Good things take time.

Good things take time.

Last week Will and I went to our local author interview series to hear John Irving speak about his new novel Avenue of Mysteries (which I’ve had in my possession for months and can’t bring myself to open).

While Irving was there to promote his new book, he spoke extensively about his older works, and the creative process that brought them to life. I found this glimpse into his methods fascinating, as a reader as well as a writer.

His methods are unquestionably unusual, even for an eccentric author. Irving is famous for beginning his writing process with the last line: he doesn’t start a novel until he knows exactly how it’s going to end. (How can you begin a journey—even on the page—until you know where the road is going to take you?)

What I didn’t know about Irving’s process was that he is a very slow writer, deliberately so. He says he often sits with the idea for a novel for years—four, nine, even as many as fifteen—before he begins it. (I was relieved to hear him say this. I recently read Big Magic, where Liz Gilbert says creative ideas are likely to abandon an author if they sit unused too long—those ideas will go find someone else to bring them to life.)

Irving has been writing novels since the 1960s: Avenue of Mysteries his fifteenth. He’s improved his technique greatly over the years. Yet as Irving has improved as an author, he hasn’t sped up his process; quite the contrary. He says, “If I’ve learned anything, it’s to write slower than I usually go. And I go really slow.”

I’m a terribly slow writer myself, and it was encouraging to hear him say that good things take time.

If anything is worth doing, it’s worth doing slowly.

Irving went on to say that if you have any hope of being a successful writer, you have to love the process itself. No one else could have the patience to constantly re-read, re-work, revise, and rewrite a good novel requires. (He said Avenue of Mysteries required TWELVE rewrites. Holy smokes!)

This morning I’m thinking that Irving’s words aren’t limited to writers.

Good things take time. And if you love the process, that’s okay.

Do you believe good things take time? What good things (or hoped-for good things) have you done slowly, or are doing slowly right now? 

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44 comments

  1. Suzanne says:

    I believe some of my creative projects have to marinate. When I rush them, I often find they more painfully come to fruition. The key is for me to find the sweet spot between letting the rest and taking the right kind of action.

  2. Laura B says:

    I am learning that the same thing is definitely true for sewing. I have been sewing for eight years now and so can say that I am relatively skilled. I certainly feel the pressure to sew as quickly as I can when I do get a chance to sew away from my children, but often (almost always) when I rush I make mistakes and I end up wasting fabric or time. I had a similar experience with this this weekend and have been thinking about it the past couple days. Thanks for helping me reflect on it!

  3. Allyn says:

    I’ve attempted to write a few books books over the years, but when I made myself try to rush the process, I’ve inevitably gotten a few chapters in and realized that I didn’t care about the characters or story at all, and have to throw the whole thing out.
    I’ve been reading through Bird by Bird (what would we do without Anne Lamott?!) and it’s been such a revelation and relief to know that the vast majority of writers don’t sit down with a coherent story already in mind and just type it all up with blinding speed. Good things do take time, and hopefully the book I’ve just started will, eventually, a long time from now, result in something good and true.

  4. Heidi says:

    I’m discovering that becoming myself is taking a long time! I have so many aspects of myself that have been put on hold while my husband and I deal with raising three children. I’d love to develop the gifts I have seen glimmering in the distance, to pursue art and faith and relationships in a deliberate, contemplative way, but homeschooling and just parenthood in general are the current priorities. I know there will be time for me to give myself to those interests later, so I’m (unusually, for me) content to wait until I have the time to do it right.

    • Heather says:

      Wow, this could have been me talking, ten or fifteen years ago. We made homeschooling and parenting our number one priority, and I was often frustrated by not being able to exercise my creativity in a big way. I decided that my children were my works of art, and we are delighted with the adults they have become. Now we are empty nesters, and yes, I am writing and painting now. Great circle of life.

  5. Jamie says:

    Such a good point! I actually think about this most often when I hear that yet another friend/acquaintance’s marriage is ending after only two or three years. Marriage is so complex – how can anyone possibly expect to have ironed out the big wrinkles (let alone perfected it!)in such a short span of time?

