Saturday, June 30, 2018

Shelby Foote, Dip Pens, and Making Space to Slow Down

on June 2018 walk
"When asked why he wrote with a pen that required frequent pauses for dipping into a fresh supply of ink, the late Shelby Foote, noted novelist and Civil War writer, answered, 'It helps me slow down.'" --quoted in Working it Out, Growing Spiritually with the Poetry of George Herbert by Joseph L. Womack

The bee on the flower showed up to view only after I had downloaded the picture from my phone to the computer. If I had not slowed down first to take a walk, second to take the time to snap a photo, and third to take that closer look, I would have missed the unexpected detail.

Maybe that's what Shelby Foote (1916-2005) experienced when he wrote with an old fashioned dip pen. I'm sure, based on his list of published works, the exercise must have helped him capture extra-special details. Let his record stand: The Civil War: A Narrative in three volumes, along with six published novels, are among his published credits. I'm not thinking of going all the way back to dipping a pen in an inkwell, but I do like to start writing sessions with a prompt or two--often written by hand--to slow down and give the creative side space to kick in. In fact just the other day my oldest granddaughter (age 10) and I did a word association exercise to generate ideas for setting and character names needed for a writing project the two of us are working on together :-)

Additional quotes by Mr. Foote include:

"If you want to study writing, read Dickens. That's how to study writing, or Faulkner, or D.H. Lawrence, or John Keats. They can teach you everything you need to know about writing."

"And I'm a slow writer: five, six hundred words is a good day. That's the reason it took e 20 years to write those million and a half words of the Civil War."

And how about this one:

"A university is just a group of buildings gathered around a library."

Yep--and maybe just about any community as well. At least they should be. A good place to slow down anyway.

How's your summer going? Finding time to slow down? Maybe carving out enough time to get some writing done? What is your go-to-technique to slow down and capture that elusive thought?


  1. Slowing down? I don't think of it that way.

    For me, it's more like getting stuck. I have a word, or a sentence, or a paragraph - once in a while, a whole chapter - that's just not right, and I can't go on until I fix it. One of my solutions is to take a walk. If it's a big problem, I might go outside and tend my flowers for a while. For a little problem, I'll just walk to the kitchen for a cup of coffee.

    Another solution is to read something. I'm always reading anyway, so I've usually got a book started. When I come back to my writing, I'm refreshed and often "unstuck."

    1. Appreciate your insights, Peggy :-) and I agree in all of your methods to get 'unstuck.' I do some of those things, too--walks, reading, taking that break to let things percolate in my head. But I'm also intrigued with Foote's use not only of the dip pen, but the idea of writing things out by hand. Seems like he hit on some link there to opening up the flow of for thought, anyway. Thanks for your comments, and have a happy 4th!

  2. I agree writing by hand would slow you down. I remember when I used to write everything by hand and THEN transcribe it onto a word processor/computer. Now I can barely write a thing without my computer. Isn't it funny how things change?

    In THAT sense, I don't have a good slow-down method. Maybe just reading over what I've written? I do that a lot.

    Happy 4th to you, too!

    1. Yes, I do remember those days when we wrote by hand and then transcribed into computer. I also remember the days of the typewriter when we used white-out to correct our mistakes and carbon paper for copies!! We sure do age ourselves when we talk like that, don't we? Ha!

  3. How wonderful that you and your granddaughter are working together on a writing project. Being a slow writer myself, I appreciated Foote's confession to that. And I love his advice that the best way to study writing is to study these writers (and, I'm sure he meant any other great writers as well.) This months I've been slowing down to read. I've been way behind in my reading, so I will consider now that I am merely taking Foote's advice. :-)

    1. Hi, Elizabeth--it has been fun to partner with my granddaughter for sure :-) But if I recall correctly, you work with young people in art projects, so I know you must experience a similar feeling...And reading as a means to slow down is a perfect way to take Foote's advice. Enjoy your quiet time!

  4. Hi Kenda,
    On a different note, I enjoyed your piece in The Short and Sweet of It anthology. There's a beauty to short words and short sentences. I think my writing would improve if I would heed this more often. I tend to think and write in multi-syllabic words and endless, compound sentences. But when you come across it in fiction, it sounds too academic.

    1. Thanks, Cathy--glad you enjoyed the anthology, and glad it made its way to you :-) I have to say, writing in all one-syllable words was quite the challenge. I think I used a whole different set of brain muscles for that one! At the same time, I think it opened my eyes to some of my writing problems, too. So we all have something to work on, don't we? Looking forward to sharing some of my work with you--you'll be able to point some of those things out to me! Will be in touch soon...