Monday, July 26, 2010

3 Thoughts On The Challenge of Writing

by Karen Harrington

I have three disparate thoughts on the topic of writing challenges:.

1. Radio host and author Dennis Prager’s philosophy on the importance of happiness
2. The novel A Thousand Splendid Sons by Khaled Hosseini
3. Embracing discomfort

Bear with me. In that giant Mash of Random Sticky-Note Thoughts (also known as my brain) these three subjects have a connection to the topic of writing struggles.

From my own experience, there hasn’t been a time when I didn’t ride a roller coaster while writing. I’m prone to getting very excited about a new story. That first rush of adrenaline sends me to the blank page and I write, write, write until a raw story appears. This is probably the time when I experience the pure joy of writing. This is the discovery draft. There aren’t any mistakes yet. My internal editor hasn’t switched on yet. And this is probably the only time I could say that writing is fun.

But then the editor doth appear and with it, struggle. 

And so it goes. This is the cycle of writing for me. I think one of the ways writers are uniquely challenged is that they must play both a sensitive creative role and an objective, analytical role during the creative process. These two forces can and do produce good work, but they are at odds with one another. It's a little bit like having a scientist tell a five year old that surprise is not the color of confetti. They are both right, right? Well, this is probably why E. L. Doctorow said "Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia." 

This is where my three disparate thoughts come into play. I have three ideas that help me stay on track, if not totally insane. Perhaps they’ll aid you, too.

First, allow me to introduce you to Dennis Prager and his philosophy of happiness. Prager suggests that we have an obligation to be happy because it makes us better people; that this road will always be challenging and requires a constant counting of blessings to maintain. His ideas have influenced my personal and writing life. Like most writers, I’ve had a healthy dose of literary rejection (my publisher folded, my first book went out of print, my subsequent book is in the black hole of "gee, this is great, but....) Sigh. But I always give that sadness a deadline. I feel responsible for my own happiness and part of that is getting up and going on with life because I’m blessed to have a life where I can write at all. 

Which brings me to disparate thought number two: Khaled Hosseini’s remarkable novel A THOUSAND SPLENDID SUNS - a book every woman in America should read. Why? It depicts, among other things, the bleak existence of a pair of strong women in Afghanistan. Their every move is scrutinized. They can be reprimanded for making rice wrong. They aren’t allowed to get an education, read whatever they choose or even go to a store without a male companion. Worse yet, their focus is so much on daily survival that they don’t have the luxury of dreaming. Yet, they do! They dream. They hope. So during my writing struggles, I like to stay mindful that the very fact that I am in pursuit of writing a story is a gift. Because there are women out there somewhere who live lives of subdued, desperate dreaming, I am compelled to work even harder on their behalf.

This brings me to my third and last disparate thought. The notion of discomfort. If you are going to write, one of the struggles you will (and must) embrace is discomfort. Discomfort has been my unwelcome companion and my faithful muse. I’ve come to believe that discomfort is a key ingredient in the novels I've never forgotten (The Prince of Tides, To Kill A Mockingbird, The English Patient, Ellen Foster, etc.). Here’s a quote that describes this idea and changed my life: “So much of successful fiction hinges on one successful ploy: discomfort.” – Robert Newton Peck

If you think about it, this speaks volumes of truth. We love to read stories filled with the kinds of conflict we probably wouldn’t want to personally experience, but being a voyeur during the reading hours is an adventure. My novel, Janeology, is a story so many readers tell me they were afraid to pick up, but then were glad they did. Its genesis began with my own discomfort over the topics of nature and nurture and what makes one person snap and another remain sane. So I’d expand Peck’s quote by adding that successful fiction WRITING also hinges on discomfort. The discomfort a writer feels over a subject – those questions that keep you awake at night, that angst one feels to complete a project – are going to be fuel for the story you will wrestle with for a year or two.

I’ve been Karen Harrington, author of Janeology. Visit me sometime at or drop me a line at

All best wishes,



Susan Cushman said...

Great post, Karen. I thought I was leaving discomfort behind when I switched genres from personal memoir to novel, but alas, the pain is still there, and (thankfully) the conflict! Your words encourage me to press on.

JLC said...

It's a sad day if one has learned nothing. You have taught me something in this post (with appropriate credit where it's due) that I hope may reverberate from now on as I try to write. I hope I don't decide I must begin my third novel all over again, but I surely will remember the discomfort for every personal essay, new story, and especially poem that goes into my computer from now on. Thank you.

Karen Harrington said...

Susan -

I'm glad you are encouraged. (And I'm intrigued by your novel writing. Very exciting!) I know we're going to be hearing and reading great things from you.


Thanks for your generous comments. Sounds like you have a great attitude. All best wishes for your writing success.

Anonymous said...

Please keep up the good work! Love these southern ladies of the word.