Drawing the Chicken 6: Slowness in the Age of Instant
I found my way to Substack mostly because I missed blogging. Years ago, before Instagram, Twitter, and WhatsApp were a thing, I used to write long blog posts and longer emails on a regular basis — friends from that era have often received 3-4 page long emails from me. I relished the possibility of rambling there, letting words flow, not worrying about character counts and word counts and algorithms. And now, even as I enjoy the visual possibilities of Instagram (mostly for my pottery — there are some incredible potters putting out work regularly on Insta), I miss the days of a cup of tea with a long email to read or write. There are few things in which I would consider myself old-fashioned, and I am very aware that email is hardly old fashioned, but in this age of instant everything, it feels like a lifetime ago.
A few days ago, the photographer Dayanita Singh had shared a quote from Jerry Saltz, titled “Overnight is Overrated”:
I want all artists to be successful. But, as sexy as a thirty-month career might be, I want to speak up loudly on behalf of the thirty-year career. I want you to be able to have whatever you want, but most importantly, I want you to be able to do what you want, until the day you die. I want to die working, frustrated, trying to fix something, trying a hundred ideas, until something clicks into place and I get that moment’s high. Art gives up its secrets very slowly. Thirty months isn’t enough; it takes a lifetime.
I cannot tell you how much this resonated with me. I also cannot tell you how sad it makes me when young artists I know in their teens or early twenties are already stressing about not yet having that first book, that first exhibition, that first big break. Or, worse, when parents of teenagers reach out to me asking if I can help ensure they have a first book out before they apply to college (what?!). I get that folks feel more and more pressure to get that name print, get that follower count on social media, get that stamp of “serious artist” that they think those will bring, but I cannot help always asking “What’s the hurry?”. For me, the publishing or the exhibition or the whatever isn’t the end goal of the art; the art is the end goal of the art, its pleasures, its frustrations, its growth. I’m obviously not opposed to folks sharing their work with a larger world — I love that impulse— but I do wonder if the joy and growth that comes with making gets lost in the rush to be seen as an expert maker.
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Over a decade and a half of teaching writing, and despite published books, awards and residencies, I still am always a beginner in my art, always just starting out afresh. When I see the proliferation of classes on Instagram promising to make you a “bestselling published author” in a matter of weeks, I’m baffled, not just because I wonder if one can learn so much so quickly, but more importantly, because it feels so sad to reduce art-making to one more productivity hack. I promise you: the book, printed and ready, in your hand is much more likely to feel anticlimactic than a poem well-revised or a story’s fourth draft that solves something that felt unsolvable. Share your work by all means, and enjoy what the sharing brings you, but it turns out I’m old fashioned enough to keep harking back to process over product, to writing or art-making as its own greatest reward.
I’ve been thinking about this more than ever this week, as I reopened subscriptions to the online writing community I run, and find that, while most of the teaching world is moving into shorter and shorter workshops — how much can we pack into an intensive weekend?!— I’m moving in the opposite direction, inviting people to spend a whole month on a specific craft element, playing with it, writing to it, reading for it, and then moving slowly to the next, and the next. That in a world of SMART goals for every learning space, I’m moving to the pleasure (and the leisure) of aimless writing, reading for joy, growing in whatever directions an individual writer wants to grow in. And above all, that I will always hark back to asking people to relish the process, to take it slow.
Of course, write that poem, publish that book, put out that exhibition — all on the timelines that you believe in. But my two cents just comes down to this: In our age of instant gratification and relentless productivity, your art is a rare space where you can experience your full, slow humanity instead. Cherish that space.
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