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 trouvées–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.