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Slow Art: On snails, road trips & Dorothy Richardson

Sarah McColl


Last spring I began to notice snails. The winter had been rainy, roofers throughout the state were busy through summer. When I opened the front door of our house (in which we, too, discovered a leak in the hall closet), snails dotted the front porch. They were scattered in the garden beds like coins. Slugs I remembered from childhood, but snails felt novel. On a walk home from the playground with my son, a snail lumbered across a driveway ahead of us.


I crouched for a closer look. My son dismounted his big wheel and squatted beside me. How I welcomed his downshift to a slower toddler pace, to when we tossed sticks down a storm drain for an hour — or further back still in time and space to a hammock strung between a lemon and a fig tree, and the afternoon cinema of light scattered through leaves.


Side by side, we watched the slow slide, soft body, the searching sprongs from the snail’s head — eyes, apparently. 


Another morning, and unaware of what was underfoot, I cracked a snail’s shell beneath my heel. We were both crushed. 


There was something to learn from this preponderance of snails in the neighborhood. Next stop, the library. 


From the stack of picture books, I learned that snails can repair their shells (phew), that they are both female and male (rad), and I learned just how very slow they are.


A worm is 50x faster than a snail.

A tortoise is 300x faster than a snail.


From a children’s book (!), I learned thirteenth and fourteenth century monks drew snails in the margins of illuminated manuscripts, often in combat with medieval knights. (This same book instructed us how to draw a snail.) Scholars have long puzzled over the meaning of these doodles. I found myself down a medievalist rabbit hole with many an erudite and opinionated commenter. 


“The snail may have represented the lowly peasants who were the real foes of royalty, and the slow but steady march of democracy and equality,” one wrote. How hopeful, those words slow and steady. “The snail is us.”




British novelist Dorothy Richardson (1873-1957) spent her lifetime writing the thirteen-volume novel, Pilgrimage. With its chief concern the representation of protagonist Miriam Henderson’s everyday consciousness, the novel is a perfect example of modernism. In 1918, William James’s term “stream-of-consciousness” garnered its first literary application in a review not of Joyce or Proust or Woolf, but of Dorthy Richardson’s first three chapter-volumes of Pilgrimage. May Sinclair wrote in The Little Review:


        “In this series there is no drama, no situation, no set scene.

        Nothing happens. It is just life going on and on. It is

        Miriam Henderson’s stream of consciousness going on and on.”   


Such formlessness annoyed many but dazzled Sinclair, who found that Richardson’s methods more closely captured life on the page than any other contemporary novelist: “To me these three novels show an art and method and form carried to punctilious perfection.” 


And what are these novels about, in the jacket-copy sense? The struggles and joys of a single working-class woman and writer in turn-of-the-century London. 


“She is recording feminine heroism, as well as feminine insight and subjective perception,” wrote poet Louise Bogan in the New York Times in 1967.


Naturally, I turned to the first sentence of Pointed Roofs, and there found our touchstone word: 


“Miriam left the gaslit hall and went slowly upstairs.”


What does slow Miriam find up there? A window, through which she looks out onto the street in an attempt to escape her own thoughts about the journey ahead and what she will say to the Fraulein — when, through the lime trees, she hears the rumble of wheels and the gate creak and then the gravel-crunch of the Thursday afternoon delivery of the piano-organ.


Where is Miriam going? Who is the Fraulein? What ancient mashup is the piano-organ? I’m on the edge of my seat in this nothingness.


Reviewing the seventh volume, Revolving Lights in 1923, Virginia Woolf wrote:


        “[Richardson] has invented, or, if she has not invented,

        developed and applied to her own uses, a sentence which

        we might call the psychological sentence of the feminine

        gender…It is a woman’s sentence, but only in the sense that

        it is used to describe a woman’s mind by a writer who is

        neither proud nor afraid of anything that she may

        discover in the psychology of her sex. And therefore we

        feel that the trophies that Miss Richardson brings to the

        surface...are undoubtedly genuine.”


Privately, Woolf wrote of Richardson in her diary: “If she’s good then I’m not.”


Natalie Goldberg wasn’t born until 1948, so Woolf couldn’t have been soothed by the instructive wisdom in Writing Down the Bones, published in 1986:


        “Don’t make writers ‘other,’ different from you: ‘They are

        good and I am bad.’ Don’t create that dichotomy. It makes

        it hard to become good if you create that duality. The

        opposite, of course, is also true: if you say, ‘I am great and

        they aren’t,” then you become too proud…Just: ‘They are

        good and I am good.’ That statement gives a lot of space.”


And what of the feminine sentence? It sounds like a good thing, a sentence I would (and have) followed through a thousand “plotless” tales, devoted as I am to literature centered on the psychological, intellectual, and emotional experiences of women. To hear such books described as having no “plot,” no purpose, sounds an awful lot like dressing up misogyny in literary terms.


