On Knowing Comfortably

Pace Eric Hayot

“Write from the center of your strength,” I often say. This usually amounts to picking your audience and your argument in a way that makes it easy for you, as a speaker, to strike a “rhetorical balance” between them. You should know both what you are talking about and who you are talking to, and you should have something on your mind to tell them. Importantly, you should be interested in what they think of your views. You should be ready to adjust your stance to theirs when they make it known. So you should begin in a determined but relaxed posture, feet apart, shoulders down. Set up your writing moment so that you start out feeling comfortable with the situation.

Now, someone has probably told you that it’s important to move “out of your comfort zone” every now and then. Sometimes we’re more or less forced to. We feel pressure to write about a topic that we haven’t yet made up our minds about, or we feel pressured into speaking to a particular audience. These sorts of exigencies are quite normal in school when we’re given assignment by a teacher. In such situations we begin “off balance” and we sometimes think that that’s the point. Sometimes, our teachers tell us that that was the point! But remember that the point, ultimately, is to teach to you regain your balance, to find your center again. The point is not to be be uncomfortable for long periods of time.

In fact, a good assignment will only push the unprepared mind seriously out of balance. If you haven’t been keeping up with your reading and attending class then, yes, reading the prompt can be a jarring experience. You have a vague sense that you should know what is being asked of you, but you simply don’t know what the words mean, what you’re supposed to be doing. If you are familiar with the subject, on the other hand, the assignment simply sets you up for a series of moves that you’ve already practiced during your “training”, i.e., while reading, thinking, and talking about the subject of the course, and while working on your own prose. A well-designed assignment will immediately make all that preparation seem worthwhile. “Let’s see how we do,” you say say to yourself.

Whether you’re practicing or performing, the trick is to pull whatever challenges you face towards the place where you have resources to deal with them. When writing, always decide the day before what you will say, and don’t make this decision on the basis of some external pressure to say some specific thing, as if there’s a right answer, something you must say. Make the decision on the basis of how well you understand something. Choose something you know well enough to write at least six sentences about, i.e., a paragraph. I recommend you choose something you knew already last week. And then give yourself half an hour the next morning to write that paragraph, calmly and deliberately from the center of your strength. Show yourself what you’re capable of when you’re at your best.

Just looking at your key sentence the day before should be a comfortable experience. The prospect of composing the paragraph after a good night’s sleep should be a pleasant one. If it isn’t, you should choose something else to write about. The idea that writing should always be a groping forward in the darkness at the edge of your abilities is not helpful. Writing should be a time of relative comfort, of comfortably knowing how smart you are. At least a great deal of the time.

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