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Difficulty in writing: part one

I’ve been thinking about difficulty recently. What is it that makes some books more difficult than others? Creative writing advice usually focuses on clarity, avoiding unnecessary complexity, and ensuring your language doesn’t draw attention to itself rather than to the people, places or events it describes. Raymond Carver’s essay ‘Principles of a Story’ exemplifies this approach. As a writer and tutor, I usually agree this is excellent advice, but why might a writer consciously go against this and embrace difficulty? In a series of two blogs, I’m going to share some thoughts about the reasons for difficulty, and how you as a reader and a writer might approach challenging books.

Readers are often resistant to writing that is difficult, and with good reason. In everyday life the words we encounter are there to smooth our way, not to challenge us: signposts unambiguously point us in the correct direction; newspaper columns report an event in a style which can be taken in at a glance; advertising offers us the certainty that the latest smartphone will make us fitter, happier and more successful. 

When literature requires us to stop and think, or leaves us downright confused, that means we’re being required to read in a different way. The difficulty might lie in the language, using obscure vocabulary or breaking normal grammatical rules (for example Douglas Kearney’s typographical poetry). It might be a result of a very wide – or very specific – frame of reference that leaves you reaching for an encyclopaedia (see James Joyce’s Ulysses). It might be that the structure of a piece is unusual or confusing (Toni Morrison’s Jazz; Max Porter’s Grief is the Thing with Feathers), or that the writer is exploring new or particularly difficult ideas (Maggie Nelson’s non-fiction Bluets and The Argonauts; Louise Glück’s poetry, which explores deep philosophical and psychological topics in simple-seeming language). 

For these writers, I’m convinced the intention isn’t to exclude. Instead, they have something new, challenging or provocative to say, and have thought long and hard about how to say it. One of the joys of reading is that you have access to news from elsewhere – the perspective of another person, who may have a different personal and cultural background, who may think or write in a different language, who may have thought about an issue for years and which, through no fault of your own, you’ve barely registered as something to ponder. These differences can create difficulty, but that doesn’t mean the author’s work isn’t worth the effort.

Another joy is the process of reading. Australian writer Tegan Bennett Daylight has written about how not all literature is meant to be immediately digestible: sometimes the difficulty isn’t an obstacle, but the point. Wrestling with difficult syntax, complex ideas, or an experimental non-linear structure forces you to think in new ways, to take your reading faculties to boot camp. Like any challenging exercise, that process can be rewarding. 

Sometimes when you’re faced with difficult writing the only legitimate response is to throw the book across the room in frustration. This is especially the case when you suspect the writer is using difficulty to show off – and there are plenty of self-indulgent books out there. Beware, though: thrown books have a tendency to boomerang. I’ve lost count of the books I’ve rejected as obscure ego-trips, or as simply not worth the effort, only to return to them years later when I’m prepared to take the plunge. If I’m honest, I just wasn’t ready for them first time round. That’s nothing to be ashamed of. 

Learning means coming upon challenges which are hard to negotiate, but which ultimately transform your thinking for the better: educational theorists call these threshold concepts. So even if you feel the need to cast a difficult book aside, don’t worry. With time, and hard work, it might be something to return to and benefit from in future. Think of it like the diving boards at a swimming pool – a rookie would be foolish to go straight to the 10-metre board. Better to work your way up to it once you’ve mastered the lower boards.

Here’s a final thought to conclude this first blog. Reading Toni Morrison, or James Joyce, or avant-garde poetry, can be difficult. But many tasks that ordinary people do every day are difficult. And maybe difficulty only appears exclusive because we live in a society which favours instant accessibility over slow, careful thought. Difficulty can actually be a great leveller – it places the responsibility of interpretation on the individual. Instead of being spoon-fed simplistic answers to life’s complexities, the reader has to figure out what they think for themselves. They won’t necessarily find all the answers, but in life, who does? Being given the right to think for yourself is one of the gifts literature can bestow, so I encourage you to go out and wrestle with that book you’ve never got beyond the first page of!


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Posted by author: Garry MacKenzie
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One thought on “Difficulty in writing: part one

  • Interesting ideas here. I wrote a blog on difficulty about four years ago and the thing I remember most is finding a quotatation from the poet, Geoffrey Hill picking up on the word accessible with reference to reading:
    “The word accessible is fine in its place; that is to say, public toilets should be accessible to people in wheelchairs; but a word that is perfectly in its place in civics or civic arts is entirely out of place, I think, in a wider discussion of the arts,” Hill said in an interview in The Guardian in 2002.
    (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2002/aug/10/featuresreviews.guardianreview15)
    And in another interview Hill said: “I think art has a right—not an obligation—to be difficult if it wishes.”
    (quoted in: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poets/detail/geoffrey-hill
    And James Fenton said poets/writers are always writing into the dark. As both readers and writers we shouldn’t be afraid of the dark.

    So yes, as tutors of writing, and as writers we need to be prepared to “write in the dark”

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