For Whom the Writing is Hard

Jonathan Mayhew I have news for you: contra everything else I have ever said, writing is not fun or easy. It may be for thee and me — or is in my case, when I take the time to do any or have the  peace of mind one needs to think the long thoughts one must in order to have anything new and deep to say. However, I have now verified that we are in a minority and it is because of field. I did not expect this semester to undertake informal research on the difficulty of writing but I have amassed at least some anecdotal data.

I chair a committee which is writing a long document to justify the existence of several entities on campus. We are humanists and social scientists, and each of us is doing research for and then writing several different pieces of the document. I am the editor and compiler.

The humanists chose the more qualitative and philosophical portions of the project. They did the research and wrote their pieces, which needed very little editing. The social scientists chose the more quantitative parts of the project and gathered data, created charts to help them interpret it, crunched numbers and entered things on Excel sheets. Then they struggled with their prose.

Finally they straggled in, with incomplete writing but piles of fascinating data, tails between their legs. “I am so embarrassed. Can you help me make this look better? I have wonderful information and ideas but I will never be able to express myself as elegantly as you and Professor Y.” That they were in this much genuine anguish was extremely interesting.

The most embarrassed and blocked, although not the very worst writers, were the ones with the largest holes in their vitas and I understood instantly: there really is such a thing as a writing problem that is just that — a writing problem, that probably only can be overcome with a get-it-done attitude, really basic decisions about discipline like “I will write for 30 minutes now,” and the acceptance of the fact that for them, writing will just always be hard.

Robert Boice is in psychology and works with social scientists, so I now understand what he means much better than I have ever understood before. There really are people to whom his advice applies precisely. This, of course, only provides further support for my own point: if you are not one of those people, then you really are not one of those people; if the writing problems you have come from another source, you must allow yourself to name the true source if you hope to actually address them.


5 thoughts on “For Whom the Writing is Hard

  1. Great post. I have concluded recently that “other people’s writing is hell,” to paraphrase Sartre. L’enfer c’est l’écriture des autres. El infierno es lo que escriben los demás, no tú y yo.

  2. Je suis d’accord avec vous deux, si je peux stipuler qu’il y a des cercles de l’enfer.

    And most definitely if I am having trouble writing (or finishing) it is worth looking at why that is, because for me it is not normal. The thing I find hard is explaining why what I’m doing is important (that is, answering the “so what?” question), because I think it’s self-evidently interesting.

  3. Also I am disappointed that no one has answered your question about whom it benefits to say that writing is hard. I thought there should be a good discussion about that.

  4. It’s mostly a matter of practice for people like you and me. However, as you say, there are people who find writing very hard. My husband is a perfect example of someone who needed years of struggle to become the good writer he is today. What handicapped him was the dearth of good conversation and lack of books in his home and probably a lesser verbal aptitude than his intelligence would predict. He had me (the faithful Frau) to help him with editing his work when he started out in grad school. These early handicaps can be overcome, but it takes a long time and a lot of help for people like him.
    He is a physical chemist and brilliant in his field.

  5. I am puzzled, both previously as an instructor and a tutor of those doing papers the individuals who cannot understand that once a statement is made, it needs to be supported and proven. However, I try to become the ‘voice in the head’ – as for me, as for most writers, there is a voice in the head which asks ‘is that your best?’ or ‘Where is clarity?’

    For me, the greatest difficulty is not in writing, but in writing well on topics of important. Certainly there are a host of drones who put papers out, and books out, but who neither elevate the thinking of the reader nor pose questions which challenge us. Sadly, many of those who pose the greatest questions are poor writers, and need four books to say what a consise pamplet would achieve. I think to Quiller-Couch and the Art of Writing, when writing genuinely mattered. Now, all are expected to ‘produce’, but none are expected to ‘write’. To think that someone like Arnold Bennet, would question what is and is not literature, and can fiction even BE literature in the early 20th century is today an idea that is like someone saying Wilkipedia might not be absolutely true (it does sometimes get parts correct, but also includes gossip and public chatter).

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