Wednesday, January 17, 2018

In praise of slow.

If you visit this space with any regularity, you know that of all the world's writers currently putting words down on paper, the one I admire most is Robert Caro.

Caro has won two Pulitzer Prizes and two National Book Awards. The Society of American Historians awarded him the Francis Parkman Prize saying, "Caro best exemplifies the union of the historian and the artist."

Comparing Caro to David McCullough or Ron Chernow is, IMHO, like comparing Maria Callas to Bobby Sherman. Caro, like Callas, was touched by a god, or at least, a divine genius that makes his work--I'm not exaggerating here--Shakespearean. 

Just yesterday I read an interview with Caro in "The New York Review of Books." You can read the whole thing here; it should take you about 15 minutes.

There were a couple of things in the interview that I think have some bearing even on the sort of writing we do in advertising. 

First, there's this:

"It's a cliche today that people's attention spans are short. You know something? David McCullough's book on Truman is roughly 1,100 pages and it has sold thousands of copies. Doris Kearns Goodwin's book "Team of Rivals" is more than 700 pages and it sold hundreds of thousands of copies. I'm sure Ron Chernow's "Grant" will sell hundreds of thousands, too."

Finally, in a world obsessed by "agility" and speed, there's this:

"My first three or four drafts are handwritten on legal pads. For later drafts, I use a typewriter. I write by hand to slow myself down. People don't believe this about me: I'm a very fast writer, but I want to write slowly.

"When I was a student at Princeton, I took a creative writing course with the literary critic R.P. Blackmur. Every two weeks, I'd give him a short story I'd produced usually at the last minute. At the end of the semester, he said some complimentary words about my writing, and then added, 'Mr. Caro, one thing is going to keep you from achieving what you want--you think with your fingers.'

"Later, in the early 1960s when I was at "Newsday," my speed was a plus. But when I started rewriting "The Power Broker," I realized I wasn't thinking deeply enough. I said, 'You have to slow yourself down.' That's when I remembered Blackmur's admonition and started drafting by hand, which slows me down."

In this space and when I write copy, I write fast. But more often than not, though I write fast, I've thought about my words for hours and hours before I mark them down. It might look like I'm being rapid. But really, because I don't start writing until the words are in my fingers (that process takes time) I am slow. 

I'm slowed further by being the worst typist on earth. And I think exactly as fast as I type. At least, when I am thinking deeply enough--which I don't always get time to do.

Scary, I suppose.

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