Writing Troubles: a Confession

Each morning I wake up and force myself to write a thousand words. A colleague recommended that I develop this habit when he learned that I had let months pass without working on my dissertation. “Just write your thousand words,” he told me, “and for the rest of the day you have no other moral obligations.” The advice isn’t foolproof. I still grunt and moan over every word, fantasizing about the freedom that comes when my word count hits one thousand. Writing is a slow, exhausting, and lonely process. By the time I reach my quota, my back aches and my head feels full of gauze. But at least I am free from writing for another twenty-four hours.

After a week of this routine, I re-read what I have written. If I am lucky, I can lop off two or three thousand words of brush and discover the kernel of an essay underneath. But most weeks I am unlucky, and after I have smeared my printed drafts with handwritten ink—hordes of question marks, scribbled synonyms, arrows leading nowhere, the occasional exclamation point or emphatic bit of underlining—I am left with the realization that I must begin again with only a page of notes as evidence of last week’s work and my guide for next week.

I offer this brief confession in an effort to be more candid with my students about the difficulty of writing. However, I do not wish to paraphrase those lines attributed to Albert Einstein in response to a letter from a struggling school girl: “Do not worry about your difficulties in Mathematics. I can assure you mine are still greater.” A poster bearing those words and a picture of the hoary, apparently combless mathematician hung in my eighth grade algebra classroom; awash in mathematical difficulties of my own, I found Einstein’s cheeky advice insulting. No, I am recommending that we send our students the opposite of the poster’s message: if I, a PhD student who has spent most of his life reading and thinking about literature, cannot painlessly compose a sentence, how hard must writing be for a first-semester freshman, who likely lacks a quiet place to study, who is balancing her education with a job, and who may or may not be a second language learner?

We must admit that writing is a difficult, frustrating endeavor. Yet our students can also benefit from my colleague’s advice. They need not begin with a thousand words. Instead, if our students have a paper due in a week or two, we may encourage them to free-write about their subject for half an hour a day. No need to worry about grammar, style, or correctness just yet: they should guiltlessly play with the course’s content as they explore their ideas and their entrance into their subject. (As instructors, we can encourage this kind of low-stakes experimentation by scaffolding longer writing projects.) After a week of these exploratory exercises, our students will be surprised to find that they have a few pages of writing that may guide them as they develop their more formal work. And if our students are at all like me, they will find themselves emboldened by the paragraphs they have already written. When you write a bit each day, there is less to fear.