A Storytelling Serial
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The problem with cultural norms is they’re too normal to see. They surround us like invisible mountain air.
On the Showing Up for Racial Justice website, I recently read an excerpt from Dismantling Racism: A Workbook for Social Change Groups, by Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun. Titled “The Characteristics of White Supremacy Culture,” this piece discusses the cultural norms of work—and life—in America:
I could write a separate post for each element in this list. I identify with all of them. And as a White worshipper of the written word, I immediately connected many of the above characteristics with my own work and life.
I’ve written elsewhere about choosing a learning mindset over defensiveness, so here I’ll muse about some of the others: urgency, quantity, perfection, only one right way. That’s all I can handle for now.
Time is money.
In our culture, the value of time is still financial. And in many writing-related occupations, speed is essential. The faster we work, the more we can accomplish in a perpetually limited timeframe, which equates to increased sales of services or products.
Editors and proofreaders discuss how many written words or pages they can get through in an hour; researchers balance their clients’ budgets and deadlines against the rabbit hole of finding reliable—not just surface—information; copy and content writers hone tricks to complete assignments as quickly as possible; and authors who want to make a literary living must rapidly add to the books available for fans to purchase.
No matter how income is determined—by the word, page, project, hour, or book—it always comes down to how much time it takes to earn a personal definition of “enough.”
Successful word workers are fast, efficient, prolific. They’re language machines, able to instantly call on vast knowledge and experience stored in their heads. Sure and swift, they make immediate decisions and rarely waffle.
And they aren’t me.
Slow is my nature.
If there were a contest for slowest anything, I would win. The preparation time listed on a recipe? In my kitchen, double—maybe triple—that number. I walk and run daily in what looks like slow motion. My husband can rotate the tires on his car in the time it takes me to dress for my home office.
No longer a spring chick, I would worry I’m developing early-onset mudbrain except that this is nothing new. My mother’s childhood pet name for me was “slowpoke”; and instead of being an epithet that created a self-fulfilling prophecy, the moniker was well earned before the label. I was a thoughtful, preoccupied child, constantly lost in an inner world that resisted conforming to external schedules.
Eventually, I developed a sense of responsibility so strong that I learned to push past my natural tendencies. I turned into a driven, motivated, hard-working adult who functioned quite well inside White cultural norms.
But now each new day returns me ever closer to my ticking-clock resistance. In fact, I feel as though I’m nearing full-scale rebellion. The next well-meaning expert who suggests the popular Pomodoro technique for my process might push me over the edge. Note to all timers in my house: be afraid.
With age, I may be reverting to my true self. Or just recognizing that life is speeding along quickly enough without my continuing to make it a race. Or perhaps I’m becoming plain childlike, a condition that doesn’t conform to the cultural norms of grown, working, productive White women.
Who defines quality?
Realizing that time is money in the word business, I’m plagued by the distinction between quality and perfectionism.
I’m careful. I’m thorough. I’m steady. I always give myself extra time to make sure I’ve done the best I can in any given context, and I’ve never missed a deadline.
But I’m still not perfect. And I am extraordinarily slow.
If I were to let go of small details, make immediate choices without second-guessing myself, and stop searching for the best answer, I would be even less perfect. And less plodding.
That’s a trade-off I find increasingly hard to reconcile, and I continuously wonder: would I rather do work I know is “good” by my subjective definition or have it approved as “good enough” in the equally subjective definition of someone focused on speed and quantity?
And how many mistakes does quality allow?
In copyediting, experts have tried to answer the question of errors versus quality. As participants in the White cultural norms of publishing, copyeditors value measurement. An oft-cited acceptable error rate is 95 percent, although many copyeditors reject that as allowing too many mistakes. Still, they all give lip service to the inevitability of writing errors made and not caught by author, editor, or proofreader. In spite of perfectionistic expectations, publishing is forced to admit that human happens.
Does process matter?
The “White Supremacy Culture” excerpt says the accepted principle of “quantity over quality” means we prize quantifiable results over nebulous process. For me, this norm highlights the dual nature of writing.
Experienced writers emphasize the importance of process—called “practice”—to improve quality. And it takes a great quantity of practice to achieve quality of result.
Those focused on business and income, however, believe that quantity is itself the means to quality. In their viewpoint, quickly churning out results is the process that eventually leads to good writing, editing, and research. Do enough of it, and you will improve.
In that model, the writing business is deadline-driven, fast-moving, on-the-job training, where results drive the process. Go for the quantity and the money, and the practice and quality will follow.
I get that. My problem lies with the fast part of the formula.
Who defines time?
Increasingly, I wonder whether the frantic world of the writing business will ever recognize the current norms of speed-for-money as cultural inventions that can, like all creations, be reshaped and given a new form.
Will our industry progress to the point where slow word workers can make enough money from a book or a project to compensate the hours invested—without time pressure imposing constant guilt and chipping away at love of the work?
Will we learn how to stop racing the clock, begin to know and honor our own natural pace for producing quality work?
Will we recognize and celebrate individual differences and not continue to make working with words a no-win competition between the fast and the slow, between the current cultural fits versus the misfits like me?
Will White norms evolve so that all of us are no longer so hard on ourselves—and others?
Questions, I have. Answers, not so much. But I do know that I no longer want to spend my limited time worrying about how fast it’s passing. I’d rather enjoy the moment, even if my moment takes twice as long as someone else wants it to.
Time may be money, but time is also time—a definition with a unique value for each of us.
Have any characteristics of White culture been invisible to you? We’d love for you to share your experience with a norm that you now realize exists only because it’s just the way things are supposed to be.