On Writing Slowly

Frowning over every word.

I’m an incredibly slow writer. How slow? Well, there was five minutes of keyboard silence between the completion of that first sentence (“I’m an incredibly slow writer.”) and the arrival of the second one (“How slow?”). And that’s fast for me.

Now you know why I blog so seldom. (Another break while I check my dictionary to see if one blogs seldom or seldomly. Turns out “seldom” is both adverb and adjective. How nice to have that question settled. Another minute while I meditate on that and on the always reliable pleasures of the dictionary.)

This slow thinking coupled with obsessiveness is also why, after seven years of not-exactly-unrelenting-but-pretty-sustained work, my book manuscript is only now crawling toward completion.

Then there’s the research. The book, a collection of linked stories about the La Pérouse expedition, is mostly set in the late 18th century, and each piece takes place in a different part of the world. For every new setting I become a minor, temporary expert on that time and place.

This is enormously time-consuming, of course. I’ve spent days, weeks, figuring out what my characters might have had for dinner in Concepción, Chile, in 1786, or reading up on the seasonal fishing customs of the Tlingit Indians of southeast Alaska, or unearthing the troubled marital history of an early California governor and his wife whom my explorers met in Monterey.

My long-suffering spouse once asked, “Why can’t you write an autobiographical first novel like everyone else?”

It’s a fair question. Some stories get stalled for months while I chase down sources. Right now, for example, I really need more information about women who joined religious confraternities in southern France in the early 1800s—in particular, the Pénitents-bleus of Villefranche-de-Rouergues. Yes, it relates to La Pérouse. Give a shout if you know anything about this.

The research devours time, but at least it’s fun. What’s even more time-consuming and usually less fun, which is to say torturous (another dictionary break: is it torturous or tortuous? oh, two different words, both of which aptly describe my writing process)—and tortuous, is figuring out what sort of story to tell.

Whose story is it? First or third person narrator? If third, what kind of third—close? omniscient? rotating? Present or past tense? A tale told in sections, and if so, numbered, named, or separated by asterisks? The voice: intimate or distant? Tone: ironic or earnest? Ending: more-or-less conclusive or open-ended?

These questions can occupy me for years as I make one false start after another. The trail of tears is traceable in the folders on my computer. The folder for “Items for Exchange,” a story Sycamore Review was nice enough to publish last summer, contains almost thirty versions of the story, some in first person, some in third, some in past tense, some in present, several as a series of diary entries, some only a few lines long before I gave up in disgust. The title changed five times. From start to finish, it took me over two years to complete.

Oddly, it’s kind of reassuring to engage in this bit of personal writing archaeology. The process was painstaking and drawn out, and I often despaired, but in the end, it worked, as it has for every other story I’ve completed.

The story I’m currently despairing over is about a guy who left the La Pérouse expedition early and lived long enough to identify items recovered from the wreckage thirty years later.

His name was Jean-Baptiste Barthélémy de Lesseps, and he was only 19 when he joined the expedition as its Russian interpreter. Two years into the voyage, he disembarked in Petropavlovsk, charged with carrying dispatches, artists’ drawings, and La Pérouse’s journals back to France. The often harrowing overland journey across Russia took over a year. By the time he arrived in Versailles, everyone else from the expedition had probably already perished in the South Seas.

Barthelemy de Lesseps
De Lesseps traveling by dog sled across Kamchatka

The “de Lesseps” folder on my computer is False Start Central. My original idea, “The Sable,” dating from the spring of 2007, takes its inspiration from a sad anecdote in de Lesseps’ journal about a sable one of his guides caught for him to take back to France. The poor creature did not fare well in captivity, of course. In fact, so many animals were harmed in the making of de Lesseps’ journey that I’ve thought of organizing my story around an inventory of dead animals.

I’ve also got “Leave-Takings,” a chronicle of the wrenching good-byes the poor man had to make during the trip; “A Vocabulary of the Kamchadal People,” which uses as an ordering principle the quirky and unintentionally poignant and poetic glossary entries de Lesseps included in his account; and “In Retreat,” told as a series of flashbacks during the calamitous 1812 retreat of Napoleon’s Grand Army, which, remarkably, de Lesseps also survived. I spent two weeks researching that last one before deciding it wasn’t the right frame for the story.

As of this writing, I have no idea how to proceed with this story. I’ve considered nixing it from the line-up. The collection probably has enough pieces without it.

But I’ve always wanted to include the story of this intrepid, absurdly young and lucky man who successfully carried La Pérouse’s journals from Kamchatka to France. And I have this kind of dogged faith that if I just keep at it, I’ll eventually succeed.

Meanwhile, I started research on a new story (set in Macau) and revised an old one (Solomon Islands). So the manuscript is inching forward.

Unfortunately, the operative word there is inching.

Or maybe it’s forward?

19 thoughts on “On Writing Slowly

  1. we all go forward in our own way. and as much as we create our novels, our novels create who we are in turn. sounds like you and your novel are doing a good job together. 🙂

  2. Naomi, I hope you understand when I tell you how comforting this post is to other agonizingly slow writers, like me. I agree that research IS fun and illuminating and satisfying. The stories I’ve read so far from your collection are definitely worth the time they took to research and write, and these will be too. I’m so looking forward to reading the book.

  3. I really like this, Naomi. Sometimes I tell people that it can often take years for me to finish a single poem. Their responses range from relief (if they are slow writers), to sympathy, to astonishment tinged with a kind of disdain. But there’s not much we can do to speed things up. The poem or story will work when it works, and be done when it’s done, and not a minute sooner. (By the way, I seem to be a bit quicker with prose than with poetry, but I am not sure why.)

    I can’t wait to read this book of yours. And I love the frowny picture!

    1. Thanks, Michelle! By the way, I just finished a short piece set in Botany Bay, the last place the expedition was seen by other Europeans before it disappeared. It’s out looking for a friendly editor.

  4. Naomi, I loved this post. But FINISH THE BOOK so I can read it. If that story doesn’t fit, make it a “give-away” sampler, so that people can get turned onto the book and buy it when it gets published. I like your process, but do lament that is why you don’t blog more often, because I really like your posts.

    1. What a nice thing to say! Thanks! And what an interesting idea about using a piece that doesn’t quite fit as an online “teaser.” You’re way more savvy about these things than I am.

  5. Savvy, no. I just read these things, and some of my favorite authors are doing just that. But I did so love the stories from your collection I did have a chance to read that I’m waiting for the book. Then I can INTERVIEW YOU!!!!

  6. Naomi – This response is 6 months to late, but my friend Sarah Curtis at SF State has written about French female religious orders in the 19th century. Then again, you probably filed that file away a long time ago!

  7. Talk about proceeding slowly, I just managed to read this, about seven months after you wrote it. Slow or fast, the work you produce is amazing when it’s finished. I look forward to reading more os the stories — or more versions in progress — whenever you give me the chance.

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