Almost five million.
It’s a number that puts things into perspective for me.
It’s the population of Melbourne, the city I currently call home.
But it’s also the number of people in New Zealand, the country where I grew up.
Last month I took a trip back to New Zealand to spend time with family.
One of the things I love about these visits is that they force me to slow down.
In New Zealand, people walk slower, eat slower, live slower. Shop assistants take the time to make conversation. Neighbours linger over garden tasks and chat over hedges.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s not like Kiwis never rush or feel overwhelmed by their to-do lists. There are simply fewer people around. And that automatically turns down the speed of life a notch.
So what about other places?
Is it possible to slow down in bigger cities and countries? And do we need to?
The Slow Movement has been growing in popularity since the 1980s. It began with Carlo Petrini's protest against the opening of a McDonald's Restaurant in Piazza de Spagna in Rome. The Slow Movement is all about reducing speed and focusing on quality over quantity.
It’s not difficult to see how slowing down and being present in our lives can improve our health and relationships.
But I’d go further and say that it’s sacrosanct for writers. The very act of creative writing means slowing down enough to reflect on the world around us.
And making sense of it.
So far no one has invented an app that can download our thoughts onto paper and turn them into stories.
Slowing down as a writer
The Slow Food Movement values using sustainable ingredients that are good for the environment. It’s also about sitting down to enjoy an unrushed meal with family or friends.
But what does it mean to slow down as a writer?
Should you write less each day? Start writing by hand? Use recycled paper?
These are valid ideas, but I want to focus on a different kind of deceleration. Writing is not only the act of putting words onto paper. It’s also the thoughts that surround that.
In this post, we’ll look at four ways that slowing down can improve your approach to writing.
1. Slowing down makes you curious
Remember all those questions you asked when you were a kid?
It was like being an expat every day. In many ways, childhood is a foreign country. It’s our first experience of life. And we want answers for everything.
Why can I see another girl in the bathroom window when I turn on the light?
What’s the Moon made of?
How tall can sunflowers grow?
What’s a field trip?
These are some of the questions I asked my parents and teachers when I was growing up. They didn’t have time to answer them all, so I created my own stories to fill in the gaps.
When my teacher gave us ‘A Field Trip’ as a writing prompt, I didn’t understand what he meant. So I wrote a story about a magical journey through different fields. Each field was like an individual country with its own culture, attractions and quirks. I had a lot of fun writing it. My teacher must have had fun reading it too as he asked me to share it with the rest of the class.
As children, we have all the time in the world to go down rabbit holes and see what we discover.
As adults, it’s easy to reach for our phones and let Google tell us the answer.
Or jump to the first obvious conclusion.
That woman on the bus with odd earrings? She’s clearly running late and got dressed in a hurry.
But what if we don’t go with the first thought that comes into our minds? What if we slow down enough to let our curiosity sit for a while? Consider other possibilities.
What if she had to leave the house while getting changed because she was in danger?
Or perhaps she was halfway through trying on new earrings and ran out of the shop because she wanted to avoid someone?
What if she woke up this morning and everything in her house was gone except two odd earrings?
Not all these ideas will be usable, but when we give ourselves time to be curious, we avoid the most obvious answer. And that results in stronger, more original stories.
2. Slowing down makes you notice things
“The true secret of happiness lies in taking a genuine interest in all the details of daily life.” - William Morris
Noticing the small things makes both our inner and outer lives richer. When we’re rushing between appointments, it’s easy to engage with the world on a superficial level. How often have you lost awareness of your surroundings while you’ve been on your phone?
Slowing down helps us to be present. And being present increases our observation skills. As we’ve seen from the earring example, being present is vital for noticing. And noticing is what sparks stories.
When I was a teenager, I used to walk the same route twice a week delivering junk mail. It wasn’t a job I enjoyed, but it was my first chance to earn my own money.
I’d try to walk through the streets as fast as I could. Most of the time I’d be on autopilot. I'd daydream about the day I would finish school and have enough money to escape my hometown and see the world.
