The Writing Paradox

Liz and Daddy draft their sermons.

As the colleagues I bore on a regular basis can attest, I love everything there is to love about the writing process. And I never, ever turn away from an opening to talk about it.  No matter how quickly you try to shut that door, once you’ve opened it a crack, I’m in, burbling happily away like a baby who has just discovered the wonder of her own hands for the first time.

Most of all, I love the paradox of the writing process.

I first learned of this paradox when I began studying the craft of fiction in college, and it delighted me. The craft lecture is emblazoned on my brain: You can follow the writing process to the letter, execute the conventions of the form flawlessly, polish each sentence into a softly glowing gem in the palm of your hand–and the story doesn’t work.  The prose may be a thing of beauty to behold, but a reader can’t get past the first page for boredom.

Yet there are times when you encounter a story that could only be described as clumsy. The writer has unwittingly broken with multiple conventions of the form, the prose is clunky, and the whole thing is a bull-in-a-china-shop of a story–but it works. The story is alive with the knowledge and passion of what it means to be human.

Peter Elbow, my favorite writer on the theory and practice of writing, explains the writing paradox this way:

Image: The British Museum

To write is to overcome a certain resistance: you are trying to wrestle a steer to the ground, to wrestle a snake into a bottle, to overcome a demon that sits in your head. To succeed in writing or making sense is to overpower that steer, that snake, that demon. But not kill it.

This myth explains why some people who write fluently and perhaps even clearly—they say just what they mean in adequate, errorless words—are really hopelessly boring to read. There is no resistance in their words; you cannot feel any force being overcome, any orneriness. No surprises. The language is too abjectly obedient. When writing is really good, on the other hand, the words themselves lend some of their energy to the writer. The writer is controlling words he can’t turn his back on without danger of being scratched or bitten.1

What do you think of the writing paradox I’ve described? Love it? Hate it? Think Peter Elbow and I are talking through our hats?

1Peter Elbow, cited by Richard Gilbert, “Between Self and Story,” Woven Tale Press Blog, entry posted March 2, 2017, accessed March 19, 2017,

2 thoughts on “The Writing Paradox

  1. Thought provoking! I’ll try to think about it more as I read fiction that I enjoy. Meanwhile, I’m afraid I’m one of those people who enjoy reading instruction manuals. Not a lot of creativity there.

    Liked by 1 person

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