A Regrettable Myth

I tell my students that writing is hard. Then, I immediately regret it.

A Regrettable Myth

I find myself telling my students a truth that I believe deep in my heart: Writing is Hard.

These high school seniors labor to bring to life slashlit.com, a website dedicated to showcasing their writing about books, music, film, and more. When they turn a piece of writing over to me, the editor, I look at it and usually send it back to them with notes for what they need to do to improve it. Most students go through four or five drafts before their piece gets published on the site. By this time, late October, a handful of students have had a couple of pieces published, but some are still working on that breakthrough. “Writing is hard,” I tell them.

Then, I immediately regret it.

I don’t regret it because I’m lying to them. Writing is a very difficult task. Consider what we are trying to do as writers. Our minds work out ideas, thinking through a complicated set of philosophical algorithms in our brains that have somehow taken the sensory input we’ve received from the universe and shaped it into coherent, interconnected thoughts. The 3-pound lump of gelatin inside our skulls somehow does all this work, often without our being aware of it. Then, as if by some kind of strange and perverse magic, we use a series of crooked symbols to make straight the complicated paths of our neuronal networking: we convey the meaning our minds have manufactured via an imperfect system of language that can only approximate the level of complexity of what’s happening inside our heads.

In short: we have ideas, we try to get them on a page, and then we transmit them.

Now, consider what’s happening on the receiving end. Unawares of all the context—the sensory perceptions, the experiences, that have flooded the writer’s imagination—the reader has to decode those symbols, slot them into the matrix of her own experience, and then come out with a meaning that somehow approximates what the writer was trying to convey.

It’s a game of “Telephone.”

We work to bend our language toward the asymptote of meaning, but we are always dealing with approximations, estimates of that meaning, because we have as our primary tools a limited system (language) and our limited ability (talent or skill). We can’t get it totally right, we can’t express it all, we can’t simply transfer what one mind is doing to another mind.

Why, then, should I regret telling a 17-year-old that “writing is hard”?

On the one hand, the acknowledgment of the truth—the impossibility of completing the task—is always healthy. On the other, however, the message that writing is hard serves only to reinforce its mystery. While we may sit down in the cathedral of words to worship at the foot of the mystery, to look into the sacred and call it magical or even divine, often we find ourselves so awestruck at the majesty of the cathedral itself that we are moved to inaction.

For those who don’t write or who struggle to identify themselves as writers, the mysteries of language seem like a gift that is granted by the divine. Writers are “special” people, “talented” individuals who were simply born with a gift. If I haven't been granted this gift, then why bother?

But all good writers know that no writer was ever born: all writers are made.

When we reinforce the idea that writing is hard, we reinforce the impenetrable mystery of the writing process. Most of my students, even at 17 years old, fail to realize that writing is a process, that a piece worthy of your reading has probably been revised and rewritten, edited and combed over, dozens of times before it ever reaches their eyes.

I try to teach them this, of course. I give them Anne Lamott’s “Shitty First Drafts,” in which the great Lamott confesses that she often begins writing without knowing what the hell she is really writing. Only after getting words down, building up a lump of clay, can she throw them on the potter’s wheel and fashion them into something useful.

I also try to undercut the idea that writing is hard by talking about what hard work really is. Hard work is building the pyramids or Stonehenge. Hard work is tarring a road on a sweaty summer day in Mississippi. Hard work is something done by miners and construction workers. Hard work involves sweat and aching muscles.

Writing, by comparison, is a luxurious trade. But, simply because it’s luxurious, doesn’t mean it’s not laborious. Writing takes time. Often, the time that it takes appears, at least to outsiders, to be wasted. Why write a 500-page novel if you’re planning to cut it down to 300? Didn’t you waste your time with 200 of those pages? That’s a whole other novel you could’ve written!

But that writing time is not wasted. Writing, like most things, requires muscle. We build up skill only by working out in the gym: whether your gym be a word processor, a typewriter, or a notebook. You’ve got to put in the time, do your reps, and build up your stamina, your endurance, your skill.

Writing is not really hard. Writing is time-intensive.

Lamott's "Shitty First Drafts" can be found in her excellent book on writing: Bird by Bird (affiliate link).