On writing: a glove that fits

December 28, 2016 – 7:40 pm

It’s been a long time since I simply wrote here — just wrote out thoughts, without more formal content to share, or having this be a draft of something else I was officially working on, or something of that sort. I used to need to write here as an outlet, a place where the thoughts inside me could erupt into the world, unsure of what I was becoming. I wanted a place to mark things down, to leave a trace.

I’m not sure that I need that any more — clearly, as the last year and a half (or two? it’s been a while) have shown, I can live (and live well!) without it; continue to learn and grow and meet people and do hard things and fall down and make mistakes and keep becoming more and more a Mel with every day, discovering what that means. But there are times where writing like this is a valuable exercise in and of itself; it fights my tendency towards perfectionism, makes me put something down with the full knowledge that my older self will read this someday and hear my inexperience, and… that’s okay.

I’m a better person when I write. I don’t know why this is, other than it’s probably the way that I was made. Some people were made to draw, and some to dance, and some to play music, and some to do math, and I was made to do those things as well and find deep joy in them. But writing also draws me back, and words, and language, and how I can type them out so fluently sometimes that I don’t recognize where eloquence is birthed from. Because some of these thoughts must be beyond me, and yet there they are, glinting softly in the rumpled folds of awkward sentences I recognize as much more mine. Surely my thoughts and words must be all smudgy charcoal and feet falling over themselves, so where do these tiny flights come from, peeping once, twice, and then — small soft feathered bodies zipping away as the folds of my inarticulate dust roll off them? Someone has breathed a life into my dust.

That’s probably why it’s been so hard, the past few years. Writing has never been hard for me before; words have always been my friends, sometimes my only ones. I’ve never really grappled with things on a printed page; they’ve always been smooth draughts amidst a world of blurry lips and muffled bassy sounds. I could drink them in and pour them out; even my undergrad humanities thesis, even my early grad school papers, they pulled at the familiar feeling inside my mind of thoughts crystallizing into a whole as they poured out into my hands and into type.

I never really edited, except maybe for minor typos once in a while, or a sentence or two out of place. Never rewrote. Never outlined, never structured. Never had to do more than lay out all of the books in front of me, in larger and larger piles and rings as I progressed from high school into college into the PhD — lay them all out in front of me, and then start writing. It was a vast landscape of thought before me that I could easily fly across, dip into, pull threads into the form I was weaving. And yes, sometimes that was hard, but it was always just hard in the moment, and I could make it work — I could always make written English work. And maybe sometimes what came out wasn’t particularly gorgeous — as I went farther in my studies, it became increasingly cobbled-together, as my writing spilled beyond the ways that I could naturally structure it and signpost it for others. But it was good enough; it held, my patching held, I never had to learn to sew.

Text was my home, my first language, my primary way to think and be and show my skills and my potential. And so I was completely unprepared when I started to run off the frayed edges of where my natural talent could take me. My raw ability had unspooled so, so much further beyond the other people I had seen, peeling off to gasp along the wayside when the text outpaced them; floods of reading, floods of writing, larger and larger structures that they needed tools to grasp.

And I took a certain sort of pride in running down that road barefoot and untrained, grasping at things with open hands and swinging through thickets of meaning like I was born to it. Because this was the jungle that had raised me; with so much of the human world around me closed to me without a fight, I learned to think from books, how to express myself from books, how to piece together dialogues from writers who spoke back and forth of one another through the years.

So it felt like betrayal when I stumbled, felt like words had turned against me; felt like I was cast out of my home, stripped of one of my greatest talents. I hadn’t been, of course. I could reach just as far as before, but now I was reaching for things that were farther. And I couldn’t get to them without unwinding, backing up, trying to figure out how I had done things I had never thought about. Learning the sorts of things most people learn in grade school. How to outline. What arguments were, how to structure them. How to revise and how to edit; how to accept a first draft being far from final, how to aim towards done. How to read — something I never thought I’d need to think about. How to read.

It’s like relearning your first language. Which, for me, it literally was. And is. I’m still learning, and I still miss that untrained innocence of sorts that I kept for a long, long time. But in the end, it’s a decision about the value and the choice of craft, and whether I love to write more than I love the writing being easy, and deciding that day after day.

There is a part I love, right at the end of The Amber Spyglass, where the heroine Lyra realizes that her natural childhood gift of reading the alethiometer (a device for revealing truth) has vanished. Previously, she had reveled in being able to easily wield a skill that highly trained adults struggled with, but now she has become one of those adults — with no training, since she had ridden entirely on her natural gifts so far. And now she has a choice of what to do.

“Why – ” Lyra began, and found her voice weak and trembling – ”why can’t I read the alethiometer anymore? Why can’t I even do that? That was the one thing I could do really well, and it’s just not there anymore – it just vanished as if it had never come…”

“You read it by grace,” said Xaphania, looking at her, “and you can regain it by work.”

“How long will that take?”

“A lifetime.”

“That long…”

“But your reading will be even better then, after a lifetime of thought and effort, because it will come from conscious understanding. Grace attained like that is deeper and fuller than grace that comes freely, and furthermore, once you’ve gained it, it will never leave you.”

“You mean a full lifetime, don’t you?” Lyra whispered. “A whole long life? Not… not just… a few years…”

“Yes, I do,” said the angel.

So do you spurn a lifetime of hard work because it should be natural, like it had been when you were younger, and walk away from a craft you now need to earn with sweat and blood like everybody else? Or do you ride the remnants of that childhood gift forever, only doing easy things — things that you know are probably hard for a lot of other people, but which aren’t the things you could achieve if you decided to stretch out of your plateau?

Or do you decide the craft is greater than the cost, and that slow progress that you cannot see is worth the journey, and that you love the doing of the work more than the rewards that seem to shimmer at the end, and do you pick it up and read the primers over and over again, and falter through the basics you wish you could just dismiss, and keep going even though you leave hard trails of imperfection in your wake, and don’t know where you’re going, and often feel alone?

A few years ago, when the threads of my base talent were starting to unravel beyond their limits, I complained to my classmate Julia and our department head, Dr. Radcliffe, that it felt like reaching through a thick rubber wall; the harder I pushed, the more it pushed back, so why keep trying to grasp what lay on the other side? What would I gain from it?

And Julia answered something like this, although I am rephrasing it a lot: you keep pushing to stretch the rubber wall farther out to get to where you want to go. You complain that none — or very little — of the academic writing that you see is in a voice that you can accept as someday being yours; you say that scholarship is something that doesn’t fit you, and that you can’t pretend to put on something that doesn’t fit just for the sake of getting through. And that’s all right. But here is what you’re doing — you’re stretching the wall until it flexes to fit you. It becomes a glove that fits. And then you’ll have a voice that is both yours and a scholar’s, because you’ll be a scholar.

I want a glove that fits more than I want work that is easy.

And so I will wake up in the mornings and continue to write and learn to be a scholar, even if it is hard.

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  1. One Response to “On writing: a glove that fits”

  2. I’ve come up against the limitations of the skills I never before had to consciously work at. It is so jarring and I appreciate your writing about the choice….

    By Sumana Harihareswara on Dec 30, 2016

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