Renoir – “Two Girls Reading in the Garden”, 1890. Click image for Renoir gallery.
The Slow Movement
Some things are worth the time it takes to make them. Like slow food.
Case in point. The croissant. There is nothing quite like a croissant fresh from the oven, made lovingly by hand with prime ingredients. The slow food movement has taken this idea, that there are some things worth taking the time to produce them, and built out from its origins in Italy to spreading to about 150 countries worldwide, including my own backyard here in BC.
This taking it slow concept is part of a wider slow movement that translates over to other areas as well – like writing and reading. And the slow thinking that goes with it. Even as I write that sentence I realize that ‘slow thinking’ brings up negative connotations, of being a dullard. But, just like tai chi makes for a more mindful and skilled warrior when push comes to shove in real time, I’d argue that slow thinking, reading, and writing makes for a more skilled reader and writer when the heat is on and you have to produce on time and on budget.
A Slow Blog
This taking time to do something is part of the impetus of this blog, as a bit of a mindful experiment in slowing down to write again, not on time, and not on any budget. I am as guilty as anyone in recent years for becoming too busy for my own good. There was a time where I meditated more often, did yoga more often, even just sat doing nothing in the sun more often. There was even a time where meditation pulled me out of some pretty tight spots, so I’m quite aware of its merits. However, in the last few years, things have sped up, mostly in my work life, and I’m seeing the need, for my health and well-being (and those around me who have to put up with me!), of taking up some practices I’ve left by the wayside again. So this blog is a place where I can put on the brakes, not necessarily to produce perfection in writing, but to delve into aspects of writing I haven’t had the time to investigate in a while now.
There are so many blogs and news outlets that give fast, pithy bits and bites of info, and like many people online, I scan and read them myself when I get a chance to stay on top of my corner of the information deluge that we face every day. My own twitter feed is an example of this. I find many of these fast thought sources lacking thought. They provide info bites. Great. Now I’m more informed. But of what? Even blogs on zen and yoga I find falling sway to form over content, such as in the “Seven steps to enlightenment, including one weird trick, that anyone can master!’ approach, which seems to be spreading like a virus across the interwebs. Sure, we are generally busy, and don’t typically have time to wade through long thought pieces, and efficiency, clarity and a punchy hook and sinker to a blurb/blog/book have all have their merits. However things like – Definitions. Word smithing. Context. Original. Content. Value. – these are important, too.
I’ve found that there are few things as refreshing as taking the proverbial breath and practicing slowing down my own thinking to focus on one thing at a time. As Thich Nhat Hanh says, “Instead of always multitasking we must learn to unitask. Mindfulness needs some training.” (Art of Power)
So, one thing at a time. I try. At least sometimes. Aside from general mindfulness I do this in my reading, taking time to delve deeply into some poetry or literature I’ve been safe guarding on the shelf. Taking time for reviews and definitions of the same. In my writing, this is about ceasing neglecting some ideas I’ve kept stashed in the back of my mind, and giving them a bit of fresh air, researching and reflecting on them. And this blog is a place where I can record some of how this approach unfolds.
Of course there are the classic arenas of slow writing. Books, for example. Books are ideal vessel for a coherent body of information. Journal articles are also essential to a systematic, high quality approach to research topics. Sure, some of these are produced in a hurry, but the classic notion of the writing process is of the author or scholar taking the time out in order to produce such work.
Yet, sometimes I find myself wanting something in between, that is thoughtful, careful, and engaging, but in a manageable size. Perhaps like an old newspaper editorial from the 1970s (I’ve seen some from my local paper that were a full 2-page spread with hardly any ad content – crazy), or like the work of the old essayists. Yet, also not necessarily with the fully polished, packaged, popping arguments behind the central thesis approach either. Rather, tracking the exploratory ground to get there in the first place, while hopefully enjoying the ride along the way. Journaling, does this, but I find journals usually a bit messy for show and tell.
So, something in between then.
Slow Writing & Slow Reading
A few Google searches reveals that I’m not the first by far to think up slow writing by any means. Here are some other articles on the topic:
The words of Reuben Brower below from Reading in Slow Motion above are remarkably contemporary:
In the age of the New Stupid (a term Aldous Huxley once used for the age of mass literacy), nearly everyone has a reading habit of some sort. Everyone runs through the morning newspaper or Time and Life strictly as a matter of daily or weekly routine. Each social group has its “great readers,” a term of admiration used to cover a wide range of activities that have little more than the printed page in common. There is, for example, reading as anodyne, and reading as extended daydream. There is reading as pursuit of fact or of useful technical know-how, and reading that may or may not be useful, when we are interested solely in understanding a theory or point of view. Still more remote from immediate usefulness comes reading as active amusement, a game demanding the highest alertness and the finest degree of sensibility, “judgment ever awake and steady self-possession with enthusiasm and feeling profound or vehement.” Reading at this level–to borrow Coleridgean terms a second time–“brings the whole soul of man into activity.” Coleridge was speaking of the poet and the power of imagination, but his words describe very well the way we read when we enter into, or rather engage in, experiences of imaginative literature. I say “amusement,” not “pleasure,” to stress the play of the mind, the play of the whole being, that reading of this sort calls for. I am hardly suggesting that literary experience is not a “good,” that it is not in some indirect and profound way morally valuable. But if is to do us any good, it must be fun….Active “amusement” is the reading habit I am concerned with here…”
– Reuben Brower’s, Reading in Slow Motion
Chinese scholar in a meadow. Song Dynasty.
