Re-Thinking The Hard Work Of Writing

Man Carving His Own Destiny Photo by Russell Smith

Writing is hard.  Don’t let anyone tell you different.

More precisely, good writing is hard. By good writing, I mean

clear writing.  Writing that is lean and vigorous and interesting.  Writing free from cliché, propelling the eyes forward and seducing the reader to think.

As a pastor, I have to write a lot of material: sermons, articles, studies, blog posts, etc.  The more I work on the craft of writing, the harder it gets.

David Bayles, in his book Art and Fear (co authored with Ted Orland), tells of his experience of learning piano.  After a few months of intense practice, he moaned to his instructor: “but I can hear the music so much better in my head than in can get out of my fingers.” To which the teacher replied, “What makes you think that ever changes?”

His point: your vision for your work is always ahead of your execution.

And from that gap between vision and execution arise paralyzing thoughts:

  • How are you going to surpass the success you’ve already had?
  • What makes you think that people will be interested in what you offer?
  • Do you really think that work is polished enough?
  • Are your thoughts really that original?

These questions are unimportant.

They are unimportant because they seduce us with an idealized fantasy of perfection.  They lead us to think about how people will respond to our work after it is complete.  That’s like fantasizing about the marriage you’ll have before you’ve ever asked the object of your affection for a date. That’s like dreaming about how you’re going to spend your fortune once you hit the lottery.

It’s a dangerous fantasy because it takes our minds off this day’s task.  This day’s task is hunkering down and actually writing something, anything.  This day’s task is, if nothing else, slapping words together in a sloppy mess.  Because without that sloppy mess, we have nothing to work with.

Bayles and Orland remind us that the task of the artist/musician/writer is very different from the task of the person who receives the work:

“To all viewers but yourself, what matters is the product:  the finished artwork. To you, and you alone, what matters is the process, the experience of shaping that artwork….Your job is to learn to work on your work.”

Learn to work on your work.  Learn to structure your life and time so that you can actually accomplish the task of sitting down to string the words together.

It may not make the craft any easier. But it takes the psychological pressure off.


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