Archive for January, 2014

Possibly the greatest writing lesson I ever received happened one afternoon when I was at my work-study job at Oregon Health Sciences University in Portland, OR. I was a research assistant for a young Assistant Professsor in the Medical Psychology department. He was fierce in his devotion to research, and especially to writing about it. He was also having a very good start to his career. He would take on a subject about which he know little, like, say, pregnancy and smoking, and study it hard and long, and then write about it and get published in good journals. THAT is hard work, let me tell you!

So this particular afternoon, I come in at about 1PM, and he’s sitting his desk, with a single sheet of paper in front him, and a yellow legal pad. The desktop is bare, otherwise. He gives me my instructions for the day, and I ask him what he’s doing. He tells me “This is the introduction to my new article I’m about to submit. I’m trying to get it right”. That single sheet of paper contained what looked like 3 paragraphs.

I go off to the computer center (I have distinct statistical analysis skills and have had them for a long time, and that was my focus on this day). At 4 PM, three hours later, I return to his office. He’s still there, sitting, staring at what is now a legal pad with notes on it. “Having problems with the writing?” I asked helpfully. “Oh no,” he says. “What most people don’t realize is that writing isn’t easy. I have graduate students ask me ‘how do you do it – what’s the trick?’” (He wrote like an angel – it was clear and effortless to read. Simply gorgeous – and that’s not easy to do in a psychological research report!)

“There is no trick,” he explained. “It’s just hard, so you work at it.” I left him there, sitting at the desk. I’m sure his piece got published. It seemed they always did, and he did about 3 a year.

I’ve written a great deal since then, including a 300+ page Master’s thesis. It’s all proven him right, although if you keep at it, you do acquire a certain grace relative to simply starting, and to more or less getting things decent in the first draft. Beyond that…hard work.

So, there you are. “Blood, sweat, toil, and tears.” It could be worse. The silence of a blank sheet of paper is worse.

One last thought: I have observed over the years that serious writers all seem to share a common trait: We write out of necessity. We cannot not do it. It’s how we pull form out of our own chaotic minds, not to mention the collective chaos of those around us. It just has to happen. Resistance is futile. I do not object.

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