A Willingness to Learn

I was a really lousy student, from grade school through my first attempt at college. Teachers thought I might be slow and made me suffer through batteries of tests and classes on preparation in an effort to get me to do my homework. It didn’t work. I barely made it through grade 12 and I flunked out of college.

I never gave up trying learn. It wasn’t that I didn’t learn, either. I learned a lot; I just excelled at the things I was most interested in. When I was realized this and was able to plan my courses appropriately, like my second run at college I had a 3.8 GPA (and that one dude didn’t give anyone better than a B).

Everything else I needed to know, I taught myself. I had a successful career in software development when my former classmates were still toiling in the lab, so I knew my gamble had paid off.  Somewhere along the way, I realized that I did better when I had an interest in the subject but also because I saw some relevance to what I was or might one day work on.

Finding the right way to learn was also critically important. Most of my traditional education failed me because it consisted of hours of being lectured at, which I promptly tuned out, followed by homework from a book that was suddenly biased against.

Books and blogs are really good starting points. Done well, they speak in a conversational tone that invites conversation rather than making me feel like someone’s telling me that their way is gospel. When I started writing software — and fiction — my book budget shifted to reference books and that’s usually a sign I’m really serious about sometime.

Classes and workshops — in the right format, can work well for me. I scoured the course catalog at my local community college and took night classes for two years, taking a wide range of classes that would probably fill the general requirement towards a degree but mostly scratched an itch; they were interesting to me in some way: Children’s and Holocaust Literature, Anthropology, Comparative Religion, Physics.

You know what the real secret is? Aside from an insatiable curiosity, that is. It’s being comfortable in yourself and your processes, and to be willing to challenge those things on a regular basis with new ideas, new beliefs, new thoughts. Ideas are dangerous things. They topple nations. Imagine what they can do to a single person.

The same processes apply to learning to write effectively. All those reference books that fill my shelves, the podcasts listened to, the workshops attended, the time spent on twitter stalking successful writers, agents, and editors. Except rather than one or two views on a single topic, it’s hundreds of voices and that can be overwhelming.

We practice internalization to silence the voices and discard the objectors. Throw out what we don’t agree with, listen to what makes sense and helps us form our own view of the topic. The problem is that process can take years. Selectivity is important.

Take this guest post by Rachel Aaron on the SFWA blog: How I Went From Writing 2,000 Words a Day to 10,000 Words a Day. It’s a really interesting piece and as soon as I finished reading it a few weeks ago I sent an email to a bunch of my close friends and told them to take a look at it. You should, too.

Figuring out how to make what works for Rachel work for me or you is where the work begins. I had a little time before the Clarion Write-a-thon began, so I worked to put each of the lessons into some context that meant something to me. I needed to understand why I would want to care about each step, what might it do for me. I put myself into learning mode.

The rest of this process is to simply try. See what works, and what fails, for you. I find it’s either going to be clear right away that a tool is useful, redundant, or unwieldy.

The great thing is that these are the kind of processes that hold up to repeat experimentation. What doesn’t work now might work better in six months, or six years. Discarded tools can always be picked up later, especially as we outgrow the ones we’re using now.

Have fun experimenting with process and finding what works for you now but don’t lose sight of what it’s there for. To help you write. If you’re not getting your words in then it, and you, aren’t doing the job.

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  1. Rory
    29/06/2012 at 10:20 pm Permalink

    I rather needed to hear this, honestly. I’m struggling with my education, not sure where I’m going or what I’m doing. I was a miserable student through elementary and secondary school and mental illness won out over college.

    I felt like there’s no way for me to learn and get what i need out of the education system but as you mentioned, blogs have been a big help in filling the gap. I Considering that I am interested in writing, I am lucky enough that there are so many out there, on all aspects of it. I consider myself very lucky.

    But I needed someone to tell me that the path I’m ok is okay. I’ve gotten constant pressure to attend college again and while it’s not off the table (I’m twenty one, it’s far from off the table) I just don’t know that I am ready to take that on but it’s nice to know that I can probably find alternative methods and have them be accepted as reasonable techniques for learning.

    So thank you for making this post and making it okay for me to learn.

  2. Adam Israel
    05/07/2012 at 4:00 am Permalink

    Sometimes, it’s just not the right time for traditional education. I was 18 the first time I tried going to college, when it blew up in my face. I went back in my mid-20’s, when I had a better idea of who I was and what I wanted from it, and cherry-picking was much better. Tradition isn’t bad, but it is built to a certain mold that not all of us fit in. Find what works, but don’t keep doing something that clearly isn’t.

  3. A. Zanoni
    29/06/2012 at 11:06 pm Permalink

    Rory, you might also want to try reading Brain Rules. As Adam points out, we don’t learn what’s boring. We tune it out.

    I’m bipolar myself. You can succeed. Your path is fine; it’s your path. Too many people feel that Their Way is The Way. It never is.

    We all have different paths — and the more different they are, the more likely they’ll make others uncomfortable and they’ll try to force you into their paths.

    Think about the false alarms in Labyrinth. That’s what it’s like. The worst bit is that people do think they’re helping, and trying to help — meddling — is a huge instinct in we humans. Can’t always abstract our needs from others’.

    P.S. I recommend reading Inkpunks as much as you can; they’re always lovely to read. Refreshing, helpful, and sweet: a magic combination.

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