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.

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151 thoughts on “Slow Writing by Chris Galvin

  1. Before I was retired, it was necessary for me to write and respond to notes perhaps a dozen times a day.
    Some of these pieces demanded a same day response. For those less urgent, I slowly learned the value writing a draft and placer it in my “writing slow cooker” for at least 24 hours. Pulling them out later, I almost always removed and replaced phrases that were misleading or inadequate. Now, I almost never send out anything that has not been through three or more drafts. I believe the Ernest Hemingway, took The Old Man and the Sea through two hundred drafts. Also, I think it was Hemingway who said: “An artist never finishes work, but finally abandons it”.

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  2. Very helpful post, most times when i write and end up feeling like my work is lacking that wow factor, it gets frusting but after reading this, i believe your theory would work perfectly for me

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  3. I love the bread metaphor. Creativity seems to work in mysterious ways. I have tried several different tactics to add that wow factor. Sometimes I watch an inspirational movie, other times I listen to emotional songs. At the end of the day, I write best after I have cried about something.

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  4. I find that keeping a printed copy of the passage you’re working on throughout the whole day can also be useful. In that way, when you’re musing about your writing the print out is at hand to fix things at will. I’ve had far too many times when vague ideas thought up in the day have disappeared completely by the time I have time to write at the end of a day. If I leave a project for too long, I often find myself completely stuck by the time I get back to it.

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  5. Reading your blog this morning made me feel so much better about my own writing process. I’ve been kind of lost because the way I write doesn’t seem to fit in with all the articles I read. And yet there! You said it! You edit as you go. What a relief to know I’m not the only one. Thank you for sharing your process. I certainly can appreciate what you’ve said.

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  6. I found your article on “Slow Writing” very encouraging as I tend to try to rush the whole creative process. After a ten year hiatus I am back at the computer trying to capture the essence of words like attempting to catch minnows by hand. I think it takes patience and faith in yourself to keep writing even without the fanfare and applause.

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  7. I just wanted to let you know I really enjoyed your post. I recently took part in the National Novel Writing competition to write a novel in a month. The next phase is editing and I’m finding it a difficult thing. I look at what I’ve written and it and like you say, the words just don’t come. I feel like I should scrap the entire project and start over. So my question is, how does one find the courage to think that their scribbling can actually become something and get through the editing process?

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  8. Excellent post. Writing quality is not necessarily determined by the amount of time spent on the subject matter, but more so the quality of the content created in that time.

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  9. Reblogged this on Chaotic Pharmacology and commented:
    “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.” — Response: Agreed.
    Thanks for sharing, a very interesting post indeed.
    I would like to share this poem with you: “So You Want to Be a Writer” By Charles Bukowski.
    http://chaoticpharmacology.com/2014/12/30/2045/
    Kind regards, Jorge.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I’ve never made bread because I don’t have the patience to wait for it to rise. 🙂
    I sure do agree with you , though, about distancing yourself from a piece then revisiting and I can relate when you talk about a piece changing direction or adding dimension. Great post. (I may have visited before?)

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Going to get more serious about my writing. I even have an old, one-room cottage (built in the 1800’s) on our newly acquired property I plan to restore and turn into my writer’s cottage. Will see what kind of inspiration I can find to keep me moving “till I get there”.

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  12. I really loved reading this piece probably because I go through the same process when I am writing but never thought of expressing it like this. That’s probably because I am terrible with baking although I love to cook. 🙂

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  13. I feel exactly the same way. After writing a piece, I put it away for a while and come back to it with a fresh eye and mind. When I come back to it, I always make changes that improve the piece. It’s like putting the frosting on the cake.

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