Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Working slower, working faster

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The calypso strum

One of the hardest aspects of learning a musical instrument is training yourself not to think. When you’re trying to sing, strum, maintain a steady rhythm, and change chords all at the same time, if you worry too much about how your fingers and hands are moving, you’ll find yourself pausing, stumbling, and forgetting what you were trying to do in the first place. Ultimately, it’s repetition and muscle memory that make the difference, not conscious thought, which can be a difficult concept to grasp for someone like me, who has never been accused of underthinking anything. While playing the ukulele, though, I’ve discovered something interesting: if I’m having trouble mastering a strumming pattern, it helps if I strum faster, not slower. The result may be a little sloppier than if I were counting out every beat, but once the tempo has passed a certain threshold, I simply can’t think about it too much—I’ve got no choice but to leave it up to my hands. And my hands, left to themselves, generally know what they’re doing, if I can just manage to let them do their own thing.

A change of tempo can be a powerful creative tool in any field, and it can be just as helpful to slow things down. Roger von Oech, the author of A Whack on the Side of the Head, likes to tell a story about a solar energy lab technician who had to make precision cuts in gallium arsenide using a high-speed saw, only to find that the material cracked repeatedly. It was only when she reduced the speed of the saw, as she noticed her husband doing while cutting wood for cabinets in his shop at home, that she was able to make the cuts she needed. The story may well be apocryphal—I haven’t managed to find a source for it anywhere else—but it gets at an important point. Whether we’re artists, musicians, or other skilled professionals, we tend to fall into certain rhythms in the way we get things done. The speed at which we work is something we figure out over time, based on our own personalities and experiences, but it’s easy to fall into a rut, and sometimes all it takes to move past a creative obstacle is to try for a change of pace.

A page from the author's notebook

I’ve written elsewhere about speeding things up and slowing things down in the context of art itself—some stories are best told at a rapid clip, others in a more meditative style—but it’s equally important to take this into account during the creative process. I’m a fast writer, for instance, but I’ve found that the fluency with which I can get words on the page can be a liability: I’m likely to settle for something that reads fine the first time around, when a more laborious approach might have yielded interesting discoveries. As a result, I’ve deliberately sought out ways to slow myself down at crucial moments. It’s why I still write many of my notes using pen and paper: the tactile nature of the materials forces me to write more slowly, allowing additional ideas to emerge during moments of downtime. I used to outline two chapters a day; now, I’m down to one, both for the sake of my own sanity and because that extra time yields a richer engagement with the material. And even if I can still crank out a draft in a couple of hours, I devote an equal amount of time to revising what I’ve written that day, so that the overall rendering time remains constant.

But there are also instances when it helps to write even more quickly than I’d otherwise prefer. With a baby in the house, I’ve had to become more efficient in terms of how I spend my time—there are days when I only have three or four hours to devote to writing, including this blog—and I’ve found that the work can benefit indirectly as well. I’m less concerned about perfection than with coming up with something good enough for me to move on, and I think the writing gains something in immediacy and freshness. There’s going to be a lot of revision later, of course, just as I need to refine that strumming pattern, but in the meantime, I’ve internalized something essential that I wouldn’t otherwise have acquired. The writing life accommodates a wide range of tempos, and the best works of art are often those that were written in haste and revised at leisure, or the product of alternating bursts of energy and inactivity. Restricting yourself to one mode of working can be as big a mistake as limiting the emotional register of the story itself: it closes you off to other possibilities. And sometimes the key to a breakthrough can be as simple as a change in speed.

Written by nevalalee

February 5, 2014 at 9:29 am

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