As I drove home from work a few weeks ago, I listened to a podcast episode of Writer’s Voice where the show’s producer Drew Adamek interviewed Junot Diaz. The focus of the interview was Diaz’s latest book, This Is How You Lose Her, and his process of writing the book. Anyone who knows me knows I am a big fan of Junot Diaz, and I recently finished This Is How You Lose Her. I also enjoy reading and hearing about the writing process of others, not just because of my job but because you can tell so much about a writer by how they approach their writing, and this particular podcast episode did not disappoint in that regard.
When Adamek asked Díaz about a comment he made regarding his writing process, Junot responds candidly:
“I guess I’m not one of these happily industrious writers who’s always writing and producing books all the time. I’m always working but I’m not always producing…I’ve had a lot of difficulties with my work …I’m one of those unfortunate souls who happens to be good at something they find incredibly difficult…and I think that could be a problem. I think many of us think that we can only be good at things we find easy….I continue to find my work and my writing a great challenge….It’s your persistence that defines you and not what you produce.”
When I heard this, my heart expanded with joy. The fact that Díaz, a Pulitzer-Prize winning author, described his writing process as difficult disrupts the common notion that writing comes easily to good writers. Oftentimes we focus on tips or strategies, but it can be even more useful to hear how other writers struggle.
Listening to this podcast made me think of how valuable it would be if there were frank conversations about the writing process with Ph.D. students, with graduate students, with junior faculty–and I only mention those because these are the groups I encounter in my job on a regular basis. It could also be useful for undergraduates. Some writing instructors have talked about the importance of writing with your students, or talking about yourself as a writer; I wonder if I have read in my research on graduate student writers that no one knows how to write a dissertation until they’ve written one, but we can still share that experience with other writers that we advise, keeping in mind that everyone’s process is different.
However, the biggest takeaway from this snippet of the podcast episode for me was the statement that writing is hard. Yup, it is. It’s one of the reasons why The Thesis Whisperer, Pat Thompson and I advocate for writing on a regular basis, if not every day. A Pulitzer Prize winner has trouble with writing–why wouldn’t I? This is a tough pill to swallow, I admit, especially when students have deadlines (I’m thinking especially of Ph.D. candidates who have dissertations to write and who have to balance research, writing, thinking, and reading with other responsibilities in their lives). Junot Diaz reminds me that good writing takes time, an idea that isn’t too popular in the academic culture of publish and perish. (In August of 2012, professor Imani Perry wrote a piece about the pros of taking your time with your writing, but hers is an exception.) This makes me wonder: how can we balance the amount of time that polished, good writing takes with the requirements of the academic life? On the flipside: how long is too long?
For me, writing has always come naturally. Putting my words down on paper feels like the right thing to do when something is on my mind. The fact that I do it regularly makes ideas come a little easier. But had forgotten that big point that Diaz made in his podcast: writing is difficult. I had confused the amount of writing I do with ease. The truth is, some ideas need to marinate, need to be teased out, need to be carved out of stone and polished. But I like that Diaz adds that it’s persistence that makes him a writer.
This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed