Slow Writing by Chris Galvin

Like bread dough, my writing seems to require time to rise in a warm, draft-free place. The long proofing period is necessary; turn up the heat to hurry the rising, or don’t leave it long enough, and I get a stodgy, dense loaf.

Under ideal conditions – solitude, free time and excitement about what I’m writing – the words pour forth quickly. It’s exhilarating. But normally, I write when I can. I like to have control over an essay or story as it forms, and I edit as I write, considering each sentence as I put it to paper – does it say what I want it to say, or does it imply something else? I read what I’ve written aloud – does it have the right rhythm?Is my translation of Vietnamese dialogue as true to the original as possible? Does it sound natural?

The second proofing of the dough is as important as the first. Even when the writing happens quickly, I know from experience that it’s best to put it away overnight before taking another look at it, and then to put it aside again for at least a few days, or better yet, weeks. Sometimes it takes years. My essay Floating Life began as a food and travel vignette about visiting a family in the Mekong Delta. It worked, but it was bland. The recipe was missing something.

Chris bakes muffins too

I kept looking for directions in which the essay might develop. I didn’t find the core of the piece, the defining ingredient, until a few years later when a friend read it and asked me how flooding in the delta affected the farmers. Coincidentally, I was reading about how the delta is one of the areas most adversely affected by sea level change in the world. I realized that this was what I wanted to write about. The words flowed and the essay doubled in length. The anthology that was to publish it, Foreign and Far Away, limited submissions to 1,200 words, but time had given me the distance to recognize that some of my words added nothing and stole space from important details. Rereading my essay with fresh eyes, I was able to see what needed to be added or culled.

Sometimes, the needed words, the mots justes, can be stubborn. They elude me; they won’t be forced out. I need almost as much time away from a piece, not writing it, as I need for writing it. As with a crossword puzzle, I put it away for a while, think of something entirely different, walk by the lake or try out a new recipe, and suddenly, the words come to mind.

When I’m struggling with a piece, wondering if it will ever be ready, I remind myself that the long proofing time that frustrates me so much is often just what my essays need to rise properly, to develop their best texture and to emerge from the oven tempting and toothsome.

Chris Galvin divides her time between Quebec and Việt Nam. She writes mostly about food, travel and nature, and sometimes pens short fiction. Her writing and photography have appeared in various anthologies and literary journals, including DescantPRISM InternationalAsian ChaThe Winnipeg Review, and others. She has written in Vietnamese and English for several Vietnamese publications. Chris is currently working on a collection of essays about living in Việt Nam.

151 thoughts on “Slow Writing by Chris Galvin

  1. Reblogged this on Chris Galvin and commented:
    I’ve a new essay up over at the Quebec Writers’ Federation’s monthly online column. Have a look, and then read some of the other writers’ essays too. The QWF Writes column “provides an arena for writers to share and discuss ideas, experiences and opinions relevant to our unique writing community,” but pretty much all of the posts are relevant to the wider writing world as well, not just to Quebec writers.

    Liked by 5 people

  2. Super suggestions here for any seasoned writer or untested “chef” concocting words on the page. The example of the Vietnamese topics that took a while to gel or congeal works nicely–leavens the rest. Now I’m nervous because I can’t tell if there’s a spell checker at work here to help me if I misspell anything… and there’s no time to chase up a dictionary tonight well after midnight!

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Great, great piece. I lack the patience to read and re-read my posts. Mainly because I think if I do that I will change too much. I like that raw, natural feeling in my writings. I do think I will follow and learn from your process too. Thank you for sharing.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. I loved the beginning! Very true. I have to remember that editing is part of it. The number of edits doesn’t matter. Writing can be a slow, and scary process. Thanks for reminding me that I shouldn’t fear editing my pieces. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  5. I think writing can have such a complex relationship with time. The more time you have, the better you can make it. But, the more pressed you are, the more “incomplete” you’re likely to feel about it. Which happens more often, both due to stricter deadlines and procrastination habits. Sometimes, I like to see rougher versions of things, especially of “classics”, like manuscripts of long dead writers. It makes them more human, and gives them personality.
    Beautiful post! Congratulations on being featured on Freshly Pressed!

    Liked by 3 people

  6. I have to agree with you on the necessity of proofreading before publishing a polished essay. On the other hand, I believe in spontaneity, which is often the part that gets missed from the final work. When we try to reason too much, we often end up with something that is perfect in form, but lacks profound content. Your story about how your essay evolved from culinary to climate change is great. The bigger the context the better. In this case, I’m happy that your friend pointed you in the right direction.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. “Be slow to speak.” Isn’t that what we are advised to do? Yet how many develop that instruction as a first habit?

    If people talked like they write, this world would be a much quieter place. Common sense would dominate society. And though world peace would still elude us, we would know the reason why.

    Isn’t it curious how we apply such diligence to words that are written down for the ages to peruse? How is it that we don’t seem to be willing to apply this to our conversations?

    An entire eternity of thoughts accompany this response. But what is the volume of possible replies?

    Liked by 2 people

  8. I absolutely loved the way you intertwined the writing process with baking. It worked perfectly! Writing about writing is always a bit pretentious, but through this lovely analogy it felt fresh and exciting, and provided a new perspective on the process. Congratulations and keep it up!

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Reblogged this on First Entry 1.5.14 and commented:
    While I am still working on gaining the courage to post things I write, like truly and thoughtfully write, I know that I closely relate to this post. My brother helped me set this blog up (thanks bro) and quickly typed my first blog, but I’m excited to get rolling with this thing.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. I had to learn the hard way about why I needed to take the advice you suggested. I now write my posts out in my WP app, leave them alone a few days and then come back to them. This also works for longer pieces such as short stories and novels. Thank you for writing about and clarifying this strategy.

    Liked by 3 people

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