In 1929, in A Room of One’s Own, Woolf echoed Samuel Taylor Coleridge:


        “Coleridge perhaps meant this when he said that a great

        mind is androgynous. It is when this fusion takes place

        that the mind is fully fertilized and uses all its faculties.

        Perhaps a mind that is purely masculine cannot create,

        any more than a mind that is purely feminine, I

        thought…Coleridge…meant, perhaps, that the androgynous

        mind is resonant and porous; that it transmits emotion

        without impediment; that it is naturally creative,

        incandescent and undivided.”


The snail’s mind, in other words, the snail’s sentence.




The most promising development in my writing life occurs every Wednesday at 5pm. As my family arranges forks and knives on the dinner table, I swing a leg over my bicycle and wave goodbye. 


No coffee shop remains open late enough for my purposes, and so I’ve taken to claiming a corner table in the local bar and grill. I order an aperol spritz and boneless chicken wings from the happy hour menu, and for three hours, I stay and write. This is my weekly date with my novel, and like any good date, I look forward to it with anticipation. I apply tinted lip balm and gather my encouraging book-friends: The 90-Day Novel (begun, oh, five years ago), The Sisters Sweet by Elizabeth Weiss, The Long-Winded Lady by Maeve Brennan. I stack these in my pannier with my laptop and lock. A ceremony connotes significance, conveyed as much to me as to my family. Its recurrence builds into a rhythm we all recognize. 


Wednesday is mama’s writing night, and because I am mama, Wednesday night is my writing night, because I am a writer. This identity might appear to the people I live with as more conceptual than actual; so much writing happens in my head, unseen, as I’m waiting for the pasta water to boil and driving home from preschool and folding laundry. So much of writing is sitting alone in a room when the house is empty. No one witnesses what I’m up to. No one sees the daily word count. My inch-by-inch artistic progress is scarcely observable to myself. The Wednesday night ritual feels like a gesture of personal kindness. It’s helpful to make our work, what we care about, that to which we devote our time plain to others, thereby making it plain to ourselves, too. 


Why aren’t there more Black female writers of science fiction? an interviewer asked Octavia Butler. Probably because there aren’t more, she said:


        “People do what they see other people doing. And if you look

        around and you don’t see very many people who look like you

        doing something, you worry that maybe there’s a good reason

        for that, and you go and do something else.”


That is why it is important to me to write on Wednesday nights, even if the one paying closest attention to what I do is me. Even if I am a white female writer of literary fiction and creative nonfiction, not exactly a rarity, though uncommon enough in this farm town I call home. To become the kind of woman you want to be, my mom said, you must take the actions she would take.


By now it’s dark. I text that I’m coming home. I leave a 30% tip, affix lights to my handlebars and back fender, and ride home with a sense of freedom, a sense of accomplishment, however plodding. I turn onto our street and see the glow of the porch light.


Nary a snail.



Slow art is a museum movement that opposes the rapacious image-binge to which we’ve grown accustomed — scroll, scroll, scroll — encouraging visitors to spend 10 or 15 minutes looking at a piece of art. That’s quite an increase from the 28.63 second-average researchers found visitors spent looking at the Art Institute of Chicago. 


In the 2017 book Slow Art: The Experience of Looking, Sacred Images to James Turrell, author Arden Reed characterized slow art as the relationship between beheld and beholder. Any art can be subject to slowness. To take our time with art is to step out of the mechanistic churn introduced by industrialization and capitalism and enter a reverent timelessness, he argued.

“The more you look, the more you see,” a curator at the Tate Modern said of Bonnard’s The Bowl of Milk. “I’m fairly sure you could look at this for a lifetime and still find more to see or more to return to.” I have thought the same thing of To the Lighthouse.

When I was pregnant with my son, I attended an event at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, California. For about twenty minutes, we sat before Helen Frankenthaler’s painting, Adriatic (1968), an eleven-foot tall canvas of orange-on-orange, faintly trapezoidal shapes, with a thin strip of violet along the bottom edge. A pair of new grandparents joined our group. They were visiting their first grandson, lugged a stroller, sling, and diaper bag through the gallery. It seemed a frightful lot of gear to me. 

We were supposed to look at the painting and talk about what we saw. In the lower right hand corner, something aberrant caught my attention — a weave of the canvas or a fine trickle of paint, I can’t recall, but the kind of textural detail not digitally reproduced in images online. The museum curator offered no answers, just thoughtfully nodded her head at a therapist’s angle as each of us spoke, and so what I remember most from that afternoon is a feeling of liminality, of talking and looking and being with a group of strangers with whom, in the end, I experienced no sense of resolution or collective understanding. I was still pregnant, my feet still hurt. I had no new insights about Helen Frankenthaler. We walked to our cars. I don’t know what I had expected. It was just life going on and on.

