What thou lovest well remains, the rest is dross What thou lov’st well shall not be reft from thee What thou lov’st well is thy true heritage. (Ezra Pound)
Many years ago, I was talking to a writing instructor when she suddenly confided to me that she hated writing. I was taken aback but it was an illuminating moment. It explained why we disagreed about whatever pedagogical issue we were discussing. She was trying to help students survive something she hated and I was trying to help them become good at something I love. Both of us had our students’ best interests at heart, of course, but we approached their problems in very different ways. Norman Mailer once said of Diana Trilling that she read him with her “full and specific sympathy,” which, if I recall, was a nice way of saying that he thought she had misread him. Likewise, I think writing instructors feel a great deal of sympathy, and even empathy, for their students. Let me be specific about mine.
I know that writing is hard and I, too, find it difficult at times. Most of the time, however, I have given myself a task I think I will enjoy in the moment of writing, a difficulty I can handle. Mostly, it’s not the writing that I hate; it’s the inability to decide what to say. But that inability is only something I experience for a few minutes at the end of each day; then I stop worrying and begin to relax. I try to avoid sitting in front the machine for hours on end with nothing on my mind, hoping for inspiration. Usually, I don’t even sit down if I haven’t made up my mind about what I’m writing. So though I sometimes suffer terrible bouts of indecision, I don’t experience it as part of the writing; it’s part of the thinking process, the research process, the learning process. And it doesn’t feel loathsome there, but entirely natural. I try to protect the writer in me from frustration because I know that the writer isn’t to blame for my inability to understand something. If I know something, I know also that I can write it down. If I can’t write about something, it’s because I still have something to learn. Instead of hating writing, that is, I simply resolve to do something else that I love too, namely, learning.
I know I’m being annoyingly cheerful about all of this. But I think it’s important to tell people, and especially students (who may one day become scholars), that they don’t have to be miserable when they write. Many writers leave the impression that this is necessary. Some of our greatest novelists are famous sufferers for “the craft” — Flaubert and Proust come to mind. Many academics are too ready to take precisely those authors as role models and I strongly discourage this. Even Henry Miller laughed at his younger, suffering self, who thought he was receiving dictations from the angels (or, perhaps, cosmological demons). “I was so in love with the idea of being a writer I could scarcely write,” he said. Much better, he tells us, to work like Blaise Cendrars (“Two hours a day, before dawn, and the rest of the day to oneself”) or like Rémy de Gourmont (who applied the same strategy to his reading). But sometimes, I grant, the morning is just too beautiful to surrender to the machine. So be it.
It is my philosophy that being able to do something well implies knowing how to enjoy it. If you hate writing it’s because you’re not — not yet — doing it right, and it’s probably because you’re trying to use it for a purpose it isn’t suited for. “If he’s using his mind to bend those spoons,” said James Randi of Uri Geller, “he’s doing it the hard way.” Though it sounds counter-intuitive, the same is true of writing: if you’re using your mind to write your papers you’re doing it the hard way. Use your hands. Teach them to write down whatever you’ve go on your mind, and then use your mind to satisfy your curiosity, to learn. Your mind already loves to learn. Your hands can learn to love writing, but not if you insist on learning ideas while you’re doing it. Put a weekend between the part of you that learns the truth and the part of you that writes it down, between the knowing and the writing. What thou lovest well remains.
Image credit: C. W. Eckersberg, The Vesta Temple in Rome, 1814-1816, Source: Nivaagaard Collection.