Sunday, February 16, 2014

On Writing

I read an interesting column today by Megan McArdle in The Atlantic.

Its headline tells you just about everything you need to know about the topic — except the details: "Why Writers Are the Worst Procrastinators."

I'm not sure how I feel about that. I consider myself a writer — I have written and edited professionally, and currently I teach writing at the local community college — and I also grudgingly admit that I am a bit of a procrastinator, but I don't think I procrastinate about writing — at least, not in the way McArdle suggests.

She says procrastination is an occupational hazard for writers. And that reminded me of something that Murray Slaughter said once on the Mary Tyler Moore Show. Murray was the news writer on that show, and I recall that he was asked something like, "What do you like the most (or perhaps it was the least) about writing?"

Murray replied that he liked talking about his writing, and he liked being paid for his writing, and he liked reading his writing. "The only thing I don't like about my writing," he said, "is writing!"

Now, I will admit that I do procrastinate about a lot of things. I procrastinate about doing my taxes. I procrastinate about checking the job listings on a daily basis. I procrastinate about going to the grocery store. I procrastinate about taking out the trash and doing the laundry and other household chores.

But that is because those activities are generally low–reward activities for me. Writing, on the other hand, is usually very satisfying. Most days, the thing I feel excited about when I get up in the morning is the idea that I can do some more writing that day. Lots of times, I can hardly wait to get to it — although sometimes it is delayed by other things.

So I don't really feel that I fit McArdle's definition of a procrastinating writer.

On the other hand ...

She makes an intriguing observation when she explains the evolution of her theory about writers — "We were too good in English class."

This thought has crossed my mind. When I was a boy, I seldom studied for spelling or English tests, but I always did well. When I took my college entrance exam, I scored in the top 5% nationally in English.

I don't know why it came so easy to me.

I mean, how'd that happen?

All I've been able to figure is this:

I've always believed my paternal grandmother had a lot to do with it. She was an English teacher before my father and my aunt were born — and I think she more or less retired from teaching to be a full–time stay–at–home mother — but she proved that, while you might take the girl out of the classroom, you couldn't take the classroom out of the girl.

My grandparents lived in Dallas. My family lived in central Arkansas. It was a six–hour drive after the interstate linked us, but when I was little, a trip to Dallas required going through a lot of small towns with all that stop–and–go driving you experience in populated areas. In those days, the trip probably took eight or nine hours.

Anyway, we didn't always see my grandparents on my birthday or even on Christmas so their gifts were often mailed to me. Mom made sure that I sat down and wrote thank–you notes immediately — she made my younger brother do the same thing after he learned to write.

My paternal grandmother always wrote back thanking me for my thank–you note. She also included the note with her letter — with my mistakes marked. It wasn't like a paper that has been graded by a teacher. The notes that she wrote on my thank–you letters were very loving, very grandmotherly, but they still pointed out that I probably meant to use a different word or a different tense or a different spelling. Or perhaps I used a plural pronoun in reference to a singular noun.

I still remember many of the lessons she taught me. As I say, I always figured that she had a lot to do with my ease in English.

And, sometimes, especially in recent years when I have reconnected with so many old friends via social media like Facebook, I wonder why I didn't get caught in the quicksand of communication mediocrity.

Then again, maybe I didn't dodge that bullet as neatly as I thought. Every day, I see examples of misspellings and atrocious grammar that I assure myself I would never allow into something I wrote.

Sure enough, something just as egregious — if not worse — pops up in something I write in one of my blogs! Usually, it doesn't take too long, either. That knowledge usually keeps my ego in check, regardless of what I have written.

Anyway, let's get back to McArdle's article.

As I say, McArdle writes about how easy English was for some people, how they got by on "natural talents" — only to advance to college or perhaps the professional level where they found themselves "competing with all the other kids who were at the top of their English classes."

This encourages procrastination.

"If you've spent most of your life cruising ahead on natural ability, doing what came easily and quickly, every word you write becomes a test of just how much ability you have, every article a referendum on how good a writer you are," McArdle writes.

She's probably writing tongue in cheek, but I think there is a certain amount of truth in her observation that "[a]s long as you have not written that article, that speech, that novel, it could still be good. Before you take to the keys, you are Proust and Oscar Wilde and George Orwell all rolled up into one delicious package. By the time you're finished, you're more like one of those 1940s pulp hacks who strung hundred–page paragraphs together with semicolons because it was too much effort to figure out where the sentence should end."

They don't procrastinate because they are lazy, she argues. "Rather, they seem to be paralyzed by the prospect of writing something that isn't very good."

I can't say that I have ever felt that way. There have been many times when I had to write about a topic with which I wasn't very familiar, but I worried more on those occasions about inaccuracy than I did about the quality of my writing. I have always been confident in my ability to write.

McArdle talks about the need to learn the lesson that comes from failing with grace, and I agree.

Perhaps I have been luckier than most — although I would be inclined to say I have had my share of practice at failing with grace!

The important thing is to learn from your mistakes and apply the lessons to future situations. That's all anyone can do in any endeavor. Writers are not special in that regard.

Maybe she is right. Maybe some writers do put off writing because they fear that they aren't good enough — so they set themselves up for failure by putting off their writing until they are faced with an absolute choice of writing something (that may be good or may be bad) or writing nothing. The relentless pressure of deadlines makes the choice inevitable.

And then, the rushed final result is usually inadequate in one way or another.

That is a very different thing from the tendency of some writers to write, then get up and walk around for a few minutes while they consider different ways of expressing something. I do that when I get stuck on which word or phrase I want to use.

When I smoked, I would light a cigarette. Smoking was part of my creative process. It helped me break through whatever obstacle was in my way.

Since I no longer smoke, other things have become part of my creative process. It's a different thing each time now, I suppose.

But I don't leave my keyboard for hours to mop the kitchen floor, vacuum in the living room, play with the PlayStation and do whatever else I can do until the clock forces me to write something.

For me, writing is fun. It is a challenge to express things in just the right way. Sometimes I do manage to do that, and it's quite a rush.

The ongoing challenge of writing, though, is making that happen every time.

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