Slow Writing

The “presentism” diagnosed by Douglas Rushkoff in his book Present Shock has now, in this shelter-in-place era of COVID-19, revealed its most neurotic symptoms: near-total absorption into the endless stream of news and commentary, mental fluttering without end, and yet, a near-total inability to say anything. Or to write anything. For me, at least. Setting aside the cheerleading sycophants of productivity who encourage us to “write that novel!” with all our free time, there remains a pressure to respond, in writing, and to respond in a forward-thinking way. But that, too, is enormously difficult when lost in the fluttering.

Our cat, Spike, is half-blind. When I set treats on the floor, I make sure they land with a “click” he can hear. Sometimes I tap the hardwood right next to the nuggets. He frantically noses around, usually finding one immediately and then, nosing around some more, ends up pushing a piece further away. Sometimes it seems like he’s chasing a treat as it skitters away from him.

The search for something to say is like that. Imagine, then, if I gave him twenty seconds to find his morsels before I took them away.

The inability to write quickly enough to keep up with the world has obvious professional consequences–negative ones–but here I’m more interested in a real or imagined ethical mandate. If we’re in a position to speak, or imagine ourselves as those who should speak–or who simply want to speak–and if we assume that our writing might add something positive, then are we supposed to churn out work in order to do good? My writing tends to be careful, deeply researched, as much from the anxiety of leaving out some obvious reference or allusion as it is from my tendency to dwell, but well before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, the urgency of the contemporary moment seemed to demand the opposite of caution. And yet this is precisely what today’s media and discourse thrive on: the blurt, the hot take, the performative gesture. I keep returning to the image of confetti raining down on a HD television that can’t keep up with the visual information and turns it into, essentially, static.

For a while now I’ve been interested in the absence of contemplation and the related issue of pace as they operate in culture, art, and education. Last year at this time, in researching faculty governance, I came upon a quote–from whom I can’t remember; that’s another sacrifice of this urge to say something, combined with own memory issues–that said the job of faculty today is to slow down the pace of institutional change, i.e., austerity and efficiency coded as “innovation.” To argue for contemplation and a slower pace is to say no. But as we know, in higher education as well as other walks of life, that’s easier said than done. The pace rules. I am so overwhelmed by the number of things that need done right now that the idea of slowing down seems impossible.

There’s a self-sacrifice implied here, and a self-importance, but I’m trying to hone in, instead, on the sense of failure created by the inability to keep up and speak up–the failure of the self to be what the self imagined itself to be. (Re-read that. I had to.) Some of us are slow writers. And in fact, last fall when I was on sabbatical, I consciously tried to slow down my writing process. Instead of cranking out a draft, I let myself linger. I let myself play with alternatives. I drafted within a draft, so to speak. What I’ve ended up with is some of the strongest writing I’ve ever done. Whether or not that was entirely because of the pace, I’ll never know.

There was a privilege in having that time. A sabbatical is not a right. And now it seems an utterly foreign privilege, and even, perhaps, misplaced on its own merits. But there again is the creeping sensation that if I cannot respond quickly enough, if I cannot produce, then what I might have said probably wasn’t worth saying.

And then, too, a feeling that I’ve failed an ethical obligation. What I’m supposed to do (says the brain) is what you hear often in sports: “read and react.” Assess the opposing defense and move. Don’t think. Act.

It’s an athletic and militaristic attitude. The attitude and methods of survivalists.

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