Monthly Archives: June 2023

The Living Is Easy

“Your daddy’s rich
And your ma’ is good looking…”

I encourage scholars and students to work on their writing in a deliberate and disciplined fashion 32 weeks out of the year — 16 in the fall and 16 in the spring, each divided by a one-week break into two stretches of 8. This leaves 5 weeks in the winter 13 weeks in the summer for more impulsive and improvised pursuits. The winter includes some time off for Christmas and, if you’re like me, indulging your melancholy disposition. In Denmark, it’s customary to take a three-week summer vacation, so that leaves 10 weeks to work in a less rigorous key. I won’t pretend to know how students should spend their summers, but, for scholars, some of that time is usually devoted to exams and conferences anyway. So it all usually works out pretty well. By mid-August, they return, hopefully refreshed, to the discipline of composing paragraphs, one at a time, about things they know for peers they respect.

We’re two weeks into summer here. The other day on Twitter, I stumbled on an apposite exchange between two poets. “Many things are very hard but nothing is hard the way writing is hard,” said Lindsay Turner. “Kenneth Koch was very fond of Valéry Larbaud’s line about facilité,” replied Jordan Davis. This piqued my interest (and Henry Gould’s) and we set about trying to locate the source. I soon found Koch’s remark: the transcript of a 1993 talk her held at the Center for Imaginative Writing of the Teachers & Writers Collaborative.

It really is true about Whitman what the French writer Valery Larbaud said, that the main thing that Whitman showed to twentieth-century American poets was that greatness in poetry can come not from difficulties overcome but from — and this is better in French, facilités trouvée — easinesses found.

 Kenneth Koch, Teachers & Writers Magazine (1994, Vol. 25, No. 4)

Well, that was certainly interesting for me to hear, having just written written two posts about the “measured little difficulties” we call paragraphs! “I’m not here to make writing easy,” I had tweeted almost exactly a year ago, “but I may be able to help you locate the difficulty.” And the difficulty is always the difficulty your reader faces in trying to believe, understand, or agree with you. Lindsay Turner is right that there’s no difficulty quite like supporting, elaborating, or defending a claim in writing. But was Kenneth Koch (and is Jordan Davis?) right to counter that we sometimes do better to find writing easy than to face it as something hard? The idea is certainly worth exploring.

Ezra Pound used to say that a poem is the “record of a struggle”, and his own Cantos can rightly be called an epic struggle with his material. (Some would argue it was also a failure of epic proportions, a tragedy of literature.) Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, on the view we’re exploring, would be more like the record of loafing in an orchard, picking low-hanging fruit from the trees. In one sense there is no contradiction here. A teacher, and certainly a coach, is always helping you find the difficulty so that you can master it in a general way, making it at least look easy when you do it from then on. Could I not argue that my approach is, basically, to pick the ripe, low-hanging fruit every day? Choose paragraphs to write that are well within your ability. Choose your subject and your reader wisely so that the problem is not one of knowing what you’re talking about, nor who you are talking to, but simply that of saying it as clearly as possible. You don’t want your difficulty to be that of knowing the material, just the difficulty of presenting it.

Let’s resolve this summer to take it easy! That is, instead of writing the paper you think you have have to write, instead of “getting things done”, go after those facilités trouvées that Larbaud was talking about. Just pick something you know very well and a reader whose company you enjoy, and write freely and easily exactly what you think, in your own voice. In the morning, rise up singing, spread your wings, and take to the sky. In the moment of writing, there’s nothing that can harm you.

Forty Measured Little Difficulties

An 8000-word paper in the social sciences consists of about forty paragraphs. With a few exceptions, each paragraph supports, elaborates, or defends a claim that the writer presumably thinks is true. The claim poses a particular difficulty for the reader — it may be hard to believe, hard to understand, or hard to agree with — and the paragraph helps the reader overcome this difficulty. The reader may be provided with evidence to foster belief, illustration to clarify meaning, or arguments to address objections. Since a paragraph consists of no more than two-hundred words, it must accomplish its task in less than a minute of the reader’s attention. A paper occasions forty such difficulties and equips the reader to face them. It takes less than hour to read.

Since it takes 27 minutes to write a paragraph, a paper can be written — once — in 20 hours. Working 2 hours a day, taking three-minute breaks between paragraphs, a paper can be written in two weeks. You can even take the weekends off. At the end of each day, decide what four paragraphs you will write tomorrow, assigning a key sentence and a half hour to each; at the beginning of the next, pose each difficulty and compose each paragraph in 27 minutes. Then get on with your day. You probably have other things to think about too, but you can take an hour or two in the afternoon to reflect on the larger structure of your paper and your line of argument. The important thing is to make a decision, when your working day is coming to a close, about what paragraphs you will write tomorrow. Whatever you’ve been struggling with, you need to pick four things you know are true to write about in the morning.

Remember that 27 minutes is 27 times longer than the reader has to read your paragraph. Use the time to make the text as easy to read as you can. A paper consists of forty little difficulties, not one huge impossibility, and it is your job as a writer to cut the reader’s work out for them. Take your time, choose the right words and put them in the right order. Be conscious of the effect you are trying to have on the reader. What experience are you trying to get the reader to have? What claim should the reader feel is being supported, elaborated, or defended?

You can get an overview of these experiences by making an outline that simply lists the key-sentences. A good paper will make sense at that level; that is, if you read your key sentences one after the other, without the rest of their paragraphs, you argument should make sense but, of course, lack a certain persuasiveness. Just looking at the key sentences, however, you should feel that you know they are true, and you should even be able to call to mind your reasons for thinking so. Also, with your reader in mind, each of the key sentences should represent a difficulty to overcome: will the reader need help believing, understanding, or agreeing with it? This difficulty is the occasion you will rise to on each half page of your paper.