Response to Alex Reid’s “On Enjoyment and Writing”

Reading Alex Reid’s blog (Digital Digs) this morning, this passage really got me thinking:

“…I want to get back to this question of “enjoyment” and being a “good writer.” The two seem related in the study, and that’s understandable. In most areas of life, it is easier to enjoy doing some activity once one has some skill at it. But here’s the thing reading this made me think: do I enjoy writing?

It’s a weird question. As you think it over, it’s like saying a word over and over again until it just becomes a garbled sound in your mouth. Enjoy? What kind of callow, tea-party affect is that anyway?”

If you’ve been following my blog at all for the last couple of months, you probably know that I recently struggled through the worst case of writer’s block I’ve ever experienced. It was terrible. Scary. And hard. Lucky all those be verbs are now in the past tense. Whew. But that episode changed me. For the first time in my life, writing was work. And difficult work. And work that I didn’t always want to do, even when it was going well. The experience really affected my perpective and approach to my own writing work. I now try to pace myself. My daily word count is now 1000 words. Email doesn’t count. Only dissertation work, blog entries, and other work towards publication. (I calculate revision “production” by the amount of words the overall document increased. If I deleted a 500 word section, and wrote 550 new words to replace them, I only credit myself for 50 words.)

Whether or not I “like” this strategy is both an important and unimportant question. It’s unimportant in the sense that I don’t really feel like I have a choice about it. If I want to be the I want to be, I have to figure out how to become that writer. It’s a sort of self-fashioning of my own, as Alex puts it, “writing practice.” But this still doesn’t get at whether or not I enjoy it.

I want to offer some different ways of understanding my motivation, which I think is really what’s present underneath Alex’s reflection. As writers, within those practices for which we’re not compensated, nor are we having fun, why do we bother? There are all sorts of potential answers that reflexively come to mind.

Ethics? We write because we have a responsibility? To our discipline? To our students? To the promises we made ourselves (i.e. my daily word count)?

Habit? Maybe this is the best way we know how to enact our “thinking” or “remembering.” Think “transformational technologies.” Eric Havelock and Walter Ong. Writing about something is cognitively much different than talking about it. Think “distributed cognition” of posthuman and cyborg theories. N. Katherine Hayles and Donna Haraway. Writing is a way of extending ourselves physically and intellectually into our environment to take advantage of nonhuman processing and storage strategies.

My guess is that either of these might compel a writer to write, even without compensation or pleasure. And sometimes, I think they’re even operating as part of my own motivation. For me, though, they are not primary.

Instead, I’d characterize my own motivation as something akin to “lifestyle” or “identity.” I want to be a writer. I’m sure my background as a poet or essayist shapes and is-shaped-by my perceptions of the cultural capital afforded by the identity of “writer.” But there’s more going on than just the image. I’ve learned that me as a regularly-writing-person lives a more full, more responsible, more reflective, and more articulate life. I like that. My first creative writing teacher opened our first class period with this admonition: “I hate to tell you this, folks. And most of you take it for granted, but don’t have the slightest clue what it means. You’ll only understand it with hard work and practice… Writers write.” What he meant was that writing is a way of life, a habit, a practice. Not an image. Something of value only when performed, not talked about. He was right. I didn’t get it at all. Not for a long time. I didn’t even realize that I had started to understand his self-evident warning until I hit that patch of writer’s block. And I didn’t feel like a writer anymore. I won’t say it was an existential crisis, but it was certainly one of identity.

And so this daily word requirement. It’s not always fun. Sometimes it sucks, actually. But I still do it. (Have been for a few weeks, anyway.) Why? Two reasons.

First, it’s a sort of training. Like cycling, for instance. Two be a cyclist, I need be two things: in-shape and skilled. I wouldn’t be much of a cyclist without the combo. So I get out and ride regularly. Those rides increase my stamina and I learn at least something (about myself or my bike or the terrain or techniques) on every ride. Secondary benefits of regular rides are that I develop a habit/momentum. I’m more likely to ride if I’ve invested in the habit. I look forward to it. It fits into my life. It affords other things like better health, endorphin highs, and sometimes snappier thinking. But the key here is that that there are plenty of days where I’ve planned to go, but I just don’t want to go. But I go anyway. Do I enjoy it? Not always. Do I get paid? Never.

Second, I don’t think you’re really a writer unless you understand writing as the whole process of writing. Writing unpleasurably, writing poorly, stuggling miserably to get started with another sentence or paragraph. No writer wants these to be part of her process. But they are. And they are just as important to becoming a good writer as those moments when the writing is easy or clear or on fire.

It’s this second point, the whole process of writing, that really interests me the most. I’m going to end this entry (I’ve got my 1000 words for the day, after all) for now, but I’m going to pick it up again tomorrow. I want to tell you a story about an important lesson I learned from my days as a pottery apprentice. Yes, I’ll be romanticizing it. It’s probably going to be one of those entries that’s really no work at all.

(“On Enjoyment and Writing” is the title to a an entry posted to his great blog, Digital Digs.) (I gotta say, if you’re interested in Rhetoric and Composition scholarship, digital writing practices, teaching writing, or just writing in general, Digital Digs is a great resource. It’s so nice to keep up with him thinking through his personal and expansive questions about teaching and writing.)

(photo: “Trust House Cycle Classic” by Brenda Anderson. license: creative commons attribution-noncommercial-share alike 2.0 generic.)