Slowing down (with Emma and Erin)

“She appears to write much of her poetry, as Americans eat their dinners, in hot haste,” said one critic of Emma Lazarus’s early work, according to Esther Schor’s biography of the poet. I had to laugh at how the 1871 comparison still applies today. We still eat quickly, and we write quickly too, jotting off breathless blog posts and status updates without looking back.

Lazarus would have thrived in today’s digital world, I think. In sharp contrast to her contemporary, the reclusive Emily Dickinson, she was a determined extrovert, eager for her writing to make it into the hands of the literary giants of her time. She wrote letters to Emerson demanding feedback on her poems. She milked her “network” in search of literary success. Her persistence and tenacity were astonishing.

But even the talented, energetic Emma Lazarus eventually hit a wall of anxiety as the speed and the pressure to produce caught up with her. As she wrote to a friend, “I have come home to hard work—finding three books to read & review by Tuesday . . . as soon as I feel that a certain thing is expected of me by a certain time, I get a panic & don’t know how to do anything. How anyone lives by writing I cannot imagine.” I was nodding emphatically as I read along. Preach it, sister.

Beyond the usual deadlines and expectations many of us receive from others or set for ourselves, I think there’s a sort of insidious pressure these days to exist online, to be always on and constantly, consistently producing. It’s the marketing advice about “personal branding” and blogging every day and building your audience. It’s that feeling of needing to “keep up” with the internet, as Erin Loechner describes it in her post, “The Rebirth of Slow Blogging.”

Forgive me if I sound like a broken record. I’ve written about slowing down here and here and here and here. It’s been at the heart of my work with Uncommon, a growing slow web community. I’ve been writing and thinking so much about slow food, slow tech, slow everything, coming at it from different angles as a way of figuring out what slow really means, as an intention and a practice.

Something clicked when I landed on Erin’s post, because I think she helps explain something important about the idea of “slowness.” It’s not about doing things in slow motion, but rather taking time for depth and storytelling. It’s about aiming for quality over quantity. It’s about taking time for reflection and creative restoration.

As I head into the new year, I’ve got Emma and Erin in the back of my mind, and I’ll be wondering about the delicate balance between creative impulse and depth, busy production and quiet reflection.

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