Writing is hard! And other thoughts about the writing process

Last night I was lucky enough to attend a Tate Lecture Series at Southern Methodist University (SMU) with some ladies from my book club. Khaled Hosseini was the speaker and he was interviewed by Dallas Morning News editor Michael Merschel. I wasn’t sure what to expect. I’m a fan of all of Hosseini’s books (The Kite Runner, A Thousand Splendid Suns, & And the Mountains Echoed), but I wasn’t sure if he was going to discuss the books or something else. Turns out he was a very eloquent speaker, very articulate and so humble. The 60 minutes flew by and I wasn’t ready for him to quit speaking. He is one of those speakers and authors who just draws you in and feels so approachable and personable, you find yourself wanting to invite him over for coffee so you can keep talking forever.

What struck me most was his honest accounts of the writing process. Although he was obviously discussing creative writing, I was able to draw many parallels with my own academic writing process. I found it refreshingly validating and reassuring to hear him “pull back the curtain” and discuss how hard the writing process is. Merschel noted how his books come together so neatly and asked if the writing process was linear and neat for him. Hosseini laughed and said, “I wish it were like that, but no, not at all.” He talked about spending a day constructing the perfect sentence and changing it over and over again. Yup, I know that feeling.

A few months ago I wrote a post (read it here) about how anxious the publication process makes me. When editors come back with critiques my typical response is to shut down for a few days (or weeks) before I’m even able to go back and really appreciate their suggestions. Hosseini shared a similar experience. His wife edits his work (alongside a professional later). He talked about how devastated he is when his wife tells him something just isn’t working. “I don’t even want to get out of bed for a couple of days, I mean, I do, but I don’t want to.” I had to refrain from shouting out an emphatic, “YES!” because I know that feeling all too well. I get depressed and just want to ignore the entire piece for awhile. He went on to say that she’s almost always right, it just takes him days/weeks to see that and be able to address the weaknesses of his writing. It was so validating to know that someone whom I admire and consider to be a beautiful writer reacts in such a similar manner as I do when I first receive negative feedback about my own writing. It was a much-needed reminder that this is all part of the process.

Speaking of the process of writing, he also talked about how he doesn’t like to outline his novels or characters prior to writing them. He says when he outlines he never sticks to it anyway and he feels it constrains him in a lot of ways. Instead, he prefers to let the narrative develop, allow the characters to reveal themselves to him, and that even he is surprised by the plot twists in his own novels. Again, I obviously do academic writing, but I take a very similar approach. I make outlines only when others ask me to (and I often feel pressure to do so), but I rarely stick to them. For me, writing isn’t an expression of my perspectives, but rather my perspectives are revealed to me via the process of writing. I don’t know what I have to say until I start writing it. Even within academic writing, my claims and arguments become clear only after I begin the process of writing. This is particularly true of ethnographic writing in which I am attempting to capture the nuances and complexities of people’s lived experiences and lives. Again, it was validating for me to hear a respected and successful writer explain his messy and unpredictable process, a process that seemed quite similar to my own approach to writing.

All in all I was very impressed with Hosseini as a speaker. He shared a lot of interesting perspectives alongside humorous anecdotes (such as his former patients wanting to discuss his book during their entire appointment). His humility and honesty were very refreshing and I hope to have the opportunity to hear him speak again some day.


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