No—I have gotten this wrong. The sense of suspension, of an afternoon without proper ending, is not my memory of that day but of the larger expanse of time in which that afternoon occurred — that great 40-week span, the on-and-on nature of pregnancy. Growth so slow, I forgot we were sailing somewhere and surrendered, instead, to bobbing, bobbing, endlessly it seemed on a placid sea. The project suited me. Activities otherwise deemed “lazy” or like “doing nothing,” such as staring out the bedroom window, now appeared laden with purpose. I didn’t have to do anything, I was growing a human. 

“Slow writing,” writes author and podcast host Nicole Gulotta:


        “is rooted in the belief that less is more, that our writing

        careers are long, and there’s no rush, no race, or reason to

        push ourselves to the brink of exhaustion.” 


Just how slow-going is the slow novel written in weekly installments? I did a little back of the envelope math last week. If I write 1,000 words a week, 45 weeks a year, that’s a slim little book every year. That’s a Dorothy Richardson clip. Maybe even too fast for me.




I didn’t realize slowness was my given cadence until I drove across the country with my best friend seven years ago. Every time we stopped for gas, I wove up and down the convenience store aisles. The options hadn’t changed since we last filled our gas tank, but I had. Cheetos, peanut M&Ms, Sour and Cream and Cheddar Ruffles, beef jerky, which would speak to me most strongly now that we were in Upstate New York or North Dakota or Eastern Washington? With grave consideration, I weighed the choice of diet Dr. Pepper or diet A&W, fountain soda or bottle, and once these decisions had been made, I chatted with the cashier, asked questions, made small talk. I returned to the car where my friend waited with some combination of her reliables: cigarettes, unsweetened ice tea, sunflower seeds. We have been friends for twenty years; she’s practiced at overlooking my foibles.


She has long since quit smoking, and my friend and I are running a half-marathon together in October. It’s a nine-hour drive to the race, and I plan to move quickly when we stop for gas. But as we’ve trained these months, when she sends screenshots of her split pace on long runs, I’m inclined to tell her to bring a book to read. After she finishes the race, she will be waiting again.


I have leaned into my natural proclivity for slowness. It’s why, after all, I write to you today on paper.



If we have not heard of Dorothy Richardson, why? Scholars have some theories. 


One is that Pilgrimage is dull, the first definition given by Merriam-Webster for slow. But that hasn’t stopped scores of books from finding their way onto syllabi and in anthologies. I finished neither Moby-Dick nor The Scarlet Letter in the same American literature seminar.


Another is ego — and here it gets confusing — of Miriam? Dorothy? Because Pilgrimage takes its events from Dorothy’s own life, and her book is often called autobiographical fiction, Miriam’s “solipsism” becomes Dorothy’s. But single minded obsession with the myth of one’s becoming, and one becoming an artist, hasn’t barred canonization or adulation for others. (See: James Joyce, Philip Roth, Frank Conroy, Proust, Knausgaard…)


Another argument comes from Richardson’s biographer, Gloria G. Fromm, who thought Richardson harbored a subconscious wish to avoid fame, which would bring personal failure. As a novelist, Fromm argued, Richardson was an important pioneer who failed to achieve greatness because “she was never able to choose between art and life, to give herself up with her whole heart to the creative imagination.” 


Do I hear in this argument the rattle of fear (who knows what the artist will — or won’t — find on the other side of giving oneself up with her whole heart)? Or, more likely, is this a critique of the woman who cannot forsake the realities of life, such as paid work and human relationships, for her art? 


“Ironically,” wrote scholar Elaine Showalter, “the conflict [between art and life] seems to have diminished life as well.” Becoming a novelist — the work of being a writer — required, as Richardson wrote in Pilgrimage’s final volume, March Moonlight, “spending enormous pieces of life away from life.” 

This is the artist’s double-bind, a trap feminist writers, thinkers, and artists from bell hooks to Sarah Ruhl to Moyra Davey to Julie Phillips to Daphne de Marneffe to Doireann Ní Ghríofa to Julia Kristeva to Audre Lorde to Anne Truitt to Patti Smith sidestep with imagination, invention, formal and diurnal daring — the artist’s tools. Just as Woolf “sketch[ed] a plan of the soul so that in each of us two powers preside, one male, one female,” so, too, we transcend the binary of life and art.

For if life is not separate from art; if life is not art’s drain and distraction, then we rightly remember what life is: The house in which art lives. However slowly we might advance the conjoined enterprise, the two are snail and shell.

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