26 March 2006

A Slow Drag

I have a curious relationship with time. Like lots of people in the modern world, time seems to pick up speed the older I get. A dear man I knew a decade ago and who lived to be over 100 confessed that each year passed more quickly than the last. I have a theory about this, but that is not what’s on my mind this morning.

It is how much time it takes to get something right. I am in the writing business, generating between 5-15 pages of published material a week. That may not seem like much until you do the totals. On average I write 500 pages a year, a book. But it is not a book because my work does not get the second, third and fourth versions that separate drafts from manuscripts. What you read now and perhaps later in the week, what you hear on Sundays or at some other event is most often a first draft, maybe a second. Little that I write gets to the final form writers seek because that will be the version that gets printed or published and circulated.

Most of the time I do not mind, but like any writer I want my material to be as good as it can be in form and substance, argument and expression. The only place this can happen is in revising my spoken words for printed publication. And that can take a long time. Some of you want to know why. Here you go.

  • The tyranny of time puts a Sunday out there every seven days. That means most weeks I have to meet a firm deadline. Time urgent material always takes precedence. Those 5-15 original pages I must create are always at the front of the line.

  • I cannot take an editor’s view when the text is too fresh. Only when it is no longer an active part of my mind can I read it with the critical eye and ear that an outsider has, and make the improvements and corrections the text needs.

  • Editing is hard. You must show no mercy with your own prose, and remember that less is almost always better. It means throwing out more than putting in. Dashiell Hammett was right, that most writing takes place at the other end of the pencil.

For example, I delivered a sermon this month that included a letter to a young woman who wrote me about the afterlife. Several people wanted copies, and I want to provide them. But the part they want is only part of the letter I am writing. Yes, that was in the progressive present tense. I am still writing her, because she asked more than one question. When I have finished the letter, which I am writing not only for her but for publication, I will share it.

But this takes time, for all the reasons listed above. I do risk losing the momente juste, which is also evidence of the tyranny of time. Only now we call it the news cycle. If being timely is essential to success then I am going to fail, because I need time to think and write and speak and think again. That’s why I am not a journalist. My subject is verities and eternities, which sadly I will never fully understand or explain but thankfully, have my entire life to try.

A few years ago I ran into a wonderful quotation from Mother Teresa: “God did not call me to be successful. God called me to be faithful.” When I keep that in mind, and that is sometimes quite hard in this free market defined society, I feel confident that I am going as fast as I should, if not as fast as I could. For some of us, the tortoise is still a great role model.

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