Thursday, January 11, 2007

On Slowness

As an illustration for my post on Tuesday , I took a photo of the the New Yorker magazine, open to the first page of the Pamuk article, which had some passages highlighted which I wanted to place in the post. Next to the magazine was my commonplace book, in which I had begun writing out one of those passages by hand. Once I knew I wanted to use them in the post, I stopped writing them by hand and began typing them out. Along about the middle of the third one, as I was typing, the thought occurred to me that I might be able to save myself some time if the article was still available on the New Yorker site, and when I check, sure enough, there it was. Since I already knew and had highlighted the passages I wanted to use, I simply cut and pasted the rest of them into the post.

Today, as I picked up my commonplace book and began another entry, I began thinking about the qualitative and experiential differences between each method of processing that article. In the old days—I'm resisting the temptation to call them the good old days—if I wanted to copy something into my notebook, I pretty much had to do it by hand. (I was 12 years old when the first commercial xerox machines became available, and in my twenties before I personally got anywhere near one.) Now, thanks to technology, I've got options. And I'm thinking about the tradeoffs, the plusses and minuses of the analog and digital experience within this one very tiny realm of endeavor.

When I sit and copy something down on paper by hand, it's a certain kind of whole-body physiological experience. My eye moves to the text I am copying, I say the words out loud to myself to fix them in my memory, and then I follow the tip of my pen with my eyes as I use my fingers and my arm to flow the words onto the page. I find I breathe slowly and somewhat more irregularly as I write. It's a unidirectional process, the line of words I'm creating with my pen moves slowly but steadily forward, across and down the page. There's a kind of satisfaction that comes when I reach the bottom of the page and turn the leaf over to begin a new page.

Typing is different. When I type, my focus is not down but out. I still work from the text I am typing out, and say the words to myself in phrases short enough to hold in my mind while I type. I watch the letters appear on the screen in quick little bunches. I still, after all these years, make a lot of physical errors when I type, and my forward progress frequently stops and reverses as the third finger on my right hand darts up and over to tap at the delete key to erase little bunches of letters, one, two, or three at at time. Sometimes I’ll get through almost an entire line without missing a letter, but the overall sense of movement is not as deliberate and forward-moving as in handwriting. But I'm still immersed in a kind of brain-body experience which is more than simply visual. Whether I'm writing or typing, I'm processing the words in multiple modalities, and I think it's having some sort of an impact on my brain.

I remember my second grade teacher, Sister Mary Francis, who taught us that the best way to learn our spelling words was to write them out repeatedly, saying the letters out loud as we did so. She told us that doing so involved not just our eyes, but our mouth and ears and hand an arm as well, and that in this way we were "sending messages to our brain" that would help the brain remember. When I attended the Learning and the Brain Conference in Boston a couple of years ago and heard scientists reporting on the exciting new discoveries in the areas of neural networking and neural plasiticity. It occurred to me at that time that Sister Mary Vincent was about fifty years ahead of her time.

Then there's cutting and pasting. If I know there's a version of a text online, I can simply go to the site, search for the text, highlight, copy, and paste it in. It's fast, it's efficient, it's functional. But what I am missing out on is the more in-depth engagement with the text, the chance to have it become more deeply imprinted in my brain as the result of repeated multimodal encounters with it.

So I guess the question I am leading up to is, in this digital age, might it not be a good idea to occasionally ask students to revisit the old analog ways of learning? I'm all in favor of the ease-of-use factor, and I expect that most of us will copy and paste when the opportunity presents itself, as I myself often do. But I also value the old, slow ways, and would like to offer this modest endorsement of their usefulness and value. I sometimes do ask students to write out a passage by hand, slowly, in their best handwriting, paying attention to the shapes of individual words, the sequences of syllables, the way that the onflowingness of the sentence is controlled by the punctuation, the placement of the images, the texture of the sounds. Experiencing a sentence in this way is not unlike walking through a neighborhood you've only driven through in a car. You notice different things: the little bird motif on the mailbox in front of the blue house on the corner, the lilac curtains in the windows, the bend in the signpost where it was struck by a car. To process a sentence in this way is to get inside of it, to inhabit it for at least a while.

Helen Vendler once told the students in a class I was taking that one of the best ways she knew to study a poem (it works with prose as well) was to take a file card and cover up all but the first line, and then write that line out by hand on a separate piece of paper. Then stop and think about what you would write as the next line. What has been established so far? What might come next? Go ahead and write something you think would fit. Then slide the file card down and see what the writer actually did write, and think about how it compares to what you wrote, and what you notice now that's different, and what the next line will probably be. Working through an entire poem in this manner is a slow process, but a very instructive one. By the time you get done, you've experienced the inner workings of the poem in a completely different way.