    My heart always breaks for people in those situations, because I don’t know how to explain exactly what you’ve pointed out here – it’s about loving the process. Being an eager and curious learner of what makes your spouse tick, exploring what patterns and routines work for you (or don’t), and a willingness to “rewrite” aspects of your story and relationship as many times as necessary to get them right.

    Thanks for giving me an excellent new analogy to use when discussing this idea with people! : )

    • Kristin says:

      I love this perspective of marriage! People always say marriage takes time, but often in regards to spending time daily/weekly/monthly nurturing it. I like the idea that it takes time overall to develop and “iron out the wrinkles” and though you need to spend the small chunks of time, you also need the longer ones to let it develop. Where two years ago I could count on one hand the number of divorces I’ve witnessed close up, that number has exploded recently and I’ve struggled thinking about it. This is a great perspective.

  6. Jeannie says:

    I’m as relieved by Irving’s words as you are, Anne, because I’m also a very slow writer and reviser. The notion that ideas will go find someone else to bring them to life is much too woo-woo for me: if my tween novel, for example, is sitting dormant for now (“for secret reasons,” as E.B. White put it), no one else is going to recreate my characters and plot in my place. I think we all have to find our process. One of my writers’ group members has NO IDEA what her characters will do until she writes; she just follows them. Another is much more like Irving and must know what the outcome will be first. And either one is ok!

  7. renee @ FIMBY says:

    I completely agree. Good things take time. The problem for me is that I don’t love the process. I’m not a process person, I’m a product person, super task orientated, emphasis on finishing tasks. But every good thing in life, the work Christ does in our hearts, raising children, nurturing relationships, making art, takes time. (all of those are focus’ right now in my own life) So I live in the tension.

  8. Yes to things being best when you enjoy the process. It’s the whole intrinsic motivation concept. Generally more effective than external.

    Everything else, though, is preference. Some people like to sit on stuff and let it marinate (Irving). Other people apparently have bizarre ideas about their ideas fleeing to other people (Gilbert). Both these folks have managed to sell umpteen million copies of their books, so it seems either can work.

  9. Alyssa says:

    I’m so happy to read this. I’ve had a novel simmering away in my brain for about 7 years now. 🙂 I’ve worked on the actual writing of it a little bit, but I’ve spent more time just thinking about the characters, their traits, desires, and journeys, and they’ve started to feel like actual people that I know. Hopefully that will help me when I actually do sit down and start writing in earnest.

  10. This is SO helpful and encouraging! I’ve been so discouraged about my recent lack of progress on writing and other projects but if I can just give myself permission to go slowly I may feel way better about it. Curious: why can’t you bring yourself to open Avenue of Mysteries?

  11. Katie says:

    I love this deliberate, slow approach from John Irving, not only because I love his writing, but also because he is dyslexic. I have a dyslexic child who loves to write, even though it takes him a while to get those thoughts out correctly on paper. John Irving’s dedication to his art makes his books that much more wonderful to me.

  12. As a writer currently working on my first novel, I find his methodology completely bizarre, but I also adore it. I find it so incredible the vast amount of different ways in which a person can go about crafting their story, and while I don’t know what the last line of my book will be, I sure hope it lives up Irving’s last lines! Heck, his are good enough to write a whole book around.

  13. Laura says:

    That’s awesome that you got to hear him speak! The first thing I noticed when I started reading Irving was that he seemed to be taking the reader on a journey that he knew end from the beginning. That was in A Prayer for Owen Meany. He also has some of the best opening lines ever.

  14. How exciting to sit in the presence of someone so creative and successful! I am glad to know that he has another book! I don’t think I could start from the end, but I find it interesting that he does!

  15. liz n. says:

    Not all good things take time, but some do, and whether or not it’s worth doing slowly–if at all–depends on the person.

