Friday, May 11, 2012

Why Is It Hard to Write?

It is not my intention to make writing look easy or to belittle the difficulties that people have in doing it. The techniques I suggest are not ways of denying the difficulties of writing but ways of facing them. My point is that, like any other difficult activity, mastery will come from practice. If I told you to train every day in preparation for a marathon, or practice every day in order to learn how to play the piano, I would not be pretending that it's "easy". On the contrary, I would be insisting that it's difficult. I'm not saying that you just have to write every day, then; I'm saying that you really must do so.

One author recently told me that working according to my advice gives her time to reread every paragraph as she goes. (She writes it in about 15 minutes, which leaves about 10 to improve it before moving on to the next one.) But she doesn't like the editing part. She feels "discomfort" when reading her words. My response is that this is like feeling a bit of pain in your legs when running or getting out of breath. It's to be expected at the beginning, and getting into shape is all about getting through that discomfort. They key here—the "trick", if you will—is to remember that the discomfort will end. After ten minutes, you move on to the next paragraph. But the discomfort is just part of the job.

There are many sources of discomfort like that when writing. That's because it fundamentally isn't easy to write. The pianist must learn to execute a series of intricate movements with her fingers. The runner must build up strength in the right combination of muscles (which are different for a sprinter and a marathon runner.) Writing does not depend as much on physical strength and precision (typing is not really the problem here) but it does require both stamina and acumen. You sit down in front of the machine and choose words, one after the other, to represent your thoughts.

The writer and the pianist feels discomfort because she runs into her limits, she experiences her limitations. On the day of the concert, or the day of the marathon, she will take a step back from those limits. She will begin at a slightly slower tempo or pace. She will play the piece or run the course in a relatively "easy" way. All the practice, all the training, has made her aware of the difficulty, and she is now able to "perform" in an optimal way. If done right, she will not experience her limits, she will experience her abilities. She will not just barely succeed; she will simply perform at her best.

Too many writers forget this distinction between training (practicing) and performing. As result, they experience only the difficulty of writing and not the joy, as a paper is nearing completion, of rewriting it well within the limits of their abilities. They hand in the paper when the deadline arrives like a runner stumbling across the finish line. It doesn't have to be that way. But to say that is not to say that it isn't hard to write. We have to respect the efforts of the pianist and the runner, even if what they do "in the event" (and in a very particular sense) is not actually hard for them. What was hard was getting to that point.

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