippets, which I stitch together to make longer plot arcs. I write in images. I have recently been working on a series of short stories about two characters, wherein almost nothing happens of any note, except that the characters learn to speak more freely with one another. This is the type of story that I might not choose to read.

For years, I tried to write just like I read. I wanted to write fast, to close the distance between myself and my dreams. I worked to outline characters and draft plots. I asked myself about rising action and turning points, and I listed all the attributes of the world I wanted to build. And draft after draft, story after story, I fell short. I tangled myself up in plots that I could not find my way out of, and I wrote characters into dead ends. I tried to write in a way that did not come naturally to me, and I have been a very slow learner. I wrote myself into near-exhaustion, from which I am only just recovering. 

It is not that the behind-the-scene work I did was wasted, but when I focused on the technical and planning aspects of writing, I neglected the part of myself that dreams differently. I am a writer who bases my storytelling in a particular mood, a feeling in the gut that I shape the story around. It is slow to develop, but when I take my time and do not force the story, I can create some truly wonderful tales. When I forced myself to focus on planning and pacing and plot, I stripped that intuitive understanding of the story away from myself. I forced myself to move too fast, and I killed the story in my heart. 

I am learning to fight the instinct to write the kinds of stories that I read. That is not why I write, or why anyone writes, I suspect. We do not write to tell the same kinds of stories that we have already read, but to tell a new kind of storyintrinsically connected to what we read, yes, but unique nonetheless. It is only lately that I have begun to understand the kinds of stories that I want to write, and to accept that the stories I love to read may not be the stories that I love to write. 

As a writer, I need to slow down. Take the longer, more winding route. Throw the maps out the window. It goes against every habit I have. But I’m working on trusting my instincts, instead.