One of the most enduring myths about great works of writing is that the most brilliant ones are all the results of painstaking, frustrating years trying to get the piece just right. We associate toil and stagnation with necessary, even noble, parts of the creative process. Writing that is done quickly, on the other hand, we are often quick to dismiss as low-quality, inherently compromised because it must have been made with commercial interests ahead of artistic ones.
But if most of us were honest with ourselves, we would know that most of the time spent not writing during the time we mean to be is actually spent wandering aimlessly on the internet, staring at Word documents hoping they’ll magically populate, and trying to conjure books from thin air instead of reigning in our minds to bring our own stories to life.
Why this myth exists
The archetype of the artist as a tortured genius hails back centuries. We would need to go all the way back to the Greek myths, encountering Philoctes, the wounded man who invents the bow and arrow in his exile, to connect the process of creation with suffering.
Since then, the myth has only grown in size and become a romantic, albeit misleading, stereotype in the public eye. Our love for Cinderella tales have something to do with it, of course. Most people will be interested in the story of J.K. Rowling, the struggling single mother who took years to write the cultural cornerstone that is Harry Potter, but nobody particularly wants to hear about the writer who breezed through a manuscript in a month, just like that.
This topic is especially pertinent in November, which is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), an annual event when aspiring novelists are challenged to complete 50,000 words of a manuscript in a month and stay accountable to that goal by being part of an online community of fellow writers. The event invariably brings out lists of books famously penned at record speeds (as seen here, here, and here for advice on how to do it).
Many more extreme cases exist in literary legend. Robert Louis Stevenson is said to have written the first draft of Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in three days. Shirley Jackson wrote her most famous short story “The Lottery” in under two hours, making only two corrections before submitting a final draft. But these authors are quickly labeled as outliers, and impossible examples for regular writers to follow.
What writing quickly really means
The truth is that writing quickly doesn’t need genius so much as sustained focus. American writer Harlan Ellison once said, “People on the outside think there’s something magical about writing, that you go up in the attic at midnight and cast the bones and come down in the morning with a story, but it isn’t like that. You sit in back of the typewriter and you work, and that’s all there is to it.” In the same vein, a book is a mental game, and what is known as ‘genius’ simply boils down to a commitment to the whole nine yards. What matters is that we write, one word at a time. The goal of the month is to find ourselves at the ends of these writing spells exhausted, but with a masterpiece in hand.
Robert Louis Stevenson, Shirley Jackson: all of these examples are inspiring to those of us who gear up to write novels at this time of year. But they can set the bar of expectation high and leave us disappointed when we don’t find ourselves in a frenzied haze of literary inspiration, banging out eleven thousand words without coming up for air.
The reality of writing quickly is that most of the time spent on it will require labored attention and concentration, punctuated by occasionally frenetic and ecstatic bouts of brilliance where it all comes together.
What’s crazy is that the more exhausting part is not those wide-eyed bouts of typing away, but the longer hauls when you just have to get through it, pushing through your creative vision and bringing the story to the page, even though it resists. That pursuit is far nobler than sitting around waiting for the story to come to you.