Slaves to Time

I’ve read Graham Swift’s essay, “Words Per Minute,” in Sunday’s New York Times book section three times.

Swift talked about the slowness of the craft of writing a novel compared to how quickly we read them. He said many people say they have no time to read, an anomaly when technology was supposed to create more leisure time. He says “saving time has made us slaves to speed,” but that “the absorbed experience of a novel actually removes us from the tyranny of our sense of time.”

As a writer who has been working on a couple of as yet unfinished novels for several years now, the essay made a big impact on me. I’ve felt a growing sense of the need to hurry. Some writers can finish one or even two novels a year. Others like Swift take years to finish a novel and prefer doing it that way. He called a novel “a little life within a life.”  That phrase bloomed in my imagination.

What Swift’s essay means to writers like me

Looking at the writing process as creating a little life within a life brought a few questions to mind. Do we love losing ourselves in our writing for hours? Do we enjoy learning about the craft of writing? At the end of a writing session do we feel productive and creatively satisfied? Or at the very least, have we had fun?

For me, the answer is usually yes. I feel successful when I know I’ve written a good scene or even just a good sentence. I don’t think about whether the hour I labored will be read in a flash or even if it will ever be read. I’m not saying I don’t think about that. I do, just not when I’m engaged in writing.  Swift’s essay reminded me not to get caught up in other people’s definitions of success.

This is Swift’s ending paragraph. I’ve pinned it to my bulletin board:

“I’m not disheartened by the thought that what takes me years to write may occupy a reader for just a few hours. To have made, perhaps, a benign intrusion into someone else’s life for even such a short duration seems to me quite a feat of communication, and if that communication becomes for readers not just a means of passing those hours, but a time-suspending experience that stays with them well after they’ve closed the book and that they might one day wish to return to, then that’s as much as any novelist can hope for.”

I hope you’ll read his entire essay. If you’re a reader or a writer it will remind you what an important part you have in the alchemy that happens between writer and reader.

Graham Swift won the 1996 Booker Prize for “Last Orders.” His most recent novel is “Wish You Were Here.”

12 thoughts on “Slaves to Time

  1. That’s very relevant to today, when everyone’s into mass consumption and speed, largely because of media saturation. It’s interesting to think that Swift may have been way ahead of his time here — or, at least, his perspective seems to be one that remains fixed with the generations. Novelists shouldn’t feel guilty about taking a long time to work on their novel — it’s usually not their sole source of income, although when it is, it’s more appropriate to focus all their time and energy into producing it more quickly. But it can be discouraging to think that something someone spend months or even years making could be put down in mere hours by a reader. So it’s good to take Swift’s approach and think positively about it, instead.

  2. Thanks for commenting! Those wonderful vintage book covers you post on your blog are a good reminder that great books stay with us forever. By the way, your blog is really creative. I’ll be back to visit it again.

  3. really interesting and emotive blog. well done! Think the essay makes a crucial point for all writers; namely what potentially takes years of craft, blood, sweat and tears can be consumed and forgotten in moments or perpetually ignored. Always good to be reminded of that so when you do gain success and readers it feels great!

  4. I’m not writing a novel, but I still appreciate this post and Swift’s essay. I love the phrase “a little life within a life,” and the notion that the communication done through good writing can be a “time-suspending experience” that stays with our readers. Thanks for these reminders.

  5. Thanks for sharing Swift’s essay. I just read it in its entirety and appreciate his thoughts about reader and writer. And I like your thoughts about his essay, including your statement that “If you’re a reader or a writer it will remind you what an important part you have in the alchemy that happens between writer and reader.” Thanks!

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