washingtonpost.com  > Print Edition > Sunday Sections > Book World

The Writing Life

Sometimes it pays to sprint through those chapters, skip all the anguish and race to The End.

By Meg Wolitzer
Sunday, January 9, 2005; Page BW10

Many novels -- perhaps most -- pour from the writer's imagination in a kind of slow and seemingly endless syrup. A lot has been written about the painstaking inertia of writing, its stop-and-start (mostly stop) nature. Jane Fonda, portraying Lillian Hellman, famously threw her typewriter out a window in the movie "Julia." It landed with a thud, at least for those of us who recognized this version of a writer's frustration as over the top and far too idealized.

For most of us, the wasted days, failed beginnings and slow gathering of words really are a big but undramatic part of what we do. Entire novels are often cobbled together through a series of fits and starts. Everyone knows the expression "writer's block," but the opposite state, hypergraphia -- in which the writing comes surprisingly easily -- is far more obscure. Some writers have experienced both the slow, piecemeal construction of a novel and the fast, manic, seemingly effortless one. I can say without hesitation that fast and manic is better -- not only for the writer but sometimes, in the end, for the reader as well.

The "fast" novel tends to take shape when a writer is young and in possession of stamina and an uninterrupted sequence of thoughts and big ideas. These books bristle with the writer's excitement. I first experienced this myself in 1981 when I was in college and writing my first novel, Sleepwalking. I applied the same all-nighter skills that I'd used to fashion term papers. Whenever I stopped to eat, I needed only ramen noodles and peanut M&Ms to keep me going. Sleep wasn't particularly necessary, except every once in a while, and if dark circles were scalloped beneath my eyes, I was convinced they only gave me a sensitive, Goethian, Sorrows of Young Werther quality.

But then something happened -- the same thing that always happens: I got older. Over the course of a decade, things changed. My metabolism slowed down, certainly, but it was more than that; my thoughts seemed less linear, studded with side-trips and second-guesses and hesitations, and life expanded around me, suddenly involving many more complications, and many more people. What once came so easily no longer did. The idea of writing 10 or 20 pages in a single day now seemed a dream of an ancient past. Now a good day might mean three or four paragraphs, often measured out by the "word count" function on my laptop, which served as a writing cheerleader. I grew frustrated to find that usable ideas were no longer always on display in some vivid open-air bazaar inside my mind.

How disappointing to face such an obvious slowing down of production. Was this just a question of aging? Did everything start to drop off a little at this point in life, to become less urgent, less perfect? Maybe it was a good thing, I told myself, and I hoped at least that my writing had become less youthfully glib. But still I feared that something important had been lost.

And then, a year ago, something else happened, as it occasionally does: Out of nowhere, I began to write a novel at breakneck speed. The rhythms of my day became different. Instead of the bankers' hours I'd been keeping for years, I wanted to work all the time, as much as I could. I sat through family games of Clue and Boggle with a distracted smile, while inwardly I was plotting scenes. Nothing gave me as much pleasure as working on my new novel. My daily page production began to increase exponentially.

To write in fast and furious mode is to leave the world completely. This kind of writing requires the self-involvement that the young do best. But the middle-aged writer still has stores of self-involvement left, and, if she's lucky, hidden reserves of energy to sustain it. A novel written in a kind of hypergraphic mania often possesses an excitement and passion that survive the journey from the writer's mind to the reader's mind. These hurried novels have a recognizable urgency about them, while the slower ones tend to possess a careful stateliness. Neither is objectively "better," but personally I often like the fast ones more. They're feverish, eager and rarely bogged down with excess weight. More slowly written novels are bigger, more complicated, less sleek.

A writer starts a novel not knowing exactly what kind it's going to be or how long it will take, but the answers soon become apparent. F. Scott Fitzgerald spent a matter of months on much of The Great Gatsby, and nine years on Tender is the Night, a disparity that seems about right to me. They're both beloved books, but Gatsby is the one that's nearly perfect and practically recitable. Flaubert's Madame Bovary is an example of a "medium-slow" book (five years), full of suspended, minute description, but it reads in part as if it might actually have been written fast, so inevitable and whirling is Emma's downward spiral. And you just know that Henry James never wrote -- or did anything -- in a madcap rush. Fast and loose writers, however, sometimes have an impressionistic, intuitive, streamlined vision, as if their observations were made from the window seat of a bullet train.

There's a sense out there that if it takes a long time to write a novel, it either must be stubbornly bad or quite good. Generally, we tend to give great credence to the concept of hard work. Hearing that someone labored for years gets a nod of appreciation, with special kudos thrown in if the writer was never published or rewarded while alive. We want to know that a writer has struggled, been blocked at strategic points, thrown typewriters out windows. We never want to hear that a novel "flowed," because hastily wrought work immediately becomes a thing of suspicion.

Joyce Carol Oates is often mocked for being highly -- even wildly -- productive. Harper's magazine once published an article on her by James Wolcott called "Stop Me Before I Write Again." I take issue with such gratuitous snideness; though I can't say which of Oates's books went fast and which didn't, to me she's almost always an interesting and vigorous writer. Why stop, why slow down, once you've fallen into a rhythm? Why not keep going and going for as long as you can? There will be good novels and less good ones along the way, whether fast or slow. Continual movement is what we aim for in other parts of our lives. We want to use our bodies and minds in every way, staying productive and virtually vibrating with ideas. I don't know what Joyce Carol Oates's secret is: ramen noodles and peanut M&Ms? Red Bull? Probably she's just one of the lucky ones for whom ideas are almost instantly and inexplicably replenished.

All writing is "hard work" in some way, even when it feels and looks easy. Sometimes the work takes place on a cellular level; for years, the writer has been finding a way to see and catalogue and describe the world around her. Sometimes the actual writing-down is almost an afterthought, more a question of mechanics than anything else.

Back in college, working at breakneck pace all night on my first novel, I felt a little immortal, but I certainly don't now. Maybe I wrote so fast this time around because I feel a lot more mortal. I have the sense now that ideas, when they come, shouldn't be endlessly lobbed around or toyed with or lightly discussed with friends over dinner. They should be gotten down. There's a headlong thrill to writing fast, a unique chance to snatch ideas from the air and simply run with them.

Rewriting is another story altogether. •

© 2005 The Washington Post Company