Reflections on the slowness and spirituality of writing

Issue 2021, vol. 75

*Invited submission to a special issue of Mennonite Life, “Scribing Slowness: An Ode to Slow Living During Fast Times”

The COVID-19 pandemic has slowed down life significantly, drastically changing the rhythms of daily living and rendering many of its joys difficult or impossible. Gone are the things that kept us busy and enjoying life: those errands around town, appointments, meetings, studying in a coffee shop, enjoying a long dinner at a favorite restaurant and, most importantly, spending quality time with family and friends. In the early months of the pandemic, I despised the slowness. Fast living was busy, social, engaging and meaningful living. Amid the pandemic, slowness meant solitude, boredom, languishing, and a difficult sense of meaninglessness. As a graduate student learning, working and living entirely within the confines of my home, it often seemed like if I wasn’t working on coursework, I was wasting time. Reading and writing became the only defining features of my life. With the speed and variation of life gone, I was in a perpetual standoff with a towering stack of books and a blank Word document. I thought about nearly every moment of every day in terms of my studies. My love for reading, research and writing — the very practices that drew me to the study of history and drew me to graduate school — faded as more and more of my life away from the desk disappeared, victims of the pandemic. As plenty of people have mused this past year, I was not working from home; I was living at work.

Then, at the beginning of 2021, I began the year-long process of researching and writing my master’s thesis. I was jumping into the most significant academic endeavor I had ever faced socially isolated, academically burnt out and emotionally drained. I faced a writing project that I knew I would be living with for the better part of a year in a world that offered little escape from the pressure to continue working. Not surprisingly, each day with this project was less productive and more frustrating than the last. I judged a day’s value by how many chapters I read, how many primary sources I found or how many pages I wrote. This evaluation, then, became a reflection of my own worth. I judged my own value on my ability to complete these tasks. The self-imposed pressure to read and write more, faster and better became a self-defeating cycle.

Ironically, it wasn’t until I received a message from the staff of Mennonite Life asking me if I would write an article on how I thought about and practiced slowness that it occurred to me that slowness could actually be something I embraced. For nearly a year now, I had been struggling against the current of slow living wrought by the pandemic. In a moment of sheer serendipity, the same week I was asked to write this essay, I was given a book written by a relative of mine, Charitable Writing: Cultivating Virtue Through Our Words. In a book about envisioning writing as a spiritual practice and an act of discipleship that fosters Christian virtue, I came across the unexpected but enormously valuable chapter entitled “Slow Writing.” There, in my struggle to write faster in a slow life, I realized I needed to embrace the slowness given to me in these difficult times.

Slow writing is understanding the process of writing in a holistic sense and embracing the rhythms of that process. It is not, as those who have written about slow writing point out, an excuse to write distractedly and haphazardly, nor does it give credence for one’s speed to be crippled by perfectionism — the latter of which I have been guilty of for years. Instead, slow writing is, as writer Louise DeSalvo describes it, “a meditative act: slowing down to understand our relationship to our writing, slowing down to determine our authentic subjects, slowing down to write complex works, slowing down to study our literary antecedents.” Charitable Writing, written by Richard Hughes Gibson and James Edward Beitler III, and DeSalvo’s The Art of Slow Writing have led me to examine the process of writing on deeper levels, to discover and embrace the slowness and the spirituality of writing.

Before taking the time to really think about the act and process of writing, I tried to contain my process to three linear tasks: 1) research; 2) drafting; and 3) revising. Done. Recently, I realized that I had been ignoring calls for slow writing for years. I remembered all the professors, mentors and friends who told me that all first drafts are bad — often really bad — and how, for years and years, I had ignored this statement of fact. I believed that I was different, that I was a better writer than most, and could do all of my research, conceptualize my paper and then write it out in one go. In my perfectionist struggle toward this ideal form of writing, I could not allow myself to write badly. Rather, I revised as I wrote, hitting the delete key more than any other, resulting in a drudging process and a choppy product. Over time, however, as my subjects now become more complex, my writing more nuanced and my environment slower, I realize that this is impossible for nearly every writer. No matter how simple or complex, thoughts need time and space to develop outside of the mind. For too long, I thought that the final goal was to circumvent the drafting process and write a near-final manuscript out of nothing when, in fact, this “ideal” was not even writing at all.

