What I Learned This Semester: In Praise of Slowness

I entered the first fiction seminar of my Accessible MFA convinced that I will never have a writing career. Five years ago, chronic illness had already destroyed one career. I was in my final year of my master’s program when I became sick. I lost jobs. I lost touch with mentors. I could no longer intern in classrooms. And I couldn’t find positions, or even internships, in my field willing to accommodate me. Colleges and universities weren’t interested in hiring a novice instructor who could only teach online. Everything that mental health struggles, trauma, and poverty had rendered impossible for a decade had almost been in reach: my dream of becoming a teacher. And then I became ill, and it was gone.

Since then, I’ve learned how to navigate my newly acquired disability. I’ve learned about “crip time,” a term in disability theory that reflects the different way time works when you have a disability. It challenges ableist notions of productivity, like packed schedules. Out of necessity, my days are carefully calibrated to make the most out of what I can do. That means 15 to 25 hours of work actually takes me 40 hours (or more). Because of this, I couldn’t imagine regularly producing fiction, let alone finishing and publishing it.

Or so I thought.

And then this semester required me to produce three short stories, then select one to revise and edit for publication. All in six months. I hadn’t completed anything in years. But I lifted this requirement from Lily Hoang’s syllabus for her fiction class because I thought it’d be good to measure what I can do against what editors, professors, and agents might expect me to do. Of course, her class covered the same ground in less time, but I didn’t expect giving myself 10 extra weeks would make that much difference. It was just an experiment. How close to this can I get?

Photo of woman lying on couch and reading by cottonbro from Pexels

It turns out I can stick the landing. I not only drafted three stories and finished those first, awful, terrible drafts, but I also revised the one I couldn’t stop thinking about. Five drafts later, the semester ended, and I actually had a story I wasn’t ashamed to share. It’s not finished, and it needs feedback from fellow writers. But I’d done it. I couldn’t believe it.

The whole semester proceeded like that, with one surprise after another. In the first half, Christopher Castellani’s book The Art of Perspective taught me that a narrative strategy should guide my choice of perspective for a story. And as I revised my short story, I kept this front and center. I started out with the man’s perspective, hoping his casual misogyny would shock my readers. But then I realized shock wasn’t what I wanted, and besides, those readers who haven’t examined their own sexism would miss the shock altogether.

So I slowed down. I stepped back. And I asked myself what was my narrative strategy after all? I wanted readers to empathize with the woman, to understand how alluring abusers can be at first, how impossible it can be to know what’s coming until it’s too late, and how effective abusers are at coercion, capable of convincing others they’re powerless. I wanted abuse survivors of all genders to read it and feel validated, even vindicated. You are not crazy, I wanted the story to whisper to them.

So revision after revision, I moved closer to the perspective that could convey this, beginning with the sweet things men say to women with only the subtlest note of condescension or paternalism. This narrative distance, where the reader is only given what the man says, creates uncertainty: Is this a romance? Is it a dark comedy about dating? Is it a drama? This makes the transition into the woman’s perspective truly horrifying because what he says so completely contradicts what he does. And for survivors who can stomach such a story, I hope this delivers a shock of recognition, of validation, that yes, this is what it’s like, this is how they get you, you’re not weak. You just want to trust people.

Photo of woman taking a photograph by picjumbo.com from Pexels

In the second half of the semester, an array of theorists and craft writers challenged my assumptions about both my level of skill as well as what makes stories compelling. Stanley Fish’s guide How to Read a Sentence taught me that I don’t yet have good control over my sentences, so I’ve adapted some of his exercises and practice them regularly in my notebooks. Jessica Brody’s Save the Cat! Writes a Novel taught me that stories must start with messes—messes of characters, situations, and milieux where everything is wrong, and people have nowhere to go but up.

Literary theorist Sianne Ngai’s writing on “ugly feelings” in literature seemed to reinforce this. She encouraged me to delve deeper into the petty envies, resentments, and paranoias of the women in my novel. Her direct challenge to the white, masculine aesthetic of “noble” or “heroic” feelings in the literary canon helped me flesh out characters who had been flattened by the weight of that aesthetic. Ngai’s statement that the feelings of the oppressed are often accompanied “by an unpleasurable feeling about the feeling,” such as shame or anxiety, helped me see the many layers to my characters, all of whom are frustrated over what Ngai calls “thwarted action.” Their mean-spirited moments weren’t something to gloss over. Their frustrated, anxious resentments were at the core of their struggle and thus also of the story.

By the end of the semester, I’d not only written more than I believed I could with a chronic illness, but I also had learned that the slowness my body has forced on me is both a limitation and a possibility. In a 2019 TED talk, the novelist Jacqueline Woodson argued for the value of slowness:

As a child, I knew that stories were meant to be savored, that stories wanted to be slow, and that some author had spent months, maybe years, writing them. And my job as the reader — especially as the reader who wanted to one day become a writer — was to respect that narrative… Books are meant to be read slowly, to be savored. My love for looking deeply and closely at the world, for putting my whole self into it, and by doing so, seeing the many, many possibilities of a narrative, turned out to be a gift, because taking my sweet time taught me everything I needed to know about writing.

Still from Woodson’s 2019 TED Talk

Taking my sweet time. I love how she uses that turn of phrase, with all the judgment, all the sarcasm strained out. Going slowly can show respect for the work and for my readers. And as someone with physical and neurological limitations, it honors my health. Before I got sick, I wrote for hours at a stretch every day. I produced pages and pages of mediocre fiction. I was prolific and disciplined but only okay, not good. Being slow gives me time to absorb insights from writers like Ngai and Castellani. Because my body forces me to go slowly, I have time to consider the many layers of a story or a character, and this produces better writing. Yes, I write less, but I write better. And if this semester is any indication, I write enough.

Sometimes a limitation isn’t just a limitation. It can also be an invitation. Slowness in our culture has a negative connotation. Look it up in any thesaurus, and you’ll find a torrent of words that are condemnations: lazy, weak, unwilling, backward, inept. But slow can also mean deliberate, intentional, thoughtful. For some of us, slow is the only way we can do anything. Seven months ago I didn’t think it was enough.

But this semester proved me wrong. And if my brain holds onto only one lesson from these last few months, I’d like it to be this: If we can learn to work within our limitations, we can move into new spaces of possibility where dreams are not lost, only changed.

***

Photo of woman gazing at a goldfish in a tank by Khoa Võ from Pexels

Featured Photo of a college campus at night by Flo Dahm from Pexels

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