It could take a few minutes to finish a work of literature, and it could take a few decades. It depends in part on your method of composition, and the texture of the text you’re weaving. (Both text and texture come from the Latin verb texere, to weave.) It also depends on how prepared you are to embark on the project you’ve selected.
One method of composition that the writer finishes rapidly is automatic writing, a technique invented by André Breton and the French surrealists.
In automatic writing, the author dreams onto the page, allowing the subconscious to dictate to the hand. The writer deliberately attempts to write faster than s/he can think, letting the deepest parts of the mind create a spontaneous cascade of images:
And as a
Caught in a bellows of sparkles
You jump rope
Long enough so that the one green butterfly that haunts the peaks of Asia
Can appear at the top of the invisible stairway
I caress everything that was you
In everything that’s yet to be you
André Breton, “I dream I see you endlessly superimposed upon yourself,” from The Air of the Water, in Earthlight, translated by Bill Zavatsky and Zack Rogow
In this poem, Breton creates a dreamlike collage of his beloved at various moments in her life, layering each sequence on the next. To generate an image such as “You jump rope/Long enough so that the one green butterfly that haunts the peaks of Asia/Can appear at the top of the invisible stairway,” no amount of editing or rewriting is of use. Only the first-take, last-take method of writing, where the author doesn’t stanch the mind’s spring of creativity, is effective. Scholars have gone over Breton’s drafts and found that he edited very little. Ben Jonson famously said of the legend that Shakespeare never blotted a line of his scripts, “Would he had blotted a thousand!” Maybe Breton should have edited his writings more. But when the spontaneous method of composition works, it produces a unique and loose weave of language, an amazing texture that a more laborious method usually can’t reproduce. This is the few-minutes version of finishing a poem.
But there are other types of writing that require a much more time-consuming process. James Joyce reportedly took 17 years to write Finnegans Wake, and there is a story that he was still making edits until the publisher’s messenger snatched the overdue manuscript out of his hands. Elizabeth Bishop’s book The Complete Poems: 1927–1979 is all of 287 pages, meaning she only produced an average of one page of poetry every two months.
Certain types of writing just can’t be done quickly, because the texture of language requires a very tight weave that can only be accomplished with many drafts, and much revision:
The big fish tubs are completely lined
with layers of beautiful herring scales
and the wheelbarrows are similarly plastered
with creamy iridescent coats of mail,
with small iridescent flies crawling on them.
Elizabeth Bishop, “At the Fishhouses”
Bishop’s exquisite description of the Favrile surfaces of the wheelbarrows does not seem like a momentary inspiration, but rather a meticulous accumulation of precise details combined with le mot juste, a carefully chosen phrase such as “plastered” or “coats of mail.” That’s the kind of writing that takes many drafts.
Another reason that a work of literature may need a long time to complete is that we often come up with ideas before we have the skill and knowledge to realize them. More than once, I’ve had the experience of rereading a poem I published decades before, and seeing that I had had a genuine impulse behind the poem, but I hadn’t gotten it right. The diction or the imagery or the ending weren’t quite what the original idea was pleading for. With more years of experience, I was able to revise a poem that I thought was complete, but really needed one or two more drafts.
So, how long does it take to finish a piece of writing? That’s a bit like asking how long it takes to fall in love. It might happen with a moment’s encounter, or it might be decades in the making.
Zack’s most recent translation, Bérénice 1934–44: An Actress in Occupied Paris by Isabelle Stibbe
How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry?
Poetic Forms: Introduction; The Sonnet, The Sestina, The Ghazal, The Tanka, The Villanelle
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer
Writers and Collaboration
Types of Closure in Poetry