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Saturday, January 1, 2011


This article by Michael Munger gave me pause. Most of it is helpful, but his statement that
[w]hen you are actually writing, and working as hard as you should be if you want to succeed, you will feel inadequate, stupid, and tired. If you don't feel like that, then you aren't working hard enough.

seems very, very wrong to me. First of all, the stupid fetishization of "hard work." Writing has to feel bad to produce good results, according to this kind of thinking. Often, I feel more than fine when I am writing, full of energy rather than tired, adequate rather than inadequate, and even reasonably smart. I'm not denying that negative thoughts will often accompany writing, but these thoughts are not signs of virtue or hard work. They have no value in themselves.

Cultivate a confident, energetic but relaxed alertness while writing. Exercise your intelligence. Don't be afraid of feeling it. If you tell yourself writing has to be painful, chances are you will be right! Even if you end up writing well, your writing will feel crabby to your reader, just like a drummer with tense muscles is not likely to be playing "in the pocket." I've had highly productive writing sessions that felt almost effortless, where I've felt brilliant.

Do not confuse this idea of "feeling it" with waiting to feel good enough to write, or expecting to feel good invariably while writing. Tedium, frustration, and fatigue will make appearances sooner or later. Where I differ with Munger is that I don't believe they are signs that you are doing things right. I think of negative thoughts and emotions, rather, as signals telling you to make adjustments to your attitude, your work habits. In that sense, and that sense alone, they are valuable.


Happy New Year. This post was published on 1/1/11 at 1:11 a.m.


Thomas said...

Happy New Year, Jonathan!

My guess is that Munger is missing a "sometimes" in there: "...[w]hen you are actually writing, and working as hard as you should be if you want to succeed, you will sometimes feel inadequate, stupid, and tired. If you don't ever feel like that, then you aren't working hard enough."

That is, if you're getting smarter, you'll sometimes feel stupid—just like those who are getting stronger must sometimes feel weak, and those who are getting faster must sometimes feel slow. If they never feel like that, they're not trying hard enough to improve. Discipline simply means the will to keep working despite that (intermittent) feeling.

That said, you are right to caution against valorizing the feeling of stupidity itself. My working definition of genius: the ability to follow a thought to its limit without giving in to the temptation to feel stupid.

Jonathan said...

Right, Thomas. Those negative feelings will be there and can even be productive. They are not, however, the desired state. You will work through those feelings if and when they occur.

Happy new year to you too.

Anonymous said...

I have an experience more like his with creative writing, not with academic writing.

But a huge difference between him and I guess Boice, and me and maybe you, seems to be about field. I started doing mega-writing freshman year. Moving to dissertation and beyond wasn't a huge switch in how the days went.

Writing makes me feel happy and energized, too, and if it doesn't, it often means I am probably worrying something too far toward the ground, or chasing a dead end or something, and need to reevaluate.