Thursday, March 24, 2011

Reflections on Difficulty. Encore

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, for me, 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. Laura, loved it. We must be on the same wavelength... updating/posting at exactly the same time.

    Love; "profound level of engagement with the world". That is what I seek to do every day as I write both fiction and non-fiction.

  2. Very insightful post. I agree 100% that writing is difficult. It is precisely this level of difficulty that extracts from the writer thoughts that are worth wrestling with on paper. But writing is also a joyful experience - and it is this joy that spurs as on. :)

  3. Thanks Adrian! We are indeed on the same wavelength!

  4. Samantha, I think that's why I love this quote from Winston Churchill. The joy is culled from the challenge and that work can be so rewarding.

  5. Excellent thoughts on difficulty, Laura! As always, I loved this post. I have found, recently, that my difficulty with writing is in deliberately altering my style. You are familiar with my Friedman project; in some ways, I am down right frightened by the power of the style I am using there (you might have noticed it's "under construction" - that's one of the reasons why). There is power in words, and I have hidden from that power all this time by sticking to proper and "normal" methods of writing.

  6. I loved this! I felt like I could relate to almost everything you said (especially about being a's both a gift and a curse in my opinion). I've always found it interesting to look back at past work. Just reading some of my old short stories I'll find myself cringing at the language I once considered "good". It's strange how quickly our writing can develop. This year I'm taking a class that focuses on analyzing language devices and themes in literature. It's difficult, but as a result my writing has matured exponentially. My biggest challenge at this point is to write from a perspective other than my own and to make it believable. Character development is a skill I have yet to master. Your thoughts on difficulty definitely got me thinking! Great post!

  7. I'm glad this post resonated with you, ladies! I like what Taylor says, above, about developing as a writer. It's true that we're always growing in our craft, and learning new ways of expressing human experience through language! I too have looked back on past writings, and cringed. However, it's heartening to see how I've improved, and better yet--how I can continue to improve.

    That's why I love blogging about writing, actually. Getting others' input about their writing experiences has helped me a great deal! I love that collaboration!

  8. It's a tough balance between the confidence to say what you mean and the humility to question what you say. I came across this post through TRDC and appreciate these thoughts on the difficulty of writing. I don't consider myself a writer in any serious way, but my heart craves writing precisely because it requires that "profound level of engagement with the world" around me and as well as that elusive comprehension of who I am.



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