    I’ve been a quilter for nearly 30 years, and 25 years ago, took to hand piecing instead of machine piecing when my sewing machine died. Back then, we didn’t have enough money to go right out and buy a new machine, so I was sewing everything (quilts, clothes, whatever) by hand. Once I had a new machine, hand-piecing quilts stayed. I loved it. It can take months to finish just the quilt top, and my machine-piecing, quick technique friends do not understand why I would WANT to spend weeks or months stitching up something they could sew in a few days or weeks, and that’s fine. And I don’t mind saying, so I will, that my quilts are freakin’ stunning. Worth every bit of all that time put in.

    I totally get Irving’s take on writing slowly and letting ideas marinate and rattle around. The only book I ever finished writing (and then pulled back from the publisher) took me 16 years to write, and that was after playing mental gymnastics with the plot and characters for a good four or five years. Writers write, and people do, in the ways that work best for them.

  16. Liz says:

    I’m coming down on the Liz Gilbert side of this spectrum. I have 33,000 words that I’ve written so far this month for Nanowrimo. On November 1st, I didn’t have a plan. My plan for my characters has grown as I’ve written, and I guarantee the editing process will be lengthy, but the go-for-broke Nanowrimo goal, as well as Liz Gilbert’s call to action are for people who will find excuses not to sit down a do creative work. I’ve been delighted to find I can sit on a bus for an hour and pound out a scene that might be terrible, but who cares? I’m finally releasing creative work back into the world instead of addictively consuming other people’s brilliant work. For me this is very freeing and blissful. It’s wonderful that there are infinite ways to make creative work.

  17. Anne says:

    Neat reflection. I think it’s okay to take your time. I also liked what Gilbert said about going ahead and letting something go, though, too. Like the character she knew was underdeveloped or getting Pilgrim published.

  18. Jamie says:

    I feel like I wish good things in my life didn’t take time, but almost all of them do. I can watch others push more or go faster and things work out great. When I do that, I feel like I’m running faster than I can keep up. Most likely because it’s a lesson He’s trying to teach me that I’m not letting stick. But any growth or significant work has required me to rely on baby steps and trust and prayer and community. When I’d much prefer to achieve on talent or speed. He doesn’t seem to let me get away with that these days. And I’m glad.

  19. Grace says:

    This was definitely an encouragement to read. My blog is something I have taken slowly and only recently decided to really take seriously. Even since putting in so much more time and effort, the growth of it is slow. A lot of days this is very discouraging when it seems like everywhere I look everyone else’s blogs have exponentially more readers and I’m always 5 steps behind. However I keep chugging along. I like to hear stories of other people being slow and successful at the same time.

  20. Heather says:

    I love John Irving and went and heard him talk recently. I think that another reason why he goes so slow is because he handwrites all of his novels. When I learned this I couldn’t believe it because you don’t hear of authors doing that anymore. I think that I heard close to the same speech as yours. He said that Avenue of Mysteries started off as something that was going to be a play/movie, but then as the years went by he decided that it was actually a book. I haven’t had the time to read his book quite yet, I’m sure that it is not as good as some of his more well known books, but I very much enjoy his writing.

    • Anne says:

      Yep, that’s exactly what he said when I heard him, too. 🙂

      Irving, Wendell Berry, and Elin Hilderbrand are the only ones I can think of right off the top of my head who write longhand. Now I’m curious to know if there are more!

  21. Susan says:

    “If anything is worth doing, it’s worth doing slowly.” What a great takeaway and applicable to so many areas of life.

    Having just abandoned “Avenue of Mysteries” 10 hours (halfway) in, I will be interested in hearing your views on it once you read it.

    • Anne says:

      I am not at all motivated to read Avenue of Mysteries. (I’ve had a copy in my house for months and haven’t opened it yet!) But after hearing him speak I’m dying to pick up The Cider House Rules. Hmm.

  22. Tim says:

    Irving and Gilbert each take a different approach and to me that is the most confuting thing about your post, Anne. It affirms that there is more than one way to write.

  23. Ha, this could not have come at a better time. I’m pretty sure this is what my chiropractor was trying to tell me yesterday when I came in for another session to work on my wrists. I want everything healed now, but just like writing, sometimes our bodies need time!
    Also a good thing to remember as far as blogging goes…:)

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