And why it should be slow
Simple questions sometimes have simple answers. But it is rare. A child’s questioning can reveal complex gears at work beneath a seemingly simple surface. Simple questions often have many answers too. Answers vary not just based on who you ask, but when you ask someone and where.
The earliest writers lived in Sumer. They spoke a long-dead language. We can still hear their voices though. What they were saying, at first, was not particularly interesting. If asked why they wrote they would probably have said that writing is permanent. Across gaps of space and time, hundreds of miles, thousands of years, we can still read their land deeds and inventories. There’s are stories built of lists and legal contracts. They wrote to remember and be remembered.
Stories have always been with part of us. We can’t help telling them. We can’t help listening to them. They filled the air around the dusk lit campfires of our hunter-gatherer ancestors and they are with us still in the Netflix bathed sofas of 21st-century apartment blocks. We search for and fill our lives with stories.
It took a long time for storytellers to use the linguistic innovation of writing; to fasten breath in clay and ink. The oldest stories we can still read have all the hallmarks of a previous oral tradition. But we can only hear them now because of writing.
The answer the Sumerians might have given, the reason we can still hear the story of Gilgamesh, is the reason we write. We write because it is crystallised conversation, a lasting thought. But writing has also given us a mastery over our words and sentences. The rote phrases of Homer gave blind rhapsodes time to fill poems with their imagination, fitting their flourishes into metre and scheme. Writing allows us to edit. We can educate and train our sentences before we send them off into the world.
I write because it is easier to express myself in writing. The ‘likes’ and ‘umms’ of conversation are erased. There is no l’esprit d’escalier. I can snatch a fleeting thought and fix it still. I can poke and prod and mould it into a better version of itself. I take my time with my thoughts. I improve them. I turn them over, examine them, polish them and know my mind a little more fully.
Writing gives me time with my thoughts. I used to think this slow way of writing, with not a lot of published work, was a failure. I bought books, read articles, and watched tutorials that promised a better way. A faster way. But I could never write as quickly as they urged me to.
I have been able to build my life around words and sentences. I wanted to write more quickly because it would allow me to do more of what I loved. I have worked as an editor improving other people’s sentences. I have freelanced, writing copy and articles for blogs and businesses. I have written mass emails and marketing copy. In my spare time, I keep a journal, I have written private poetry and published my own articles on my blog and Medium. In all of these forms, I have rewritten, edited, polished and improved my initial thoughts. They have come out the better for it.
Online writing advice tells you to write every day, to publish every day. Build an audience and an income. I write every day. That is good advice. But I publish infrequently. Writing slowly allows you to know your thoughts better. It improves your thinking and your writing. Writing out my first few drafts in longhand with a pencil gives my sentences physicality. I can work them with my hands, slow and methodical, like a craftsman, an artisan, savouring the satisfaction of a well-made artefact. Writing becomes an act of defiance, against the world’s demands of always more, always faster and against my own stupidity.
There are many reasons to write. To inform, to educate, to entertain, to convince, to seduce. And we are all writers. Offices, universities, studies produce millions of sentences every day. Each email that pings into your inbox, each word on packaging and every advert tempting you to take your money out of your wallet has been placed there by a human hand. But we are not machines for pumping out word after dull word. There is a craft to writing that can’t be reproduced in the suffocating air of a sweatshop. Writing should revel in the telling, not just in what is told. It lets us build more beautiful sentences.
There are many reasons to write. Every person will have a different one. I write because it allows me to sound smarter than I am. It allows me to explore the lines of thought that crackle across the synapses of my brain, that fizz for an instant before they are gone. I can only do that by slowing down. I won’t ever be prolific. I won’t ever amass thousands of readers hanging on my every word. But I will develop my craft. That is something, however small, to prize.