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And Loving It

5635292On my short list of core principles is this: Only good things can come from giving people (sincere) compliments.

I acted on it the other day, when I commented via email that I admired a friend’s writing. The person responded, in part:

I think that, as with lovemaking, you can’t really do it well unless you love doing it. I really enjoy coming up with an idea — any old idea, to start with — and writing about it, and tweaking what I’ve written until it seems just right, sometimes through dozens of edits. God help our poor students who have to write papers or do creative-writing assignments when the enterprise of writing just doesn’t appeal to them. I don’t know how they can bear it. But for me, there are few greater pleasures than writing, and self-editing.

Though having mentioned lovemaking I guess there is at least one, and it isn’t whitewater rafting.

Until that moment, the idea had never really occurred to me. My sense had always been that the most important determinant of a strong writer was natural aptitude, determined by a possession of greater or lesser amounts of five qualities, in no particular order:

  • General intelligence.
  • A good “ear” for the rhythms and harmonies of words, phrases, and sentences.
  • A natural curiosity and power of observation, without which you won’t have anything to write about.
  • A specific sort of empathy: sensing, anticipating, and attending to a reader’s reaction to what one might write.
  • Ego, or insecurity, or however you call what compels someone to try to make sense or clarity out of the chaos of the world and publish the results.

Then, I assumed, any writer would be improved by wide reading — specifically in absorbing vocabulary (especially similar words’ subtle differences in nuance), general knowledge, punctuation rules and strategy, and a sense of the variety of stylistic options at hand at any given moment. The final factor would be practice–maybe even 10,000 hours of it–that would develop the five core qualities. And (I thought self-servingly) if some part of this was directed by a teacher like me, so much the better.

But loving it? What a concept. It definitely goes against the image of tortured geniuses grappling with inner demons or writers’ block and making everyone around them miserable. Tortured or not, it’s certainly been my experience that the longer and more complex or difficult a writing endeavor is, the less likely I’d be to associate with it the word “pleasure.” (Until it’s over or, at least, in the galley-correcting stage.) That also goes for drudge-work: assigned projects, like our students so often have to do, in which one has little or no interest.

My correspondent writes what he wants and when the spirit moves him. He also writes a lot for the web, and it was his web posts I was praising. Not to put words in his mouth, but the pleasure-principle seems notably relevant to online articles and posts and even emails. They’re relatively short, they call for a combination of conversational and literary tone, and they are susceptible to humor (see the whitewater-rafting comment). One can glimpse the whole piece in one’s field of vision, and that helps, too, like being able to see the green when you hit your second shot on a golf hole.

The little dispatch you’re reading started out as a simple reaction I experienced to what a friend had written me. Bit by bit, it has taken on some shape and heft. The WordPress software we use to write Lingua Franca tells me I have made 12 official “Revisions” so far — that added to a thousand fixes and edits in the service of making the language as precise, graceful, and unexpected as possible. And my friend’s right, all the “tweaking” and fussing is fun. Eventually, lo and behold, I have figured out something I didn’t realize I knew. Now comes the hardest part, finding an ending that’s not too obvious, not too subtle, that lets you exit stage left with a wave and — did I see that right? — a wink.

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