Meditating on what the writing process actually is and discovering the benefits of slow writing has revealed that scholarly writing is cyclical and recursive, not linear. Research, contemplation, drafting, revising and resting are all events in the process, but they are not bound to that order, nor are they ever really completed. Recognizing that historical research and historical writing are inextricably bound practices has been essential to my meditation on slow writing. Reading and research lead to new ideas, new examples and new arguments, which are processed by writing them into a draft. After some time away, old sections are revised to explore how these new additions either address existing weaknesses or create new problems. After considering these changes, it is back to reading, probing for new primary sources and other scholars’ work to further support an argument or find out if it’s totally bunk. If it’s the former, these avenues are pursued with more robust documentation, better examples, stronger prose and sharper argumentation. If it’s the latter, the writing is scrapped, and the writer moves on after a brief mourning period. Contemplation, research, rest, drafting, revising, research, contemplation, revising, research, drafting, rest —  over and over and over. What may appear as an infinite and inescapable cycle of drudgery to some is, for me, incredibly freeing. Living with this process of slow writing, which values both time at work and time away, removes the pressure to complete Step 1 before moving on to Step 2, and offers the hope that my writing will always be better than it is.

Developing the discipline of slow writing has also been a deeply religious experience. Embracing the slowness of writing has not only offered the opportunity to write more thoughtfully, more sustainably and more effectively, however. It has also opened up space for me to discover the spirituality of slow writing. Guided by the words of Gibson, Beitler and other scholars, I have discovered how writing can and does cultivate Christian virtues.

The entwined practices of drafting and revising present an opportunity to practice the virtues of hope and humility. Hope flows from the belief that the draft, regardless of how rough, will improve. Humility is cultivated in the recognition that the first draft (or the second, or the third, or the fourth…) will not be perfect. Writing is not a process of putting pen to paper (or fingers to keys) and transcribing extant thought. Instead, writing is thinking. As such, I work to write something each day. Even after a day of nothing but reading, I try to build a paragraph into my draft or flush out a footnote. Some days — though they are few and far between — I will draft five or six good pages. Some days I’ll write ten pretty bad pages, and then scrap all but two the following day. Some days I will spend an entire afternoon thinking and reading and thinking some more, only to produce two sentences. Regardless of what is on the page at the end of the day, I take solace in the knowledge that this is not the final manuscript and in the hope that these thoughts and words will improve to make something meaningful. Revision also presents the opportunity to cultivate the virtue of humility. It is the difficult act of admitting again that the first draft was not perfect, that mistakes have been made, that the writing in question is weak or flawed or just bad. In the slow and beautiful moments of writing, I have found the opportunity for growing spiritually, recognizing weakness, practicing humility and cultivating hope for improvement.

As a historian, I hope to be a steward of the past and of the present. As a steward of the past, I aim to represent the people and events of the past accurately and justly. From there, I aspire to serve my readers to make the past accessible and meaningful. As a religious historian, this act of stewardship presents its own challenges and opportunities. My current scholarly project tells the story of early evangelicals who lived through the violent wars between British, French and Native forces in the middle of the 18th century. This violence, they thought, was God at work on earth, punishing a chosen people for spiritual degradation and guiding them back toward a renewed faith in God and in godly living. Whether or not I share their Calvinist providentialism is beside the point. By recognizing that this understanding of events was founded on a pious and authentic faith and was, therefore, genuine and not a rhetorical veil to hide ulterior motives, I work as a steward of these people’s lives and authentic experiences. As I read their letters, diaries, sermons and theological treatises, consciously practicing slowness is essential. Working to understand these people, their beliefs and their actions is a continuous process of reading, writing and thinking, and is critical to being a steward of my subjects.

Questions that lie at the heart of my inquiry probe the relationship between religious belief and human violence. How did these believers’ faith shape how they understood the violence around them? On the other hand, how did the contours of war affect their spirituality? Moreover, how did their Christian beliefs influence their actions? Did they seek out or avoid violence? Did their words and actions encourage or deter violence? Were their words and actions consistent with their faith? My intellectual curiosity with religion, peace and violence is undoubtedly rooted in (or at least deeply affected by) my Anabaptist-Mennonite faith, education and background. By embracing the slowness of writing and thinking (there is often little difference between the two), there is time and space to explore how my faith shapes my writing. There is a tension, between the historian and the Christian, between proclaimed neutrality or objectivity of the historian on the one hand and the genuine faith that undergirds much of my own thinking on the other. On this subject, Robert T. Handy has written, “There will always be tension between Christian faith and historical method, between the believer and the historian, and inside the believer who is a historian. … But the tension can be creative and not destructive, for within the faith itself are emphases that call some of us to do critical work and help all of us to see real values in the method.” The slow, spiritually conscious moments of research, writing and thinking present the time and space to reflect on how my words and ideas present the events of the past and their bearing on the future. This tension is undoubtedly worthy of exploration, not resistance.

