Murky Waters

In graduate school, I learned the perfect phrase for the writing process: “wallowing in complexity.” The term comes from the Allyn and Bacon Guide to Writing and the authors define it as pursuing “questions and intellectual problems with persistent diligence.” Whenever I hear the word “wallow,” my mind goes directly to Wilbur in Charlotte’s Web as he delightfully rolls in the mud. I suppose this image is a bit misleading, because unlike the pig, writing is not so delightful, but it is messy. And messy describes exactly my mental process when trying to write something for an audience.

It begins with an idea, usually something trending toward the grandiose with the potential to change the world. I’m ecstatic about my idea and how much fun it’s going to be to write! But then, reality hits like a whip. In the middle of it, I scrap my original idea in a sea of self-doubt and anxiety. I go through a series of self-deprecating talking points that follow something like this:

  • I can’t do this!!
  • I’m an awful writer!
  • What was I thinking?
  • This is terrible.
  • I quit. I’m going to just say “no!”
  • Haven’t I written about this already?
  • I have nothing new to say!

Inevitably, that negative self-talk turns into a pep-talk, much like what my mother gave me when I was struggling with a school assignment:

  • You can do this!
  • You’re too hard on yourself.
  • You’re a good writer!
  • Get over it!
  • Don’t give up!

These phrases have metastasized into what I now recite to my students. One of my favorite textbooks opens with a chapter on “Writing Myths,” and one myth is “Good writers are born, not made” (Reid 4). This is a myth because writing is a skill that everyone learns, and like any skill, we improve when we work at it. But this is a myth that is difficult to dispel, especially when all we see is the finished product.

Many of my students look at a piece of writing and they see the polished analogies, complex sentences, and logical organization. They think that someone simply sat down one day and wrote it out from beginning to end. They focus on the happy pig rather than the mud. Perhaps my students understand that there were some changes from the first version (spelling, grammar, etc.), but for the most part, students seem to think that professional writers do not “wallow” in their own writing. With this myth firmly in mind, students set out to write an essay in one sitting, working for perfection right out of the gate.

Wouldn’t that be nice? I would love that to happen, but sadly, it does not for most writers. I would also argue that people who do write like that are either geniuses or creating bad writing. As for me, I write, question, delete, write some more, question, quit, come back to it, start over, write some more, get feedback, make changes, and then, eventually, I turn it in. No, it’s not finished. It’s never finished. It’s simply good enough.

This blog post is the perfect example. For two weeks, now, I’ve been talking about two potential topics…talking about how “awesome” my post will be. Well, I’m on my third post, and this was not one of those “awesome” ideas. Because, let’s face it, some writing never gets out of the mud puddle. They need more time for wallowing. Those “awesome” ideas will come out eventually, but for right now, this is what you get.

~ K

8 thoughts on “Murky Waters

  1. Bravo.. this is so important. All of us struggle in the mud. Sometimes a piece of writing has to be wallowed in for weeks, or months… Bravo.

  2. I can think of some other substances writers wallow in when they go through the process of writing.

    I was referring to hot bubble bath water. What were you thinking?

  3. I am teaching the play Wit in a couple of classes right now. Complexity and “reveling” in complexity is a central them of Edson’s work. I wonder about the words “wallow” and “revel” – maybe they both lead us to something that looks like acceptance?

  4. Reminds me of one of my favorite writing quotes: “A writer is somebody for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” ~Thomas Mann

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