"We Need to Talk about Writing"

by Dave Beasley

Post date: Mar 13, 2018 10:27:19 PM

We need to talk. That is a terrifying four-word sentence. Nothing good usually comes after those four words. That particular set of words often leads to awkward conversations with friends and family about how “we had outgrown each other,” or how “we wanted different things.” Rarely is it followed by phrases such as, “we won the lottery,” or “I just wanted to say how great you are,” or “we have inherited an estate in the Caribbean.” Yet here we are, and we do need to talk. We need to talk about one of those things that is whispered in the halls of academia, in classrooms, in workplaces, in publishing houses: writing is hard. Anyone who tells you otherwise is a fool or a liar. There. I said it. Phew. I am glad that is over with. At least we admitted it. They say the first step is admitting the problem. And it is a problem. Let there be no doubt about that.

It is a problem because writing is so important. Whether it be a paper for a class, an email, a social media post, a note to a friend, or a piece of creative work, writing is all around us. It is something we are asked to do daily, yet something so many of us struggle with constantly. I cannot recount the number of times writers in the writing center or in my composition and literature classes come up to me and say, “I’m not a good writer.” My response is always the same and I always mean it: “I don’t believe that.” Let me also say to you if you think you aren’t a good writer, I don’t believe it. I simply refuse to believe that of anyone. We may not all win the Nobel Prize in Literature—Lord knows I won’t—but we can all write. This is my ironclad conviction. Writing is so difficult because it is at once objective and subjective, an activity and a skill, a pleasure and a chore.

It’s not just difficult for we mere mortals in the world of writing. Ta-Nehesi Coates, in his 2017 New York Times bestseller We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy, discusses the fear of failure and the necessity of failure for the writing process. Coates’s work culls eight essays from his writings for The Atlantic, one for each year of the Obama presidency, along with an introduction for each piece from Coates. His essay from the first year, “This is How We Lost to the White Man,” is a profile of Bill Cosby written before the long-rumored allegations of Cosby’s history of sexual assault came to the forefront. In his introduction to the essay, Coates’s takes himself to task for writing a tidy lie rather than a messy truth. He says of the article on Cosby and his own hesitancy to write a more complex and penetrating article, “That was my shame. That was my failure” (12).

Well, damn. If Ta-Nehesi Coates, a brilliant writer and one of the most important voices to emerge in the early twenty-first century, thinks an article featured in both The Atlantic and a New York Times bestseller is a failure, where does that leave the rest of us? In the same place we were before. It turns out that we are all in this together. It is not that we are further from good writing than we ever thought, it is that all writers begin with that same blank page, that same fear, that same desire to meet both our own needs and those of our audience. This is all part of what makes writing hard. Really hard.

Here’s another thing: writing most often comes to us as a finished product. We don’t see all the times that J.K. Rowling, Edwidge Danticat, Stephen King, and Toni Morrison wanted to throw their laptops through the window and take up cliff diving, if only because it seemed mentally and emotionally safer and saner. We don’t see all their rough drafts, all the text they delete, all the feedback they get, or all of the times when they try to write and nothing happens. We only see a brilliant piece of writing because all we see is the finished product. Reading great writers while trying to write is like I don’t even know what. I honestly can’t think of anything more potentially demoralizing. But we must remember that they were all where we were once. They may be there right now.

There is some good news though, and that is that the answer for them is the same as the answer for us: just keep writing. No matter what. Suit up and show up every day. Raymond Chandler, one of the greatest detective fiction writers of all time, did not publish a word until he was 40. He didn’t publish a novel until he was in his fifties. Harriet Doerr won a National Book Award for her first novel Stones of Ibarra; it was published when she was 74. My stepfather recently published his first piece. He is 70 years old. All I can say to conclude is that no matter what, keep writing. And keep reading. Make writing and reading a part of your daily life. Your writing will improve, but more importantly, you do a service to your own humanity when you do these things. Writing is hard, but it is not impossible.

Coates, Ta-Nehisi. We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy. One World, 2017.