Section: Opinion

Mastering the art of writing is well worth the temporary hell

By Ian Burnette

“It’s hell writing, and it’s hell not writing. The only tolerable state is having just written,” according to Robert Hass, former U.S. poet laureate, ever-meditative wordsmith, and reigning champion of my literary heart. Ever since the day I was taught to write a persuasive, five-paragraph essay I’ve known this to be true, and I’m willing to bet you have, too. In fact, I’m willing to bet that all of us have spent a good portion of our lives in a classroom staring into the dark constellations of the nearest drop-ceiling tile, willing our words to assemble themselves into a cohesive block of nimble sentences, watertight paragraphs, clear and meaningful prose. Sometimes our prayers were answered, sometimes not.

I’ve only been at Kenyon for a handful of days, and yet it’s already clear to me that I’m descending into a deeper level of Hass’s hell — days consumed entirely by thinking about writing, trying to write and finally putting my fingers to the keyboard, hoping something of value will come out on the other end. Hear me out: This is not as depressing a proposition as it seems.

Writing is and always will be a struggle, but it is not a pointless one. There may be no final salvation from our struggle with writing, but there are small victories, points of light, those sacred moments when we can lift those 10, 20, 200 pages of typographic gold from the printer tray. Those moments when we can experience the euphoria of having just written, of having converted the abstract, electrical pulsing of our brains into something others can read and understand and appreciate. Those moments that are the reason why we are here.

Hass’s statement may hit the nail on the head, but he certainly doesn’t account for the whole canoe — cabin, catapult, whatever it is we’re constructing. Writing may be hard, hellish even, but it isn’t miserable. Chasing down the proper elements of a good story, scrambling for the right word at a linguistic junction, maneuvering sentences around one another until they fit together perfectly. Even the fear that none of a piece’s elements will come together correctly can be downright exhilarating.

I’m sure Hass knows this. He is, after all, one of our great contemporary poets, and I am, for all practical purposes, still a child, just beginning to learn to work with words. I have no real right to disseminate what I believe to be true. That said, I think it’s important to talk about what it means to be a writer or at least a person learning to write, especially in a community focused so intently on the craft. Hass’s comment seems like a worthy spark for the kinds of conversations we need to have.

Ian Burnette ’18 is undeclared from Columbia, S.C. He can be reached at


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