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It Takes Time…

September 12, 2016
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Last week our black cat, Harry, got out. We don’t know how or when. He either snuck out the front door or back, in the afternoon or evening. All we know is that when it was time to eat, he was nowhere to be found.

He must have been planning his escape for weeks, most likely as soon as he was allowed out on our new screened porch. He’d saunter out there like he owned the joint, and spend entire afternoons keeping watch over the backyard. Now I know that he was probably also planning how to break free during those afternoons. Did he fantasize about chasing moths well into the night, or running pesky chipmunks out of our yard for good? Maybe. But here’s what he did instead: ran under the deck and hid in abject fear. For four days.

The standoff would have ended sooner had we been in town. Instead, we had a neighbor stopping in nightly to check on him. Despite her relentless attempts to coo and woo him out of hiding, Harry stayed put, out of reach, until we got home.

Not to worry. Within twenty minutes of our return, Harry responded to the sound of my daughters’ voices. He immediately began mewling, and crawled his way out military-style under the low-slung deck, one slow paw after the other, right into our waiting arms.

And this, my friends, is how it feels to be a writer.

When I’m not writing, I can’t wait to sit down and spill myself onto a page. A whiff of library book, the feel of a pen in my hand, or an unbidden, brilliant thought that comes to me fully-formed in the shower—all make my heart race with anticipation, like a smoker craving his next cigarette. But when it’s actually time to write, when I am comfortably seated at my desk in front of a blinking cursor, my thoughts, emotions and creative inspiration run under the deck and hide.

I’ve tried various things over the years to grease the wheels. Most recently, I’ve been forcing myself to write by hand. Not only have famous authors, past and present, sworn by it (Joyce Carol Oates, Neil Gaman, Jhumpa Lahiri to name a few), there is apparently some science behind it. Apparently, writing integrates three separate brain processes—visual, motor and cognitive— to allow a deeper sense of concentration. Writing also activates massive areas in the brain related to thinking, language and working memory.

All of this is great, but here’s the problem: it’s inefficient as hell!

Think about it. There was a good reason I chose typing over longhand in the first place. Unless you know shorthand, like my mom, your average handwriting speed is around eighteen words per minute. Meanwhile, my typing speed is 75. Add to that the average sentence length of fourteen words and the net result is only one longhand sentence per sixty seconds. For those keeping score, I can type four times faster than that.

This assumes, however, that I know what I want to say, that the throughts and ideas come swimming out of me, which we’ve already established, they don’t. Just now, I had to look up from the paper for a second to think what to write thought. In this way, creative writing is a bit like translating a Russian masterpiece into English—there isn’t always a clear translation for the language of our minds. Finding just the right word to describe a feeling, thought or emotion takes time. Often, waiting for my creativity to flow feels like waiting for a video to buffer on a slow Internet connection.

And the hits keep coming, because guess what? No matter how long it takes me to write, longhand or other, my writing can be blithely consumed in a fraction of the time, if at all. As a voracious reader, I’m as guilty as anyone. I devour books, ending as hungry as when I began. As the writer, however, it can feel a little like cooking for toddlers.

So, why? WHY do spend I the amount of time it takes me to write a revery such as this on a regular basis when I could be accomplishing so much more in the same time? By the way,  it took me 25 minutes to write the last 461 words.

All I can tell you is that it’s not that much different than you who run in place on a mechanized belt or you who spends weeks knitting a single scarf. In a world that is constantly speeding up, and values speed and efficiently, I write because I have to. I know no other way to feel at home in my brain. Writing helps me hear the familiar voices of my inner self, and into its waiting arms.

Regardless of whether you read this at prime skimming speed or savored each and every word (thanks, Mom!), thank you for honoring my effort. And the next time you are stranded on a desert island or suffering through a power outage with a book, remember to thank all the writers foolish enough to spend their time writing.