I thought for my first blog post here, I’d share some thoughts on why writing is hard. We all have the image of someone who goes into his attic (it’s usually a him, we imagine), lights a candle, and types out reams of perfect prose. The myth about Jack Kerouac is that On the Road came out in three weeks on one 120-long piece of paper.
Lies. Or at least partly lies.
That person does not exist. Ok, maybe he does. Maybe his name is Steven King. Or maybe it’s JK Rowling.
But ask any successful writer: Most SUFFER. Maybe you’ve heard the famous quote from sports columnist Red Smith: “Writing is easy. You simply sit down at a typewriter, open a vein, and bleed.”
For me, writing is just about favorite thing to do, and it’s also the hardest thing I do, harder than getting my eight-year-old to bed at a reasonable time, harder than case declension in Russian, harder than tearing myself away from my favorite telenovela. In fact, it was hard for me to write this! I kept looking up recipes for Lebanese meat pies.
Well, because they’re delicious and they remind me of the bakery I went to as a kid.
Right. Back to writing. Why is writing hard?
Let me share a few reasons I’ve discovered from my own research, the research of others, and my decades of teaching writing in schools, universities, and communities. For any teachers reading this, I believe in understanding these reasons why writing is hard, we can better intervene in students’ writing processes when they’re struggling. I’ll start with reason number one. Look for the other reasons in upcoming posts!
1) Writing is cognitively challenging.
In the early 1970’s a researcher named Janet Emig sat down with students and did a think-aloud protocol. That means, she gave them a writing prompt and asked them to say what they were thinking as they composed.
(Now, we can see that this methodology had some limitations. If you asked me to talk about what I was writing while I was writing it, you might just get a few, ahem, choice words.) BUT, the twelfth graders she asked obliged. What Flowers got was an insight into the cognitive complexity of composing: One student she studied wanted to make something sound sophisticated, to mirror the language and grace of the women’s magazines that were popular at the time, to write in a way that connected her to her home and family, to communicate with a reader. Complex tasks in and of themselves. And as she undertook them, she kept up a running commentary judging whether her prose was good enough. Sometimes she erased, rewrote, second-guessed. And sometimes she felt a sense of satisfaction at a sentence well turned out. The emotional and the rational were intertwined as she put pen to paper.
Now, since these kinds of studies were conducted, research into the cognition of writing has gotten more sophisticated. Neuroscientists study the writing brain, and have shown how writing connects the emotional center of our brain with the rational center. And anthropological research has been done connecting writing to the hand. This research in fact anthropologically suggests that language came about not through our mouths, but through gestures, so that gesturing, a topic of study by writing studies scholars
are part of meaning making. Writing contains all of this. Writing, as scholars Bazerman and Tinburge have written, is a “full act of the mind, drawing on the full resources of our nervous system, formulating communicative impulses into thoughts and words, and transcribing through the work of the fingers.” 74
So we can see how using language to write is complex cognitively. Our heads get
LOUD when we write. There is a clamoring of voices making demands on us.
In fact, does anyone know the writer Anne Lamott? She is an accomplished novelist, writer, and educator. She even gave a wicked cool TED talk.
Anyway, in Bird by Bird, she describes the voices that tell her she is an awful writer, there’s the “vinegar-lipped” critic, William Burroughs who is shooting up because she’s so boring, her parents freaked out about her lack of discretion, some dogs, you get the idea. To get anything written, she has to imagine that she has captured them all inside a big glass jar, and then turn the volume down on them. My point is that there is a lot going on when we’re writing.
It has a different kind of cognitive complexity than the other arts. I once attended an artist’s talk by the great novelist and generous human being, BK Loren. She was comparing writing to other artistic endeavors. When you see images, she said, you don’t have to be taught to feel anything. You just do.
I bet you felt something looking at this.
And when you hear music, you just feel something. Check out this girlpower song from Colombian band, Bomba Estereo.
You felt something, yes? Images. Music. They just go right in.
Writing as an art requires more decoding. One has to learn to read and learn to write. Entire public systems of education are devoted to this very task! Writing asks a lot. In BK’s talk, she went on to offer this incredible metaphor about narrative and emotional beats, which is worth sharing. But alas, writing is hard, my cognition is limited, and I’m sure I won’t do it justice here. So with thanks to BK, I’ll sum up.
The upshot is this: When we write and when we ask people to write, we are making profound cognitive demands.
When I was in graduate school, my (now ex) husband and painted a corner of our apartment orange, for creativity. He worked at logo design in one corner on his computer, and me, I banged away at my qualifying exams in another. In my corner, there was a window, looking out at the other student apartments across the street, and a wall, where I hung an old photo of my great grandmother, an immigrant from Lebanon who was illiterate, but who had come to me in a dream, asking me to write. Every once in a while I would be interrupted by my husband, who would be shaking his head and laughing.
What? I’d ask.
What do you mean, what?
You just gasped. You didn’t hear yourself?
That’s right. If there’s one thing I learned from my marriage, it’s that I forget to breathe when I write. There is just too much else going on in my head. I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one.
Thanks for reading and stay tuned for reason number two why writing is hard: those ding dang readers.