“Everything That Is Weak in Me”

Everyone who has ever become good at something has had a healthy contempt for mediocrity. But a moment’s reflection will remind us that we are all mediocre (at best) in some ways, indeed, in most ways. We don’t actually expect everyone to pursue greatness in all things. We don’t even expect them to always do their best. Sometimes we see someone “dialing it in” and we’re sympathetic, we understand their attitude. Sometimes we, too, don’t give our full attention to a task. And in more areas of life than not, even when we’re doing our very best, we aren’t doing better than the average person.

When thinking about your writing, remember that this range of commitment and competence also applies. How well you are writing on a given day doesn’t tell us anything about how good a person you are. Whether or not you are a “writer”, let alone a “good” or “great” one, is not revealed in any particular experience. You can only know this by looking at the work you’ve done over a very long period of time to decide such things. Being a writer isn’t an act. It’s a habit.

This is something that Eric Hayot writes compellingly about in his book The Elements of Academic Writing. I agree with the substance of his approach but there’s something about his attitude that sits uneasily with me. I like his practice but, as I said in my last post, I’m not sure about his theory. He suggests writing every day, which is simply great advice. I’m less sure that you should sit down every day in front of your machine and try to be “great”. I don’t think you should write with any anxiety about your mediocrity.

“Do not worry,” Hemingway says. “You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” Eric disagrees:

Writing as though you already know what you have to say hinders it as a medium for research and discovery; it blocks the possibilities — the openings — that appear at the intersection of an intention and an audience, and constitute themselves, there, as a larger, complete performance. Active writing should not involve saying things you already understand and know, but instead let you think new things. And that is why, this book will argue, you cannot know what your ideas are, mean, or do until you set theme down in sentences, whether on paper or on screen. It is also why the essay or the book you write will not be, if you are open and generous and unafraid, the essay or book you started with. (P. 1)

I think you should sit down and calmly face the fact that you’re not as good a writer as you’d like to be. This means you should always (or mostly or at least very often) be writing about things you already know, things you understand well enough that knowing isn’t going to be the main problem. Let writing be the problem you are facing. Eric, by contrast, says that confining yourself to writing what you know “hinders” and even “blocks” your process. But surely writing with the intention of being “great” can be debilitating too. Indeed, we don’t have to look further that Eric’s own process to see how this might happen:

What this means is that everything that is weak in me — everything that would have me sleep another hour, avoid working out, put off cleaning the house, or delay a necessary apology to a friend — struggles to keep me from writing, fights to have me give up and be satisfied with the sentences I already have or the essays I’ve already published. (P. 18)

Instead of normalizing our anxiety about writing I propose we embrace our mediocrity. But only long enough to make progress, of course. We want to use our writing time, not to discover whether or not we are great writers and thinkers, but simply to become better writers and better thinkers. The way to do this, I want to argue, is to remember that the whole point of academic writing is to expose the weaknesses in our thinking to our peers so that they can help us to overcome them. I’ll grant that that’s mainly a euphemism for letting them tell us we are wrong. And I will also grant, as I did in my first post on this subject, that the difference between Eric’s view of writing and mine is mainly one of emphasis, of attitude. Eric writes with what is no doubt a healthy fear of everything that is weak in him and, by the sound of it, I have the same things to fear in me. Still, I try to write from the center of my strength.

4 thoughts on ““Everything That Is Weak in Me”

  1. Ah, Thomas, you are generous to a fault with Professor Hayot. I can see the points of concurrence between your approach and his, but this writing-as-discovery perspective almost certainly un-does the agreement. Moreover, if Hayot says that writing from knowledge hinders the connection to the audience and prevents new thinking, then he makes two fundamental errors. First, if one thinks or speaks the contents of what is written the next day, then discovery can occur during this period of composition. Ideas can mesh and new connections can be made before fingers tap the keys. Second, the composition of the argument and its paragraph-pieces must be attuned to the prospective audience in advance of the physical writing process.

    I remember getting the first draft of a PhD dissertation from a student who “wrote for/to himself”. There were 700+ pages of conjectures, discoveries, and (what appeared to be) random connections to other pages in the pile. It took ninety hours of my time to send back edits and suggestions. Luckily, the student was an artilleryman at heart; the subsequent drafts got closer and closer to the target and it only took three comprehensive re-writes to strike the target (not the bulls-eye).

    So I must remain a skeptic of writing-as-discovery, unless it is a journal to the writer’s self. Perhaps from that, the writer can understand what she knows and then write for an established audience.

    Nonetheless, I like seeing other points of view from yours and your forays into the dialectical space. Very provocative.

    1. On Twitter, Eric made a distinction between writing for discovery and writing for publication. He granted that my approach worked for the latter, and that he perhaps doesn’t distinguish them clearly enough in his book. Writing for a supervisor constitutes a grey area. And I think Eric and differ on how black and white things can be at the poles.

      I’ll write a post about this soon, but (as I’m sure you know) you were being very generous with your time (and the bleeding earth around his target!). My advice is never to put that much time into correcting a poorly organized text. Tell the student to make you an after-the-fact outline (a list of the key sentences, one for each paragraph). Discuss the coherence of the claims. When all that is in place, look closely at a few representative paragraphs. Then have the student go back and rewrite each paragraph individually with your instructions in mind.

      90 hours are enough to rewrite 180 paragraphs (about 360 pages). That time is better spend by the student writing than by you editing and correcting. (Knowing you, I’m sure there’s some good situational explanation for your efforts here, which are of course ultimately praiseworthy. Still, bad writing should not produce *more* work for the teacher. On the contrary, it’s the good writers that should get the attention! The bad writers should, usually, just practice more.)

      1. Thomas, I should be chagrined ! In this particular case, I am not. There are three reasons. First, I mentored this student more than ten years before I began to understand the craft of writing (primarily through you). Second, he was simultaneously the most introverted, closed, and self-directed graduate student I have ever dealt with. So, I erroneously allowed him to sequester himself to write and did not intervene earlier in the process. My fault. And third, the return on my investment in time with his drafts my still surpass the average ROI from the other graduate students whose theses and dissertations I have read and commented upon, despite the much lower investment in each.

        Lest you presume I acted from altruism, I will say that I paid his research assistantship from my research accounts and so the fiscal ROI was in play!

        1. I always presume you act from a combination of altruism and fiscal responsibility, Randy! It’s good to have you back. Like I say, I’ll have a post on effective and efficient supervision up soon.

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