When writing is hard

abstract swirl

When writing feels painful, I think about these four statements.

“A word is not the same with one writer as with another. One tears it from his guts. The other pulls it out of his overcoat pocket.”

Charles Peguy, “The Honest People,” Basic Verities (1943), tr. Ann and Julian Green. Quoted in Robert D. Hare. Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us. (Originally from Atria, 1993.) Guilford Press, 2011.

“I find for myself that my first thought is never my best thought. My first thought is always someone else’s; it’s always what I’ve already heard about the subject, always the conventional wisdom. It’s only by concentrating, sticking to the question, being patient, letting all the parts of my mind come into play, that I arrive at an original idea. By giving my brain a chance to make associations, draw connections, take me by surprise. And often even that idea doesn’t turn out to be very good. I need time to think about it, too, to make mistakes and recognize them, to make false starts and correct them, to outlast my impulses, to feat my desire to declare the job done and move on to the next thing.

I used to have students who bragged to me about how fast they wrote their papers. I would tell them that the great German novelist Thomas Mann said that a writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.”

“Solitude and Leadership.” William Deresiewicz. Lecture to the plebe class at the U.S. Military Academy in October 2009. Reprinted in The American Scholar. Spring 2010. p. 27.

“Writing is easy. All you do is stare at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.”

Gene Fowler, 1890-1960

On the other hand, though, just because it is difficult does not mean we should take it too seriously. Part of the hard work is learning to put our foolishness in perspective.

“To make light of philosophy is to be a true philosopher.”

Blaise Pascal, Pensees, 4

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