As a historian, I also aim to make these stories relevant and meaningful to people today. With this in mind, revision is “an opportunity to love our readers.” It is an act of charity, hospitality and justice. To envision writing as a slow and spiritual process places the reader, not the author, at the center. This moves us beyond the prideful notions that revision is only necessary to receive a higher grade, be accepted for publication or receive praise and accolades. A mentality of humility and stewardship also keeps the prideful, egotistical thoughts at bay. I have realized that writing is not a means for personal promotion and success but as a humble attempt to slightly expand the knowledge in the world for the public good. Writing and revising with the reader in mind improves the prose, flushes out examples and context and sharpens argumentation. It also makes writing more relevant to those who will read it. Keeping this honest care and love for my readers, whoever they are and however many there may be, gives me energy and purpose in this process of writing.

The final, and perhaps most crucial, step of my slow writing cycle is rest. Five minutes away to make a cup of coffee, an hour spent outside walking the dog and enjoying the silence of nature, an entire weekend off to recharge. I have found that rest is not only good for me (mind, body and soul), but it is also good for the words on the page. A newly completed draft, moments after the final period has been entered, seems far different than when that same draft is read after a day away from it. Allowing myself, my ideas and my words to rest is best for all of us. COVID-19 has blurred pre-existing distinctions between times and places of work and rest (which is really saying something because, for a graduate student, those distinctions were pretty blurry to begin with). Now, when the project of writing seems all the more inescapable, it is all the more important to escape. Understanding that rest is an active and meaningful part of the writing process has dramatically improved my mental health, relationships and the way I think about my life and my work, all of which support writing.

The spirituality of rest, of Sabbath, should not be overlooked. In his monumental work on the subject, Abraham Joshua Heschel writes, “The meaning of the Sabbath is to celebrate time rather than space … to become attuned to the holiness of time … to share in what is eternal time, to turn from the results of creation to the mystery of creation; from the world of creation to the creation of the world.” In some sense, recognizing and living in this holy, eternal time is to reject the speed of daily living and to embrace the slower rhythms of existence. Similarly, but in less religious terms, Louise DeSalvo muses that the entire process of slow writing “is a way to resist the dehumanization inherent in a world that values speed.” The same can be said for the necessary integration of rest into that process. The breaks between drafting and revising are perhaps the most important. Spiritually, rest is not only a time for reflection and restoration. It is also an opportunity for humility, to place oneself into the hands of God. Returning to work fresh and rejuvenated makes the virtuous and humbling task of revising less painful and more valuable.

Recognizing rest as integral to the process of writing also reinforces writing’s spiritual connection to the act of creation. Considering this connection in the first stages of writing, Gibson and Beitler write: “In the moments before we bring form to the formless page, we recreate this scene of creation,” described in the opening of Genesis as God hovered over the waters of the void. They go on to say, “And when we do begin to put words to the page, we reflect the creativity of our Creator and extend the first act of creation into the present moment. This pause before writing reminds us that God has created us to be co-creators. This is, in part, what it means to be created in the image of God.” Just as God needed rest in the first act of creation, so too do we need rest in our simple, human acts of creation.

It is unlikely that I would have sat down to reconceptualize the act of writing if it weren’t for the COVID-19 pandemic. In a fast, busy life, writing was another task to be completed. Suddenly, I found myself working within these vast, slow stretches of time that this pandemic era has created. More often than not, writing has been difficult during this time. But this year of slowness, for however much I tried to resist it, presented me with the time, the space and the need to actually think about writing rather than just doing it. Similarly, the process of writing this essay has been a meditative, healing and enlightening process. By practicing slow writing and recognizing and embracing the academic and spiritual importance of the cycles of research, drafting, revising and rest, I have found that I am writing better and living better. While the pandemic has certainly occasioned this shift to slow writing, I hope that this practice is not bound to these times of isolation. As life away from the writing desk inevitably speeds up again, I hope to keep my time spent writing slow.