Why Is Writing So Hard? A Writing Assignment for Difficult Times

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This semester, our first writing project in Stretch is called: “Why is writing so hard?” The title is inspired by our first reading of the semester,  “The Artist’s Struggle for Integrity,” a 1963 talk by James Baldwin (1924-1987), given at New York City Community Church and also broadcast over New York radio station WBAI, and republished in The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings by James Baldwin.

In “The Artist’s Struggle for Integrity,” James Baldwin addresses the conditions of human suffering, and reminds the audience of the artist’s responsibility to pay attention to and to alleviate human suffering. At the same time, Baldwin suggests that most people are too “mistrustful” to pay attention, and too “panic-stricken” to intervene. Baldwin offers that, “[We are dealing with] a people determined to believe that they can make suffering obsolete. Who don’t understand yet a very physiological fact: that the pain which signals a toothache is the pain which saves your life.”

Baldwin’s talk is informed by the ongoing and historical presence of violent white supremacy in the United States. This link provides photographs that offer literal snapshots of major events in 1963, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s arrest in Birmingham in April and the funeral of Mississippi activist and NAACP lawyer Medgar Evers, assassinated in June by White Citizen’s Council member Byron De La Beckwith. Both Dr. King and Medgar Evers were friends of James Baldwin.


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The year 1963 is of personal significance as well. I started Kindergarten in the autumn of 1963 at a school that was as segregated as our suburban Chicago village. Because of residential segregation, real estate agents and landlords legally could steer African-American home-buyers and renters away from available housing in our town, and banks could refuse to loan money to African-American applicants. There were no federal orders to desegregate our schools, and throughout my public schooling there were almost no lessons in social studies, history, or current events on the Civil Rights Movement, with a few notable exceptions.

On the first day of Fall Semester 2017, these intersections of national and personal history, and the very recent events in Charlottesville (see the Charlottesville Syllabus) provided significant contexts for teaching “The Artist’s Struggle for Integrity.” Catastrophe offered an unfortunate rhetorical situation and a frightening kairotic moment.

Baldwin’s talk implicitly addresses the cataclysms of 1963 -- and of our own time as well. The writing prompts for “Why is Writing So Hard?” also invite implicit rather than explicit responses. Baldwin, forceful about the causes of struggle, remains tentative regarding absolute solutions for a long standing national crisis. In the assignment for Writing Project 1, all of the questions focus on rhetorical problems, for which students can find, perhaps initially, their level of comfort in responding. Yet the more overarching goal for Writing Project 1 is to provide students with opportunities to reach beyond the constraints of their comfort zones.

Why is writing so hard? The answer awaits us in that kairotic negotiation between opportunity and constraint, a negotiation that holds potential for all of us to write and to grow as writers in difficult times.

In memory of Dick Gregory (1932-2017): Activist, artist, and friend to James Baldwin.


Suggestion 1: AUDIENCE

James Baldwin composed “The Artist’s Struggle for Integrity” and “Sonny’s Blues” in the years after World War II, during the Civil Rights Movement. In other words, Baldwin wrote during a period of great social and cultural transitions, and his writing is well over 50-60 years old. With that in mind, consider these questions: What risks does Baldwin ask the audience to take? Why? Would an audience in 2017 be willing to take such risks? Do you believe that James Baldwin’s writing remains relevant for audiences in 2017? Why or why not?


Suggestion 2: PURPOSE  

James Baldwin, in speaking of the artist’s work asks, “But what do you do?”  What is the artist’s “frightening assignment”? How does Baldwin address this question? What does Baldwin suggest are the purposes of the artist’s work? What is “the price” of this work? Using Baldwin’s criteria, do you consider yourself to be an artist? Why or why not?


Suggestion 3: PATHOS

James Baldwin writes, “For, while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard. There isn't any other tale to tell, it's the only light we've got in all this darkness.” Pathos is the appeal emotion, to “how we suffer and how we are delighted.”As an African-American man, Baldwin wrote for a global audience. How does Baldwin account for Black history and culture (such as the Blues) in his work? Does his account add to the emotional appeal of Baldwin’s writing? Why or why not?

[image source: By Allan warren (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (ht...]

About the Author
Susan Naomi Bernstein (she/they) writes, teaches, and quilts, in Queens, NY. She blogs for Bedford Bits, and her recent publications include “The Body Cannot Sustain an Insurrection” in the Journal of Multimodal Rhetorics and “After Basic Writing” in TETYC. Her book is Teaching Developmental Writing. Other publications include “Theory in Practice: Halloween Write-In,” with Ian James, William F. Martin, and Meghan Kelsey in Basic Writing eJournal 16.1, “An Unconventional Education: Letter to Basic Writing Practicum Students in Journal of Basic Writing 37.1, “Occupy Basic Writing: Pedagogy in the Wake of Austerity,” in Nancy Welch and Tony Scott’s collection Composition in the Age of Austerity. Susan also has published on Louisa May Alcott, and has exhibited her quilts in Phoenix, Arizona and Brooklyn, NY.