On Process: What is too slow?


Over the summer, let’s call it 18 weeks, I produced something like 50k words. This may be a slight over estimate, with another 22K earlier words in the same document. Also this amounts to about 500 words/day for 5-6 days a week, below the minimum of a 1,000 I set myself every day. But here’s what that 50K consists of:

  • The first chapter of a potential book & another 3K words laying out ideas and trying to write more chapters.
  • 20 experiments of about 250 words each. Essentially the first few paragraphs of stories that will probably never go anywhere.
  • 9 experiments of about 1000 words each that have promise and may become first drafts.
  • 4 drafts that are nearly complete first drafts, with beginnings, middles but usually lacking endings.
  • 1 story that is probably somewhere in 4th or 5th draft stage but still needs work.
  • & 1 story I’m happy with and feel ready to share with others

Cynically, that’s a summer of work for 1 short story. More optimistically that’s a summer of work for 1 story, 5 drafts that will become stories I take to workshop, a few other things that may become stories and the beginning of a book.

What these numbers don’t say is my principal concerns:
– First, that out of all that, only the 1 story I’ve completed is or will be good. My best stories, while not easy, flowed smoothy and coherently from inception to completion. And then there are the other stories I work on and work on and work on, and think about (which is always the wrong thing, as stories should stem from the unconscious and an organic place of fun/emotion).  These stories don’t read the same, they’re like dead things I try to breathe life into. They lack a certain vitality. Sometimes they lack a coherence. So, as I enter workshopping stories in the MFA, I’m concerned that I’ll bring some of these mostly dead stories to class, only to be discarded later. As Aimee Bender said:

How the work they [writers] did without thinking is usually 10x more interesting than the work they slaved over with too much thinking for weeks.

– Second, if that work only produces 1 story, then I’m concerned at the effort it takes to produce minimal output. It’s inefficient.

– Third, those experiments and drafts that are not yet ruined, the ones that still retain their promise, I can’t approach them unless I can fulfill the promise. It’s easy to ruin a story: to start with a good idea, keep it flowing nicely, then feel pressured to resolve it and produce something less-than. The only solution I’ve found to this is time. Work on a story until I hit a wall or feel the writing deteriorate, and then set it aside for a week, month, or more. This too, is a slow process. And not necessarily destined to succeed. But it’s consistent with

That said, I can feel that the half-dead stories are less dead than they once were. Limbs of them have not lost all blood flow yet. And, some of the drafts/experiments with promise may actually go somewhere. I may salvage another 1 or 2 stories out of this.

And I wonder if this just isn’t the process for some things?

Enact a repetitive, obsessive, iterative application of preference: watch the needle, adjust the prose, watch the needle, adjust the prose (rinse, lather, repeat), through (sometimes) hundreds of drafts. Like a cruise ship slowly turning, the story will start to alter course via those thousands of incremental adjustments.

[George Saunders’s “what writers really do when they write”]

Or is it the case that good writers still publish stories they’re less than happy with? Sometimes a sufficiently made-up carcass can be mistaken for fresh meat. Zadie Smith’s Essay “Fail Better” suggests a bit of this:Zadie Smith’s Essay “Fail Better”

That is why the most common feeling, upon re-reading one’s own work, is Prufrock’s: “That is not it at all … that is not what I meant, at all …” Writing feels like self-betrayal, like failure.

At this point, deadlines are coming up, so I have little choice. I’ll either have to polish a story or complete one of the incomplete stories with the vitality I’m looking for. We’ll see.

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