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The Transaction

Updated: Sep 12, 2022

On the first day of every semester, before going over the syllabus, I ask my English 101 students to introduce themselves. “Tell us your name, major, where you’re from, something interesting about yourself…”

In more than four years of teaching, I’ve never had a student say they were an English major.

When I ask them to tell me how they feel about writing—Do you consider yourself a good writer? What kind of writing do you like best? What is something you'd like to work on this semester?—many state that they hate writing and, outside of texting or social media, only do it when they have to. “Writing is hard,” they say. “I can never think of what to say.”

Wait, what?

College students have no trouble thinking of what to say in other mediums. What is it about writing that makes it so challenging?

It would be easy to attribute this negative perception of writing to a failing school system, or to the rise of texting and social media, or to students’ laziness in general. I have certainly worked with students who are a testament to all three. But while there is an undeniable connection between these phenomena, college students aren’t the only ones to have voiced this frustration. Writers themselves have been writing about how difficult writing is—for years.

In my favorite book on writing, William Zinsser tells the story of a time he was asked to speak to college students about writing as a vocation. In his speech, much to the students' chagrin, Zinsser said that, even for professional writers, writing was hard. He said that the words rarely “just flowed" but that writers must stick to a daily schedule regardless of inspiration. "[T]he man who runs away from his craft because he lacks inspiration is fooling himself. He is also going broke," Zinsser joked. Zinsser also highlighted the importance of rewriting in writing. "[P]rofessional writers rewrite their sentences over and over and then rewrite what they have rewritten." (After all, as Ernest Hemingway so eloquently put it: "The first draft of anything is shit.")

These thoughts are echoed by Stephen King in his memoir, On Writing. After sharing his back story, King tells the reader about some of his own writing practices. He spends the first half of every day writing. He doesn't stop until he reaches at least 2,000 words. Once a manuscript is complete, he locks it in a drawer in his desk for at least six weeks. Then, when the draft is no longer fresh in his mind, he pulls it out and cuts it by at least 10 percent. This is because, as his first editor John Gould once told him:

“When you write a story, you’re telling yourself the story. When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story.”

But that bring up another issue — how do writers know what is and is not the story?

This is where the writing process comes in.

The first draft of anything is, as Hemingway stated, the "bleeding" of our thoughts onto a page. This can be a difficult, painful, and messy process because our thoughts are not often clear or linear, even to ourselves. C.S. Lewis once said, “I do not sit down at my desk to put into verse something that is already clear in my mind. If it were clear, I should have no incentive or need to write about it… We do not write in order to be understood; we write in order to understand.” This is in line with the American writer Joan Didion, who wrote, “I write entirely to find out what I'm thinking,” and even, in the end, with Zinsser, who said, “Clear writing equals clear thinking; one cannot exist without the other.”

Writing is hard because it requires us to know what we think. Once we've figured that out, it then requires us to communicate those thoughts on paper in a way that others can understand. (This is why it is vital to weed out the parts that aren't relevant.) What's significant about this, though, is that, in truth, our thoughts are a representation of who we are. "Ultimately," as Zinsser said, "the product that any writer has to sell is not the subject being written about, but who he or she is." This means that, even when it's for a school paper, writing is a very vulnerable transaction. It's about putting ourselves out there for the whole world to see.

In short, writing is hard because it asks writers to take a risk.

But is it a risk worth taking? We'll dig into that more down the line, but for now I'll say, I think so—at least it can be. Because of its complexity, writing is one of the most effective mediums to create meaningful, well thought out discussions in our society, which can promote much-needed change and empathy (at least that's the hope).

We'll see if one of these days I can get my students to agree.

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