Writing Hurts...It Hurts my Brain... Make it Stop!

Well done, Professor Cressler!

You win the inaugural Facebook Teacher of the Day Award. Your prize will be... um... let me think about that one. Does "my admiration" count for anything? Probably not. How about a mention on a blog that has very, very low aspirations? OK, I'll get back to you on the prize. Meanwhile, make sure to add this to your C.V.

Anyway.... (Aside: I love how "anyway" can be a lazy transition. Like, "hmmm... I could write a snappy sentence pulling these two paragraphs together. Or I'll just plug in an 'anyway.' Bonus points for the ellipsis!" Expect lots of lazy-anyways on this blog.)

Why do I feel any need to comment on this post? Obviously because I can connect it back to Me in some way. And if social media (and Mister Rogers) has taught me anything, it's that I am very, very important. To someone. Somewhere.

So yes, Dr. Matthew John Cressler. I couldn't agree more. Over the years, I have emphasized to my students that the "trick" to great writing is rewriting... and rewriting...and rewriting... Sitting with a sentence, a paragraph, a section, a chapter, and staring it in the eye and forcing it to sing. Eventually, with enough time and tears, you might remove the fingernails-on-a-chalkboard sounds. But until then, you have to suffer.

I'm not sure that me telling my students this once, twice, or eleventy million times will ever do the "trick" of convincing them of this hard truth of writing. The first time that I taught my course "Religion and Sports in America," I had students write four 1000 word essays during the semester. I warned them that writing 1000 quality words is a challenge, not a quick paper to be dashed off 30 minutes before the deadline.

So I had them hand in rough drafts; read each other's drafts; revise; discuss.... The result? Essays that were dashed off 30 minutes before the deadline; revised essays that only changed a few words around; and a frustrated first year professor stewing in his pedagogical defeat.

I think that I have come to learn that revision and rewriting--and the true pain of writing--is also a skill. How do we learn it? I don't know. Experience? Trial-and-error? Patience? Truth be told, when I was an undergraduate, a 1000 word essay would have been a relief. I might have been able to dash off the essay in 20 minutes too!

But at some point, I figured it out. I don't know what finally did the "trick". When I was in graduate school, I would write the occasional reflection on distance running for our local running club's newsletter. These weren't any longer than 600 words, but I could easily spend a day or more writing them--making Every. Word. Count. These were helpful diversions from the lengthy and convoluted "essays" that I was writing for graduate school. But I still think that writing about running helped me to develop the skills and mindset that I would need for the "serious" stuff.

Indeed, I recall that it took me weeks to complete my first book review, which was on Joe Price's edited volume, From Season to Season. The review is now behind a paywall, which is just fine by me. I'm sure that I would cringe if I read it. But still, there was a lot of blood spilled in writing that one.

I still haven't found a way of directing my undergraduates into this little, horrible world of revision hell. I share copy-edits of chapters and essays, which are always humbling. Like, "OK, if someone sees this they will revoke my degree and I'll be totally fine with that" humbling. I've shown them different stages of my writing--rough draft, rougher second draft, incomprehensible third draft, emotionally-fragile-midlife-crisis-guy-pondering-a-meaningless-existence fourth draft.

You've all been there, I'm sure.

I think that in the future, I will share my friend Kelly Baker's insights on making/"wrangling with" essays. Smart stuff, as always.

Who knows what will do the "trick" and what won't. My colleagues and I are often fond of reminding ourselves that we are planting seeds. When, where, and if they will grow... well, chances are we'll never know (so yea, that rhymes).

For now, I am sure that the coming weeks and months will be filled with days spent on a single paragraph, or a single sentence even. I once spent a week on an endnote that my editor would demand that I eliminate entirely. I cried a little. A lot.


My 30 blogging minutes are nearly finished. So no proofreading today.