Temptation and Tribulation

Over ten years ago, a former colleague of mine proposed to teach a writing course without expecting his students to actually do any writing. He had simply given up on their self-discipline (he was teaching at another institution in a far-off country, I should say, so this was no reflection on any students of mine!). I wrote a blogpost about it at the time that I was merely going to link to now, but rereading it today, I find it offers a nice lead-in to the actual subject of this post, so I will begin with a shortened version of that old one.

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You learn how to write by writing. It’s the only way. So I don’t have much hope for a writing program that begins by giving up on the students’ discipline. If we don’t expect them to write, we can’t expect them to learn how to write, no matter how much we teach them. But if we can get them to write every day they will get better at writing, almost regardless of what we teach them. The students must experience the joy of composing a good prose paragraph and the (sometimes transcendent) bliss of putting several paragraphs together persuasively.

“My experience tells me that the students will not have the necessary self-discipline,” my colleague says. I have the same experience, of course. But my experience also says that some students will acquire that discipline if you provide an occasion for them to do so. More importantly, those that don’t acquire this discipline won’t learn how to write (any better than they already do) anyway. Those that do are learning how to write as well as they can.

An engagement with the student’s self-discipline is fundamentally an engagement with their “authorial” persona, their literary authority as scholars, what I sometimes call their “writing selves”. If you do not attempt to engage with that core strength (their self-discipline) you are not likely to improve the part of them that writes. That is, you won’t make them into better writers, no matter how “true” the things you will tell them may be.

I think that last point is worth emphasizing. Scholarship is difficult in many ways. It takes a lot of thought, knowledge, and sometimes courage. But the writing itself is easy; you just have to do it. It requires no heavy lifting or special skills (you already know the language). What you are developing when you are developing your writing skills (as distinct from the other skills that make you a scholar) is a competence that is, let’s say, adjacent to your basic self-discipline. Writing gets done almost exclusively by, well, doing it. The most important to muscle to train when you write is your will. Writing perhaps, just is an act of will.

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Lately, inspired by W.H. Auden, I’ve been looking into Kierkegaard’s distinction between “temptations” and “”tribulations”, which may be distinguished roughly by whether or not you are responsible for the trouble they put you in.* Tribulations are to be suffered, while temptations are to be avoided; but, as Kierkegaard emphasizes, it can sometimes be difficult to tell the difference. After all, as Auden points out, Kierkegaard’s contribution to the founding of modern psychology was to count unconscious desires as tribulations, not temptations. But here’s the kicker: the purpose of all science is to convert tribulations (which are out of our control) into temptations (which are within our control), to convert merely “aesthetic” experiences into properly ethical situations. But once this exchange is open, it can also go the other way, so that we sometimes think we must suffer our temptations passively, which is to say, give into them as though we can do nothing about them. Auden here tries to save psychology’s ethical honor by reminding us that it requires us never to suffer needlessly. Hence the meme: “Men would literally rather … than go into therapy.”

Or, as I sometimes notice, men (more so, indeed, than women) would literally rather suffer writer’s block for years than take one of my writing courses. They think that writing is hard, and was meant to be hard, and that suffering is the only way about it. But this ostensibly brave stance also has another name: procrastination, i.e., the act of giving into the temptation to put off today’s writing until tomorrow, knowing full well that tomorrow we may do the same. That is, we suffer our ignorance, stupidity, and laziness aesthetically rather than take it upon ourselves as the ethical predicament it really is. Yes, we sometimes lack inspiration; yes, we sometimes feel less knowledgeable than we ought to. But it is simply false that we cannot write. At the heart of this issue, of course, the familiar question of whether we really “can’t”, or just “won’t”, do what Hamlet (almost) called “this thing to do”. The problem of writing, I want to say, must never be faced as something that happens to us; writing only happens when we do it. We must face the difficulty squarely; we must not give into the temptation to construe the difficulty of writing as a tribulation. It only takes a moment.

*See W.H. Auden’s New Year Letter, notes to line 1244, and Ashgate’s appropriately, if incidentally, titled Kierkegaard’s Concepts: Tome VI : Salvation to writing. [Update: when I was writing this post I didn’t have Auden with me and I was struggling to find a word like “trouble” (which Auden uses to describe tribulations) to describe temptations. I couldn’t find one so I opted for trouble in both cases, with the qualification that we’re responsible for our temptations but not our tribulations. Consulting Auden now, I find that he had indeed found the mot juste: tribulations are a kind trouble; temptations are a kind of conflict. This is another good reason to read our poets.]

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