Why is Writing Hard?

“you have to think more about the topic”
“you have to sort out what is in your brain”
“you have to spell out the words”
“it is hard to put sentences together sometimes”
“you have to identify sounds, alphabets, and your blends”
“I don’t like to write, I don’t want to write”

These are student responses to the question I have asked: “Why is writing hard?”

There are eight of us seated around a blond wood table in a room called “Swiss Family Roombinson” at the Literacenter. The room’s walls are painted canary-yellow. Two of the students come to the board to write out their responses while two students copy what is being written on the board into their own notebooks. One student scowls the whole time, and another student tries to take a nap. Laura F. – who is co-facilitating the class with me – leans across the table to peer at a student’s attempt to spell the word “identify.”

“Telling Stories”(2018) by Marcellina Akpojotor

“Why is writing hard?”

This is a class of Adult Learners. The oldest students are in their 60s and 70s. Some students struggle to match the letters of the alphabet with their designated sounds. Some students have learning disabilities and speech impediments. Some have retired from vocations such as tailoring, landscaping, carpentry, and housekeeping. Some have squeezed through the educational system and been accepted into college programs and find themselves languishing in remedial courses and student debt. Reading sentences aloud for some is like turning the ignition key in a car while peddling on the accelerator and praying for the engine’s robust start. Fits and starts.

On the first day of this particular class one of the intake questions I pose is “Do you think that writing is hard?” Often students’ literacy goals have to do with reading but they may not realize how reading and writing go together.  Some find the prospect of having to write doubly overwhelming. I decide to modify the question in order to better understand what students’ needs are.  Hence, “Why is writing hard?”  I assure them that “think[ing] more about the topic,” “sort[ing] out what is in your brain,” and the difficulty of “put[ting] sentences together” are things I, too, continue to find challenging about writing.

All of these students will not earn a GED. They will not enter a workforce training program.  Some are hungrier to learn than others.  Time engaged in putting forth the effort to learn is empowering in nuanced ways.  At Literacy Chicago many find a sense of belonging without shame in a learning community where classes are free of charge. Volunteers tutor and facilitate classes in math, reading, journaling, and digital literacy.

from Jabari C. Jefferson’s “Library Series”

Because I have been a volunteer with the organization off and on since 2011, I had approached Literacy Chicago about facilitating a workshop that would allow me to include men from the Adult Learner community in my Black Men Reading Series. At the time they were in need of a volunteer instructor for the Winter term on Wednesday afternoons. I couldn’t get permission to conduct the workshop for black men only, so, in January of 2019, I started facilitating a class that I called “Exploring Memoir.”

For the spring semester the focus has been sharpened into a class called “Writing Your Memoir in Your Own Words,” and I have been joined by Laura F. for some team-teaching. I still intend to have the Adult Learner community represented in the Black Men Reading Series, and want to find an organic and respectful way of doing so. In the meantime, I want to share some of what happens in “Writing Your Memoir in Your Own Words”  class.
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Marcellina Akpojotor (b.1989) is a visual artist who uses Ankara fabric to create vibrant collage imagery. Many of her pieces illustrate the self-empowerment and liberatory value of education and reading. “Telling Stories” (2018) is from her Power Series, which I learned about from following Rele Gallery on instagram.

Jabari C. Jefferson is a mixed-media oil painter whose “Library Series” and “Mixed Media Series” reflect his upbringing with a father who was a jazz musician and librarian. In this video, he talks about developing his painting style.

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16 Comments

  1. My experience with adult learners mirrors much of this: those who hate to write, or struggle to write, now find they have no choice *but to write.* Please keep sharing your sparks of passion! So often these learners just need someone who will both teach and respect them, at least in my experience, and you share that with every student you have. When we all enter the classroom on equal ground–each of us ready and willing to learn from one another–good things are bound to happen. xxxxx

    1. You have reminded me of some advice I was given during my first year tutoring adult learners about 7-8 years ago (time flies?!). Initially, my attitude was that I was the person bring value to the lives of the students, but, then I was advised to explore: what can students teach me?
      This shifted everything, because I learned that many students are thoughtful, skilled, talented, and knowledgeable about things despite being low-literate. This was [and continues to be] humbling for me. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Jean Lee🤗😘!