Brower goes on to discuss the role of the teacher in fostering this kind of experience of ‘active amusement’ in his or her students. His essay goes into lofty Platonic realms and language that may ring rather elitist today, but the main point is quite humble. That, for a practice to stick, there must be a sticking point. And I agree with Brower, that for engaging with the written form, it is that sense of play, or amusement, or full engagement, that is the guiding light to whether you’re on the path or not here. The experience, the satisfaction itself, when you’ve got it right, makes it so worth taking the time.
But to obtain the experience, you need to take the time in the first place to cultivate it. But the question is, how much time?
Some in the bullet links above argue that taking time for slow writing is actually a luxury that normal people can’t really afford. Something that the nobility of old enjoyed on the backs of labourers toiling in the sun. Like the aristocrats of Jane Austen in their lavish sitting rooms or lounging in the garden while the servants do all the meaningful work. Or the scholars up on the hill, taking the time to gaze into their navels all day, on the dime of other people, doing real work.
The social political argument is well taken. And let’s not get too nostalgic about it all either. But if nobles had too much time to engage in slow pursuits, does that mean that these should then be then deprived to everyone as a bad thing? I would argue that while the aristocratic and scholarly classes of old may have indulged in such activities, such pursuits were also inequitably denied to those in the service classes, making having the time for such pursuits as even falling within the realm of a human right. The right to take the time to sit in the meadow and read a book, or dilly dally on the porch to mindfully write. At least sometimes. Daily? Weekly? Monthly? How essential is this to your life? Is a life without such pursuits, for those who have managed to cultivate a taste for such things, as worthwhile?
So, what balance seems to work for people between taking the time to recharge our slow writing and slow reading batteries, and then going on zipping about again?
In Defense of Carving Out the Time Required
There certainly is an argument for time being necessary for some worthwhile endeavours. Time is needed for the yeast to rise in the croissant. Time is generally needed to establish trust between friends. Time is needed to train ourselves to do our professions. Time is also needed for children to learn. This learning can include connecting with nature through meaningful, extended, unsupervised play in nature, as espoused by Richard Louv in his book Last Child in the Woods. The value of a child taking this time was also recognized by the poets of old, like Whitman, who’s poem starts Louv’s book:
There was a child went forth every day;
And the first object he look’d upon, that object he became;
And that object became part of him for the day, or a certain part of the day,
or for many years, or stretching cycles of years.
The early lilacs became part of this child,
And grass, and white and red morning-glories, and white and red clover, and the song of the phoebe-bird…
– Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass, 1900
This object of the lilacs, and the grass and the clover that a child beholds, then becoming part of the child, is similar to what Brower speaks to in the above quote. It is the experience, the spending time with, that connects the child to the experience of the thing, through “the play of the whole being” as Brower puts it. And, in this way, the external thing goes from object to subject, and becomes encoded as part of that child’s own thinking, their very physiology, their very heart.
Modern research is catching up with the perennial wisdom of mindfulness. Studies indicates that we do, in fact need downtime from the information torrent and interruptions that meets us on a daily basis. In particular, our children are, in their developing state, vulnerable to deficits from the lack of this kind of time. And we adults need to take more downtime ourselves in order to even perform basic tasks of committing new thoughts to memory. Our very ability to think, and recollect the past, needs time and attention.
So, what is the verdict? I noticed that in spite of the several articles listed above on the merits of slow writing for instance, and initiatives to start a slow writing movement, that slow writing is still not included on the list of various slow movements around the world.
Is slow writing just a recent gimmicky word for what is actually an already recognized and perennial practice? Or is there something distinct in the concept of slow reading and writing that we could benefit from focusing more on in our modern lives?
I for one know that regardless of syntax, there is some sort of a value add here for myself, the process being intrinsically motivating. I am working on making an effort (even when I don’t have it, like tonight as I burn the midnight oil) to carve out, even just a little bit, of time and space for mindful thinking, reading and writing. I don’t know though if I would say that I would classify this value as primarily ‘amusement’ that motivates me, in the way Brower does. Engagement? Yes. Focus? Yes. Lingering spaces in between to connect the dots between thoughts? Yes. Satisfaction. Definitely.
I find that, even if I lose a bit of sleep, in the long run, that taking the time for a slow reading and writing process is more than just worthwhile. It appears to recharge a battery that I had left latent, and then proceeded to forgot how important it actually is. Because of this, I may even be in the camp that would say that life without slow writing and reading, just wouldn’t be the same, and would actually be somehow less. Like a world without birds. Or a world without children with the time to play in grassy fields and develop eyes to observe them and wonder what it is to fly.