Literary Quote for Your Weekend: The Writing Process vs. PEMDAS

“The first thing I always tell the students is how much I hate to write. . .

. . .Even the students who are accomplished, who get the A’s, who submit to the school paper or the literary magazine, suspect that if they were really good at it, good enough to make a living, it would be easier. It’s important to let them know that it is never easy, even for those who are obliged to do it with some regularity. . . .

But still I urge them to write, uncompensated, even if they have no plans to become writers, for one reason only, and that is to know themselves, for now and for later. Their written words are their personal histories, as they have been mine. They bring the past vividly alive within the square diorama of the page. And that has been a great blessing, the gift I give myself, that keeps on giving.”

–Anna Quindlen, “Soul,” Loud and Clear

I was reminded of this Anna Quindlen quote by a post about great quotes about writing from Amy on her blog, Three Teachers Talk. I quote the first part of this to my students quite frequently, but I was inspired by Amy’s post to go read the entire section again.

The other day I got out my English journal from 8th grade (I promise I’m not a hoarder). I remember this year distinctly because my teacher made us do all kinds of writing and especially creative writing.

I found this entry:

January 22

“Its Monday and I hate creative writing. Anyway I am writing in this journal so that I don’t get behind again today. I am not having a good day.”

And then I found this one:

January 31

“My favorite subject is algebra. I like it because it is logical and math always works out the same.”

I always did like math. I liked that there was a right answer, an answer I could draw a neat box around. When other kids complained about showing all their work, I found some zen-like contentment in lining up all my equals signs and carefully working through the order of operations.

But writing? No contentment there.  Writing is like some kind of wrestling match or like trying to bathe a cat. At some point I just hope it’s good enough or I throw up my hands and turn it in however it looks.

Even the “writing process” isn’t nearly as nice as PEMDAS. There are steps, sure: Prewrite, Outline, Draft, Revise, Edit.  I would like to think I can work through these in a nice linear fashion.

And then. . .and then. . .I discover what I’m really trying to say as I’m in the final stages—the light comes on—eight pages written and a due date looming, and I finally know my thesis statement. Or I end up writing an outline after the paper is completed. Or I write several pages of unorganized thought, shut down the computer in frustration, and then wake up in the middle of the night with clear knowledge of what I mean.


Often one of the first things any given student will tell me is, “I’m not that good at writing.” I usually respond with something along the lines of, “Great. Guess what? You’re in the right place! That’s why we take classes—to learn things we don’t already know.”

Maybe what I should add is that I’ll try to offer some kind of therapy session. Sometimes in a writing conference, what I really need to say is, “I’ve been there. I know. Writing is really hard. Let me tell you some things I’ve tried in this situation. Try this—it might work. If it doesn’t, we’ll try something else.”

So why, out of all the things I could have done with my life, did I choose to become a teacher of writing?  What compels me to write even though it is so incredibly hard?  There are many answers to that question, but I do agree with Anna Quindlen here: writing is a gift to the self. In many ways I write because I teach writing, and I am my own best laboratory for what works in the writing process.  It’s certainly something I should define more for myself.  When I’m finished wrestling with that concept, I’ll let you know.

But for now, just know that I also have many students who like to say to me, as if this negates the value of written communication, “I’m sorry, but I’m just more of a math person.”

I just smile and say, “Me too.”

Quindlen, Anna. Loud and Clear. New York: Ballantine, 2005. Print.


  1. Writing doesn’t need to be difficult. A merely competant writer can fall back on formula, tweaking it for each assignment. But those who want to grow as writers will work hard. Feeling discomfort and confusion means you are trying, improving. Great post.


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