Moai Rano, Easter Island from Wikimedia Commons

Moai Rano, Easter Island from Wikimedia Commons

From an anonymous email:

Dear Jan: I’ve seen you describe yourself as a slow writer. I am one also, and it makes me discouraged to the point I’ve considered quitting. Do you have any advice?

Ah, yes. Speed-of-sloth is the precise phrase I use, and while at one point it was a way of laughing through my pain and frustration, now I type it with a sense of peace. It’s simply become a way to adjust others’ expectations.*

I also consider it to be temporary in that, as I learn about my process, I believe I’ll accelerate. Someday I’ll hit speed-of-snail.

How did I get to that healthier self-concept? It’s often easier for me to see what I believe and why I believe it when I think of others in a similar situation. So I asked myself, What do I know about how to treat people who’ve been labeled slow in other contexts?

While I could talk about my experience with adults in my former medical practice—in fact, I did when I wrote the initial versions of this post, and the principles are the same—you deserve a more visceral and unvarnished truth. Let me tell you about a fine-boned child in my life and the phone call I received one evening, concerning his reading abilities. “Sam” wasn’t keeping up in the educational system, they said. Sam needed help. Caring for Sam took me out of an intellectual headspace into a fierce and stormy advocacy.

Do you have a similar child in mind? Keep them with you as we go through this exercise and I prod you with questions.

Too slow for what, and in the end, will it matter?

After a initial period of shock and dismay, I found it helpful to approach the label with a degree of calm skepticism.

All institutions go through fads. I’m not advocating stick-your-head-in-the-sand rationalization, but I wondered if it was possible that Sam was a victim of arbitrary standards? Did he simply have a learning curve with a unique shape? Over the course of his lifetime, would his present pace matter?

In fact, when I did my research, I learned my province was hugely invested in having kids read by the end of first grade—so much so, they provide extra funding if a child didn’t pass certain milestones. To be blunt, schools had financial incentives to give kids labels.

Yet there was ample evidence from other countries that early and late readers reach adulthood with no qualitative differences in reading ability.

(In Sam’s case, this turned out to be true. One year later, with no fancier measures than a different teacher and engaging books, he was reading three grades above the expected level.)

Could this be a sign of healthy resistance?

Speaking of arbitrariness, we all know of classrooms where kids are rewarded for memorization rather than actual learning, or for knowing how to round off their square corners to become a round peg. I say this as one who has willingly played the game.

But understand the value of a child who won’t or can’t buy into this mindset. The very qualities which keep them from excelling in a narrow, rigid arena might be the exact qualities which will help them be enormously productive elsewhere. Are they stubborn, unwilling, incapable? Or are they independent-thinkers, rational, showing leadership qualities?

Does the slowness even belong to the child?

Slowness is a symptom, not a diagnosis. It’s like the label of poor in that knowing a person suffers from a lack of money makes you no closer to identifying the root causes of their situation, nor how to go about addressing them.

While it’s possible a child who appears to be slow in school has a learning disability, they might as easily be hungry, abused, unable to sleep due to a crying younger sibling, etc. The descriptor of slow says nothing about that child’s capabilities under optimal conditions.

So let the label act only as a signpost—a signal it’s time to investigate and eliminate barriers to learning.

Most importantly, while you go about problem-solving and analyzing, I’ve found it helpful to…

Maintain an Open, Optimistic Attitude

This point is so critical it should probably be the first and last on my list. Personally, I decided that I would never, under any circumstances, allow myself to think of Sam as slow in a derogatory sense.

Do you believe in self-fulfilling prophecies? I do. I can only think of the damage I might have done if I’d believed there was something wrong with him, with his pace or how he learned, then passed that diminished, limited view on in our interactions.

And we can’t just do it for their sake.

Stephen Covey said, “How you treat the one reveals how you regard the many, because everyone is ultimately a one.”

I believe this deeply. I also believe that how we treat the least-easy child is a signal to all the other children in that system about their relative security. Withdraw your respect and affection from one child, and all who witness your response will begin to fear the day when their own flaws are exposed and their support evaporates.

You can probably see where this is going… If these principles makes sense for the child in your mind, now turn it around to yourself. Walk your talk, or risk undermining your message.

So if you’re looking at others’ pace and feeling comparatively inadequate, ask yourself these questions:

  1. Can you objectively know that you’re slow? Talk to some of your quieter colleagues about their pace and you might be surprised. (If you’re a member of the WU Facebook page, scroll down to the post initiated by Leesa Freeman for a dose of reassurance and reality.)
  2. Does it really matter how fast you write, or is it an artificial or temporary, self-resolving situation? In the long view, can you really know your pace will impede your career?
  3. Does calling yourself slow entice you to write faster?
  4. Can you see any advantages to the qualities which make you slow? How might they be strengths?
  5. Can you patiently identify and eliminate the barriers to your progress?
  6. Will you maintain an attitude of positive self-regard and expectancy throughout?
  7. Finally, is there any possible way to learn the answers to these questions without continuing to write?

Anonymous, all I know is that as I move forward, treating myself as I would a child, meeting my limitations with understanding rather than censure or disapproval, I’m happier. I’m better at identifying and removing barriers to my writing. I meet the page with less freneticism and I’m willing to sit with the discomfort of writing and persist.

On this grey winter day, I wish that for you, too.

Unboxeders, do you have any further advice for Anonymous? And if you’ve improved your writing speed while maintaining quality, how did you go about doing it?

*True of all days which end with an M. ;)

About Jan O'Hara

Jan O'Hara left her writing dreams behind for years to practice family medicine, but has found her way back to the world of fiction. Currently the voice of the Unpublished Writer here at Writer Unboxed, she hopes one day soon to become unqualified for the position.