  2. Thanks for the video of the young artist. So inspiring.
    Hmmmmm. I’ve been contemplating the ‘why is writing hard?’ question for many years now. I think the response ‘you have to sort out what is in your brain’ captures my difficulty accurately. It’s tough, especially when anxiety and uncertainty paralyze you from just pouring out whatever is on your mind. I think writing – especially creative writing, takes a certain level of confidence that isn’t innate to all.

    1. Darkowaa, it’s good to hear from you! I know that dental school studies now take up some of the time you were once able to spend out here in the blogosphere😁, and I hope all is going well with you.
      Last night I was on the telephone with one of my literacy-work mentors and we laughed about the naivete that made me feel so bold as a young person who declared my aspiration to become a writer! Decades later and I am still working at it! My mentor commented that I may not have tried had I known it was going to be such a struggle.

  3. Thanks for the video of the young artist. His discussion of subject matter dovetails perfectly with the biography of Alain Locke(whenever your turn comes up in the hold queue at the library.) When I taught writing I had to unteach students who had been taught a structure but without content. I would ask them what they wanted to say. This surprised many of them who only had ever been expected to parrot back someone else.

  4. So glad to read your post because yes, writing is hard but ever so rewarding if we push through. We live in a society which unfortunately slowly deters people from reading and writing because everything needs to be bite-size, immediately consumed but already forgotten by the time your eyes have moved on to the next post, next email etc…Taking the time to reflect, form, link and articulate our thoughts when stimulated by art, literature and all forms of arts is the only way I have found to fight the army of robots that try to annihilate our brain power 🙂
    Glad that you are doing more than your fair share on the subject, as usual.
    All the best, Leslie.

    1. Your remarks about making the “effort” to be reflective and go through the process of identifying and writing the thoughts that arise with certain encounters with literature and the arts really resonate with me. I don’t want robots and computers doing all of my “thinking!” Writing is time- consuming, yet taking that time can also be centering. I’ve found that writing also yields “surprises” – understandings, truths, and questions nestled deep within us waiting to be accessed. Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts, here, Ingrid😊.

  5. Reframing the question to “Why is writing hard?” opens the door to a huge variety of answers, from the physical difficulty of forming words with a writing instrument to trying to capture a thought and put it into a sentence and everything in between. When my husband used to teach English, he also taught literacy classes to teens with a range of abilities and reasons for difficulties – from those with learning concerns to new-Canadians acquiring a new language. One of the things he did was to read aloud a short paragraph and have them write it down. For some learners the act of listening to transcribing was a big help connecting a thought to written form. There’s probably some brain science connection to learning here though not sure what it is! And its probably different for adult learners who have different challenges to consider.

    I hope you find a way to work in your Black Men Reading series in the adult learner community. I see benefits for all!

    1. Thank you, Susanne! I often invite students to compose their thoughts on the board. I think that using the exercise your husband employed can be helpful in understanding what students are hearing….

      1. Yes, writing is hard. The who, what, how is just reasoning needed. Research brings different reasons to change thought. A hidden truth bends another thought. The audience chosen must get the truth if respect is in order.

        I love the challenge, grammatical corrections, and communications with others. I am learning there is a need to correct much of what has already been learned. Where are the scholars untainted to lies, hiding, and omission of facts? We must continue to read to expand the mind, correct beliefs, and solve many problems. Writing is hard but truly needed. We must keep trying.

        1. To your point about reading to expand our minds, correct beliefs, and solve problems – I think that personal writing can also be a tool that we use to get in touch with how we feel about what we read. Even though I find it challenging to do at times, I also find it rewarding. Thank you for reading and adding to the discussion, Kelvin!

  6. I certainly enjoy your Black Men Reading Series. I follow many book blogs, book IG accounts, and book vlog channels on Youtube, but only a few are Black men. I’m always trying to find more people to follow and have followed on IG some of the guys you’ve featured in the series to see what else they are reading.

  7. WOW Leslie. What you’re doing and attempting to do in and around Chicago’s Literacy/Adult Learner community is very interesting. I understand where you are coming from wanting to see more Black males getting themselves involved in your Black Men Reading Series.

    Yet, it’s difficult getting males involved period in these and many other empowerment learning environments. Something tells me that you intend on being vigilant. 🙂 I look forward to reading more in future on the memoir front. Very exciting!

    1. THANK YOU, Sparkyjen! I suspect /hope that there are more males involved in empowering learning environments than are currently visible. But I definitely want Black men in the adult learner community to have a voice in my series.

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