The hardest part of writing

I have a deal with myself that I’ll write a new post for this blog on a weekly basis. In general, I find that I have the time for it. I’ll set aside a gorgeous Sunday afternoon, which is usually the time I lounge around in my SpongeBob PJs to paint my nails while watching YouTube videos. I sit in front of my five-year-old, rapidly overheating MacBook Pro, usually to write a summary of my thoughts about whatever book I just finished reading.

Some weeks, though, I haven’t finished reading a book, which is the case with this week. I’m currently reading East of Eden, and barely a quarter of the way through. I’ve never read Steinbeck before, and although sometimes I force myself to rush through books so I can have fodder for a blog post, I’ve been taking it slow with Eden.

So today when I sat in front of my computer, I started writing a few blog posts that I’d planned for a while, on topics I have plenty of thoughts about: my experiences tutoring English to high school students, working as a technical writer at a software company, and the stigma I’ve faced as an English major. I began writing a few hundred words for each post, and then my thoughts dribbled away.

What was the problem? I’ve been writing little fictions my whole life, and I currently write as my profession (among other things). The point is that I couldn’t make things “sound good”. I lacked flow.

I’ve encountered writer’s block in many different settings: when writing an end of term paper on Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, when crafting content for a company website, and even when writing simple instructions on how to create a graph. The weird thing is that often, I know what needs to be said and what points I want to make. I’d have a whole outline arranged neatly beside me, as countless English teachers had taught me. But arranging the words and sentences in a proper format that flows and makes sense is often the hardest part.

I tutored a high school student in writing essays for about six months. My student was undoubtedly a bright kid, probably a lot smarter than me when I was his age. I assigned him to read several short stories and poems for our sessions. Although he struggled with the poems a bit, especially ones with more archaic language, I found that he was usually able to extract meaning from the works assigned, but putting his thoughts down on paper was the hard part. Or, actually, making his thoughts “sound good”, as he put it himself. By the end of our six months, his writing improved greatly, with a more focused structure and improved flow, but it was still somewhat difficult.

As a tutor, I could teach grammar, definitions, brainstorming strategies, and essay structure. But flow, “making things sound good”, was almost unteachable. The closest I got was teaching how to write effective transitions in between paragraphs. But the point remains that flow is unteachable. It comes down to the old cliche: that to be a good writer, you have to read. A lot. But it goes beyond that.

Being able to write well comes from exposing yourself to all types of language, both written and spoken. I used to read novels almost exclusively, but after forcing myself to read short stories, articles, and blog posts, sometimes about topics where I’d had no prior interest, I expanded not only my vocabulary but my appreciation for language.

This extends to not just written language. I’ve gathered inspiration from overheard snippets on public transit, characters on TV shows, and music. The most memorable lines I’ve read this year are not from the classics I’ve read, but from Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly.

You might think it has to do with the way the words are spoken or performed, but simply reading the lyrics online led me to think about certain things in a different way. As any good words should, they inspired me with not only their content but the way they were put together – their flow. Which I guess is not a surprise for rap music.

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