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Writing Secrets Part 1: Why So Hard?

The only true secrets are the truths people are unwilling to believe.


Writing is hard. The question is why, and is there anything that can be done to make it easier?


To get the hard part out of the way first, writing will never be easy. No matter the length of your career or the word count of you catalog, writing will always be hard, especially as you keep striving to improve your craft.


But just because it’s hard doesn’t mean it can’t be satisfying.


So from what source does the difficulty arise?


Part of the answer has an analogue in physics.


Physics teaches us, in layman’s terms, the universe hates order and fights against it whenever possible. Particles tend to spread out into random distributions rather than congeal into coherent patterns. This is why we don’t expect sandcastles to spontaneously form on beaches, and we would be very surprised if a spoonful of sugar in a cup of water congealed into a cube. Neither sand castles nor sugar cubes are prohibited by physics, but creating either one requires effort and energy.


Writing is the same way. The ideas you have when you set out to write a story are the most disorganized they will ever be, and it’s up to you the writer to impose order on them and encode them in such a way that another human being can decode and experience them.

That’s not just conceptually difficult, it takes real energy. The effort of crafting a perfect sentence can be exhausting, and the more you strive to improve your writing, to make it cleaner and more efficient or to try to carry meaning through deeper levels of abstraction, the more effort it’s going to require.


Alas, no matter how much effort you expend, writing will never be an efficient weight loss program. If it was, I would be half the man I am today.


Another part of why writing is hard has more to do with the challenges you set for yourself. Assuming you do the necessary work of analysis and critique, your writing will improve. Like an athlete who has mastered the basic elements of a sport, you will move on to greater challenges. Writing tasks that were once daunting will become routine and trouble your mind no more. You will perform them as casually as you might flip a light switch. Yet for every task mastered in this way there awaits another more difficult challenge. In the case of a growing writer, the gruntled feeling of facing a steeper slope is actually a sign of progress. There will come a time when you reach some plateau, you will look back and realize with a shock just how far you have come.


Another part of why writing is straight up biology. The human brain is a fascinating organ. It is a lump of mostly fatty, salty tissue locked in a bony box trying to make sense of a world with which it has no direct contact. Yet it is the source of the sensation of “me” of the “I” behind the eyes. It creates the hallucinatory map of the world through which we daily navigate.

The brain has two principle modes of conscious operations. The first and most basic is a heuristic mode. A heuristic is a mental shortcut that allows you to solve problems and make judgments quickly and efficiently without having to pause and think through every step of every action you wish to take. Heuristics are how you get to work every morning, possibly navigating traffic or public transport or other complex obstacles without really thinking about it. Heuristics are the thought process of the familiar. They are easy and, importantly from the standpoint of biology, consume relatively few precious resources.


The other principle mode of operation is analytical. In analytical mode, the brain focuses in on the details of a task, sifts through information provided by the senses in an attempt to understand and navigate unfamiliar situations. Analysis is the thought process of the novel and the strange. It is wholly necessary to learn new skill and to assimilate new information. The drawback to analytical thinking is that it is hard. It commands many resources which our biology is programmed to believe are scarce and precious.


Given a choice, the brain would rather be lazy. It would rather spend it’s time in heuristic mode, the mental equivalent of lazing around the house on a cool autumn evening, drinking a Margarita. It does not want to spend the energy necessary to for the hard work of analytical mode. In a very real sense, the brain’s primary goal is to find the shortest possible path from analytical thinking back to heuristic thinking. In thinks hard in order to stop thinking hard.


But analytical mode is exactly what writing requires. Writing is always a deliberative process, concerned with nuance and precision and extracting order from chaos. Writing done well never comes from the heuristic processes of the brain, and so it always hard, because the lazy brain wants to go back to operating in heuristic mode.


What writers and all sorts creative individuals do, be they artists, engineers, or scientists, is develop a taste for the analytical, and with that taste comes tolerance. It’s much like developing a taste for New Mexico chili. (In New Mexico, pain is a flavor.) You love it, even though it burns, and the more you engage it, the more capacity you develop to enjoy it.


Writing will always be hard, but that only makes it more satisfying when done well.

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