It was only after going back years later that I was able to appreciate the things I’d been in such a hurry to leave behind. A slow walk around my old neighbourhood inspired a piece of creative nonfiction, which you can read in Vagabond Voices.
Being present can give you a new perspective on an old environment. Next time you’re waiting for someone or out walking, take a closer look at the things around you. When was the last time you looked up above eye level? Imagine you’re taking a photograph. Try different angles. Change your focus by zooming in and out on specific details.
When you pay close attention to your surroundings, you’ll be surprised at what you notice.
3. Slowing down gives your ideas time to grow
One rainy day in the school holidays, my brother and I decided to create a boredom box. It was the 1980s, so we found an empty ice cream container and cut paper into strips. On each strip, we wrote down an idea of something we could do to fill our time. Read a book. Build a hut. Play marbles. Make a map. We came up with around 40 or 50 activities. On days when we couldn’t decide what to do, we’d draw a strip of paper from the box.
Now we’re adults, it’s hard to imagine having the time to sit at home and feel bored. Boredom is usually something that is forced upon us. We’re made to do something we don’t like. Wait in a queue. Sit through a presentation. Recover from an illness.
Being bored is like being stuck in bed with chickenpox. All we want to do is scratch our spots. And taking out our 21st-century boredom box (our phone) is the easiest way to do this. We’re immediately presented with a vast array of entertainment and information options. Millions of strips of paper to choose from in the form of apps and websites.
But scratching this itch is not always the best choice for writers. If we want to improve our creativity, we have to give our minds time to relax so it can wander and reflect. And that’s impossible for it to do if we’re always stimulating it.
Carl Honoré digs deeper into this problem in his book In Praise of Slow: How a Worldwide Movement is Challenging the Cult of Speed.
“In this media-drenched, data-rich, channel-surfing, computer-gaming age, we have lost the art of doing nothing, of shutting out the background noise and distractions, of slowing down and simply being alone with our thoughts.”
Mystery writer Agatha Christie said that she got her best ideas while washing the dishes.
Don’t be afraid of boredom. Next time you’re doing chores, stop rushing through them so you can move onto something more interesting. Treat them as a break for your brain. Use the time to mull over story ideas. Or think about your perspective on a topic. It’s in these quiet spaces that our brains start to make connections.
4. Slowing down helps you enjoy writing
When we stop rushing, it benefits the whole writing process, not just the ideas part.
My biggest win was that it changed my attitude towards writing. When I was a kid, creating stories was fun, stimulating and exciting. But once I hit adulthood, I developed a love-hate relationship with my writing. It was still something I was passionate about, but it also became a huge source of anxiety. While I was writing, my mind was racing through dozens of negative thoughts about the quality of my work.
Some of these fears were related to the past. How could I make this piece as creative as that last one? What if those other stories were one-offs? What if I wasn’t good enough to get published again?
Other fears were about the future. Is this good enough? What will other people think?
These are not fears that we can shut out by positive self-talk. And I’m not going to pretend they don’t creep back now and again. But one way I keep them at bay is by focusing on being in the moment while I write.
You can do this by concentrating on the physical act of writing. The feel of the keys under your fingertips. Or the scratch of your pen on paper. But I like to approach this mentally. I concentrate on being present in the world I’m creating. And immerse myself in the ideas or feelings I want to share.
When I stop worrying about the outcomes of my writing, it’s easier to focus. I find myself in the zone and writing becomes enjoyable, not a chore to get through.
Something else that can help is writing for your eyes only. Give yourself permission not to share everything you write. Keep a journal or scribble poems in an old exercise book.
Our fast-paced, competitive society encourages everyone to put themselves out there. Publishing your writing online can lead to wonderful connections with your readers. But don’t feel pressured to share everything you write. Sometimes we need a safe space to reflect, experiment and enjoy creating.
You might be surprised by what comes out when you’re writing for yourself. Maybe you’ll decide you want to share it after all.
And that’s OK too.
Sometimes we write our best words when we take our time and set ourselves free from expectations.