The More You Learn, The Harder it Gets

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I’m three-quarters of the way through the low-residency MFA program at New York University and I can say with some confidence that after three intensive residencies in Paris, monthly writing deadlines, and the mentorship of several accomplished authors, I am now a better writer.

I can also say with confidence that because I am a better writer now than, say, a year-and-a-half ago, writing is way harder than it was before. It’s also less fun.

Recently, when I was at my parents’ home in Michigan, I went through my memory box. It was filled mostly with essays, poems, diaries, small hand-bound books I’d written in elementary school. I skimmed through these pages and I thought, “Hey these are pretty good.”

“I think I used to have more fun writing,” I told my current writing mentor, Darin Strauss, (who in addition to being a great writer, is also a great teacher).

“Oh, I don’t find writing fun. It’s hard,” he replied.

I may have audibly sighed from relief. Why did I think this thing I’m passionate about had to be fun or easy? I think it has something to do with the false notion that if one is truly talented, the work should be effortless. If I’m truly a talented writer, then shouldn’t a brilliant idea awaken me in the middle of the night, shouldn’t I leap up, get to a pen and paper, and allow this idea to pour from my creative mind onto the pages? In the morning, shouldn’t I simply submit those stunning pages to the New Yorker and spend the next month sipping lemonade on my patio, waiting for my piece to be published?

I think I may have actually believed that learning more would only makes things easier. (Doesn’t that make sense: That the more you understand something, the easier it should be for you?) This is true, only to a certain point. For instance, when I started learning Spanish, it came fairly fast. I was delighted that in a relatively short time, I went from knowing nada to being able to understand large chunks of conversations overheard on the streets of Madrid and being able to engage in short conversations with Spaniards. Then, like slamming into a wall, it hit me that I’d have to study diligently for years before I could truly know enough to speak with confidence, to tell a good joke, to have a real friendship.

Likewise with writing, I used to be able to fire off a lot of words in a short amount of time. These days, as I’m writing my book, I see the mistakes I’m making practically as soon as the words hit the page: Using two metaphors when one is more than enough; making a flashback go on too long; spending too many pages on a character who’s not all that important; using the same words over and over. (I once turned in a chapter where each of the characters, were nodding constantly, like deranged bobbleheads. “What is with all this nodding?!” my writing mentor asked.) While I’m sure it’s a good thing I can quickly spot mistakes and ticks in my own writing, this awareness of what constitutes “bad writing” impedes my flow. It’s a struggle for me to a write a page that I consider to be good.

Here’s the rub of getting better at something:  It’s fast rise from okay to good but it’s a painful trudge from good to great.

There is just so much to know. In learning a language, in writing, even in this new part of my life where I’m navigating the fraught city of Jerusalem. It can be overwhelming, discovering the full extent of the “known unknowns,” as former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld would call them. (Yep, just paraphrased Rumsfeld).

Or, here’s a more literary way to think of it:

“When you strike a match in a dark wilderness it is not in order to see anything better lighted, but just in order to see how much more darkness there is around.”

–William Faulkner quote, as paraphrased by Javier Marías.

To the struggle,

Em in Jerusalem

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