Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Reflections on Difficulty

From a young age, I enjoyed writing. I enjoyed the way a sentence came together. I was good at grammar and understood (for the most part) the elements of style in composition, mainly, I think, because I was a voracious reader. In high school, I took a research writing class that the local library offered annually. I took this class three years in a row (at my Mother‘s urging) and became very proficient with the more structural aspects of academic writing. At the time, though, I considered myself a creative writer first and foremost. I read mostly fiction and I wrote a lot of poetry and short stories. I also dreamed of writing a novel--just to see if I could do it. I preferred Kerouac and Dostoevsky to Strunk and White and the MLA Handbook, and even felt that Strunk and White and other such academic authors had nothing new to tell me. I knew all that stuff, already. It was a na├»ve sentiment. Since high school, I’ve learned a few things: English grammar is an extremely complex subject, and writing is hard.

Writing, in general, is hard for a variety of reasons. First, I’m a perfectionist. I almost refuse to write something if I think it will be sub par. This has driven me, more than once, to dazedly typing the last sentences of an assignment at 3 in the A.M., having nervously procrastinated for the entire three weeks since the assignment was given. I think this perfectionism comes from the desire to write with insight and originality, and at the same time be absolutely clear about the subject on which I’m writing. Academic writing reflects your grasp of a subject, but it should do much more than that. Ideally, writing, for the student, should be a deliberated response to the subject matter. Writing is about making assertions, and making assertions is sometimes frightening.

That said, however, I’ve found that simply admitting that writing can be very difficult is extremely helpful. Calling something what it is often enables me to deal with it (whatever “it” may be) more calmly and reasonably. This school term, I’ve reflected much on the theme of difficulty, and in grappling with some really serious works of literature, among them Foucault’s essay Panopticism and excerpts from G.W.Sebald’s Rings of Saturn, I’ve found that difficulty lies primarily in reading not with, but against the grain of the text. Asking critical questions at once opens doors to a better understanding of what I’ve read, and limits my ability to “sum it up” or describe the subject matter concisely, in “three main points.” In other words, to read critically is to heighten the potential of one’s writing.

That is all well and good. But this term, while reflecting on difficulty, I was very surprised to discover that the most difficult aspect of writing lies not in the realm of the unknown, but that of the familiar. Asking critical questions of a text is much, much easier, it seems, than asking critical questions of oneself. The writing assignment I chose to work on in conjunction with the reading from Sebald’s Rings of Saturn brought this point home. The assignment asked me to imitate the prose style that Sebald uses in his book, a style that could be described, more or less, as stream of consciousness combined with historical commentary. In the first chapter of his book, the narrator begins with a rambling, internal dialogue (stream of consciousness), and as the chapter progresses, relates these internal musings to pertinent historical events and cultural paradigms, translating himself, as it were, into the Universal. Imitating Sebald, however, was more formidable than I anticipated. The end result of my attempt was something less Sebaldian and more memoir, and minimal on creativity. It turns out I’m not as proficient as I thought I would be at putting internal dialogue on paper, for one thing, despite years of journaling. At least I did not feel that I was able to do so in the way that Sebald does. But then, imitating a style as strange and captivating as Sebald’s is a tall order. I don’t feel that I’ve failed. On the contrary, I think it’s made me appreciate creative fiction and non-fiction writers all the more. It really is an art, and therefore it is difficult.

I’ve learned, since high school, that being a writer requires almost equal parts confidence and humility. But more than that, it requires a profound level of engagement with the world. The latter is what I’ve learned from the several brilliant writers I had the priviledge of reading and critiquing in class this term. There will always be obstacles in a writer’s path, some of the daunting. But taking difficulty head on is what, I’ve come to believe, defines a good writer. And that is what I shall endeavor to do.


  1. Sometimes the very act of forging ahead, straight through the heart of what confounds us, produces the most incredible and genuine writing.

  2. this is true!

    Hey, if you have the time, I wonder if you would mind reading through the "Mindful" version of "She Also has a Story." It's there under a different title: "Precious Vases." I got that essay back from my professor, and he shocked me by saying he thought that, if I wanted to, I could get it published. I have my doubts. What do you think?

  3. Sure, I'll go check it out. I'll read them both again, actually, to make sure I see the differences, and I'll get back to you. And yes, so far I totally agree - you could publish ;)

  4. Hey there!

    I can't seem to recall how I stumbled upon your blog, but I've definitely enjoyed this read! It is easy to guess from your inquisitiveness that you have an interest in philosophy and I wanted to ask, have you read Plato's The Cave? It is an amateur philosopher's staple work.

    On a second, unrelated, note, you mentioned that you've been writing since a young age...have you noticed a sharp decrease in your ability to spell? With the advent of spell-check and Google's Did you mean?, I've found that my spelling has transformed for the worst, and I am now embarrassed to write anything without spell-check...Just wondering if anyone else if feeling my pain ;)

  5. I for one, am more lazy with my spelling than I was when I was younger. I hate spell check!! :P

  6. Hey Stu, it's great to meet you.

    I have indeed read Plato's Cave, and I agree--it is a philosophical staple! Have you read much Socrates? I, for one, am pretty enamored with his dialogues.

    Spell check annoys me, but I do find it comes in handy--especially when it finds errors in school assignments.That doesn't happen too often, though. I guess I haven't really noticed any turn for the worse in my spelling, but that may just be because I'm pretty OCD about spelling and grammar anyway, and always have been. I'm one of those nuts who deletes my comments on facebook posts when I see I've made an error, just so I can edit and re-post them.

  7. You know what drives me nuts, Lou? Open Office doesn't highlight words as you misspell them. Evidently, I've become dependent on that :(



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