Wednesday, September 22, 2010

In praise of difficulty.

The other night I was talking to Thing 1 about homework. He was lamenting the fact that he has a school project requiring research and synthesis, and was frustrated that doing that kind of work is hard, and wouldn't school be a lot better if it wasn't so hard? I talked to him about how I could relate to what he was feeling because of my book project. He's well aware that it has been a difficult process for me to work on this book, sometimes resulting in sleeplessness, depression, crying fits, manic exultation, distractedness, and all sorts of other responses in me. (Sweetly, he often asks in his prayers that he be able to finish his homework and that I'll be able to get work done on my book.)

Then he asked me, "So, why do you do it if it's so hard?" And my answer surprised him, though it will probably surprise no one who does this gig: "Because I love it."

"You mean, you love that you'll have a book?"

"No, I love the writing, the researching, the stuff I'm reading, the thoughts I'm thinking. I love the whole process. And I love what I'm learning, which is only happening because I have to figure out harder stuff than I knew I could."

And I do. I LOVE this work.

It's not just the subject matter and the life of the mind and all that stuff, I realized. It's also that it's hard. Some know that I have a sciencey background, and I used to teach human anatomy. I really, really love dissecting bodies. It's fascinating, and it's revelatory, and when I used to teach folks about that glorious machine, I loved turning them on to the elegance of it all. But it wasn't HARD, by which I mean, I didn't struggle through it--not the understanding of the body as a set of concepts or as a model of applied physics, not the names of things or their interconnectedness, not the piecework of dissection, not any of it. Which is why I ultimately decided that I couldn't do it for a living, couldn't teach that way for the rest of my life.

Those bouts I have with self-doubt, those days when I spend 8 hours and can't finish a paragraph, those gut-punch, nauseated moments when I realize that I have to scrap a month's work on a chapter and start over (that's a month's work on its CURRENT DRAFT, to say nothing of the months and months on the prior draft that had to be discarded)...they're why I love this shit. Because they mean that I'm not stopping at the answer that first occurs to me, the easiest and most familiar solution to a problem, the most well-trod, the most evident to dissection. They mean that I'm working through to ideas complex enough that they REQUIRE thinking, and rethinking, and rejecting, and rethinking again. There's something sublime about that possibility, and something profoundly humane.

Moria has written a couple of times about difficulty and how important it is to accept it, embrace it, and as usual, she arrives precociously at something I should have articulated for myself--out loud, that is, rather than intuitively--long ago:

"Difficulty is where work comes from; where thought is at its most active, where newness forms itself....I’d like to stake a claim for the difficult. Our culture —academe; beyond— so often rejects being-in-difficulty as bad, just as it rejects sadness or fear or anger as bad. What I want to hear more of: good, be defeated, be in difficulty, good, let this rough you up a bit and then fight back. Good."


Lisa B. said...

This is a beautiful post. Beautiful and revelatory. To it, I say YES. Thank you.

Flavia said...


I rail against the difficulty of writing, all the time. It's hard, and I hate that it's hard.

But it wouldn't be worth doing if it weren't.

(Is it any wonder that all our metaphors for work--and especially artistic or intellectual work--always make it sound like the most abusive relationship EVER? He treats me so bad--but I love him so much! And sometimes it's really good! Really!)

moria said...

I am going to pretend that I don't see Flavia's comment, because it can only lead down either a bad road to miserable reflection or a bad road to really tasteless jokes. And we've already had the academic date-rape conversation.

So, instead, here's something fluffier for you, R.G.: a row of hearts.
♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥

Tulips said...

What a genious statement and what a genious blogger. I salute you!