Charles Baxter has a wonderful essay, the introduction to the 1999 edition of Ploughshares, in which he says:
I have noticed lately that students in my workshops have gotten into the habit of complaining about certain kinds of stories as “slow.” How is this story? What is it like? It’s real slow. How was the movie? Well, it was kind of slow. This adjective, once descriptive, has now become part of an inventory of complaint. Out of a certain perversity, or perhaps a feeling that very serious matters of aesthetic judgment are on the line, I find myself these days complaining at some length about the opposite problem. Most of the movies I go to at the cineplex are much too fast; events have happened before you have a context for figuring them out, and you feel as if you have been given the narrative equivalent of a shell game. The pacing is often, and too literally, breakneck. You feel as if you’re being sold something that basically won’t stand up to any intensive or serious scrutiny, that doesn’t, in fact, make any sense and that doesn’t care to do so, sense not having been part of the project at any point in its conception or execution.

Years ago, James Agee, in a fit-to-be-tied defense of Carl Dreyer’s somberly beautiful and by now classic film Day of Wrath, defended its pacing against an attack from a rival critic, Bosley Crowther, who had complained of its slowness, by saying that such a charge against a serious work of art is absurd. It would be, Agee wrote, like complaining that Beethoven’s adagio in the slow movement of the “Archduke” Trio was too slow. Slow music isn’t bad because it’s slow. If it’s bad, it’s bad for some other reason. The problem is never one of pacing but of focus and concentration. He had a point, and I wish he were still around to make it again, only with more vehemence. Too much recent fiction, I think, has been written as if for the movies, and the resulting rhythms are often too staccato or too breezy. Such fiction gives off a nervous and impatient air, a feeling of stage fright, as if the story had to get its business done in a hurry and had no right to exist if it didn’t.

This is, just possibly, an aesthetic spillover effect from the age of data processing, whose primary adaptive virtues include efficiency and speed. But perhaps it should go without saying that writing fiction, including short stories, is not data processing and never has been. This art does not need to be done quickly or consumed quickly; it just needs to be well-made, by whatever means, in communicating its experiences, emotions, and meanings. The late (and, by me, lamented) American novelist, essayist, and short-story writer Wright Morris used to go on at length in his essays defending slow reading, reading transfixed by wonderment, by the perfect image and detail. His own novels are typically slow reads. They invite a certain kind of reverie, and like his photographs they also invite solitary contemplation of the time-worn objects within them, often touched by what the Japanese call sabi, a quality of noble shabbiness.
So that's my thought for today. Take it slow.


Graham Wegner said...

Bruce, I found your reflections on typing as opposed to writing to be really interesting in light of my own blogging practices. Most of my most flowing, insightful (this is from my perspective, not my readers') posts have been written on my Pocket PC which has a handwriting recognition tool. There are several reasons why I seem to find this preferable to using the keyboard. One, using a PDA allows me to be opportunistic when writing. If I have a chain of thoughts, I can just open up a document and get it down before it escapes. I'm also not chained to the desktop, so to speak and can sit outside and compose my posts, check through them before synching to the PC and publishing to my blog. There is also a certain flow to using handwriting even though the handwriting recognition tool doesn't mind sloppy technique - but I could be still showing my digital immigrant roots.

Bruce Schauble said...

And then, of course, there's the interesting case of Richard Powers, who in the January 7 N.Y. Times Book Review had an end-paper essay called "How to Speak a Book," in which he reports on using speech recognition software to do his "writing":

"I write these words from bed, under the covers with my knees up, my head propped and my three-pound tablet PC — just a shade heavier than a hardcover — resting in my lap, almost forgettable. I speak untethered, without a headset, into the slate’s microphone array. The words appear as fast as I can speak, or they wait out my long pauses. I touch them up with a stylus, scribbling or re-speaking as needed. Whole phrases die and revive, as quickly as I could have hit the backspace. I hear every sentence as it’s made, testing what it will sound like, inside the mind’s ear."

In regard to the act of typing, he notes:

"What could be less conducive to thought’s cadences than stopping every time your short-term memory fills to pass those large-scale musical phrases through your fingers, one tedious letter at a time? You’d be hard-pressed to invent a greater barrier to cognitive flow. The 130-year-old qwerty keyboard may even have been designed to slow fingers and prevent key jamming. We compose on keys the way dogs walk on two legs. However good we get, the act will always be a little freakish."