Finding the Difficulty

Last week I got to talk to a lot of students about the first three disciplines and noticed something interesting. When we’re asked to think of something that we know to be true, we have a tendency to play it safe. We come up with sentences that no one would find hard to believe, hard to understand, or hard to agree with. But this will not do if we’re trying to generate a key sentence for a paragraph, since a paragraph is an attempt to support, elaborate, or defend a claim. If the reader were confronted with the key sentence on its own, out of the context of the paragraph, the reader would not simply believe, understand, or agree with it. It would present a problem for the reader and it’s the writer’s job to solve it, or at least provide the means to do so. That is, the key sentence should always occasion a difficulty in the mind of the reader. The paragraph resolves it.

Think of the instruction to “write something,” on the model of “Lift something!” or “Do some pushups!” or, “Run somewhere!” None of these instructions indicate a difficulty; they don’t tell you to do something hard. But each of them could be made virtually impossible by specifying how heavy, how many, and how fast. Within a reasonable range of the “humanly possible,” some people would find the task easy while others would find it hard. The trick is to set up the task so that it provides an interesting challenge. Everyone who works out knows what I’m talking about here. You have to plan your exercise regimen so that you get a little a stronger, a little faster, a little further every day. This means you can’t take it too easy or overdo it in any one session. You have to put enough weight on the bar, but not too much. You have to put enough kilometers behind you, but not too many. Otherwise, not only do you not get the health benefits you’re looking for, it’s not much fun. It either lacks that sense of challenge or is completely discouraging.

In the case of writing, then, take some care in choosing what to write about, and what to say about it. Stick to what you know and even to what you know well. But don’t confine yourself to things that are very easy to say to anyone you might meet. Rather, pick things that your peers would initially respond to with a measure of skepticism, puzzlement, or rejection. Choose your (imagined) peers wisely, however. You want to respect their concerns and you want to have a good sense of how to assuage them. That makes it much easier to enjoy their (imagined) company.

On the weekend, I started working on another metaphor. Musicians will often talk about “playing in the pocket,” and it seems to me that that’s what I’m suggesting you do when you write. You and your reader are collaborating to make your writing feel “tight”. That means not just playing an easy tempo mechanically to the beat of a metronome. You have to challenge the reader to “stretch” a little, to reach for the ideas that you’re presenting to them. This only works if you imagine your reader as a peer — like a fellow musician in your band. So, if you’re a student, make sure you have fellow student in mind, and find the pocket in a mutual respect for the difficulty of your subject. If you’re a working scholar, find the pocket in the company of your colleagues. Make it swing.

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