I have mentioned before that I don’t really have writing advice to offer. This is for two reasons. One? The good stuff has all been said, no real need for me to rephrase it. Two? I don’t know that my way of writing and learning to write would be particularly helpful. But just in case it is, I’m going to talk about how I write and how I learn…because they’re roughly the same thing.
I am an intuitive and hands-on learner. I am NOT very good at learning via traditional classroom-style instruction. I got good grades in school but I was “bad” at school in the broader sense. I was distracted and forgetful when I was younger, argumentative in the middle years, and usually tried to do things my own way as often as possible.
When I was in an intensive language course (8 hrs a day, 5 days a week, for a year and a half) we used to have the occasional “grammar hour.” I would zone out during this portion, not out of disrespect for the teacher, but because grammar (structure) actually made it harder for me to understand the language (I can hear the screams of a thousand grammarians rising in a chorus).
Many (most?) people learn language through grammar, unless they are a child or it’s their native language. This is wise and makes sense. Grammar is good and rich and I know this, I promise! But I have a hard time with it. I balk and it turns me about.
I learn best by taste and sound. I get the language in my mouth, roll it around, test it with my tongue and gauge with my ears to see if I got it right. I read out loud just to enjoy the sound and rhythm. I listen to music in the given language and collect the lyrics into my vocabulary. I watch comedy videos and imitate the lilt of a joke.
There’s a lot of good in this method, but there’s some bad as well. I can translate, but struggle more in the absence of context (you can intuit from context…not so much from a word or phrase in isolation). I can’t easily explain things that I only understand by simple auditory instinct.
“Why do we pronounce it this way instead of that way?”
“Um. ‘Cause there’s a thing that happens to that word sometimes…which, um…changes it.”
“For what reason?”
*Blank stare* *recites out loud all incidents of unusual pronunciation trying to discern applicable grammar rule*
You could ask some of the guys I worked with when I was in the Marine Corps. I could tell you the “what” (aka: translate) or give all manner of cultural context…but I could rarely explain the “why”…the grammar or rules of the thing. This can be a serious hindrance, as you might imagine.
The other difficulty in this method of learning, as it applies across the board, is that it can take me a LONG time to understand something when the only way for me to do so is by instinct or direct experience.
For example, have you ever heard of a phrase or idiom to which you could intellectually assent, but which you didn’t truly comprehend until you had experienced it?
It sounds cheesy to say you ache for someone, until you have felt that ache.
It sounds absurd to say “work with the pain” until you have an epiphany during, say, going into labor and realize that that phrase actually, really means something. (Understanding that phrase made an indescribable difference as regards getting through labor).
The phrase “slow is smooth, smooth is fast” just sounds nonsensical until you’ve experienced how true that is. It is a phrase used mostly in military training and martial arts and refers to the fact that if you do a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu move, work vigilantly through designated terrain, or pull a trigger, slow and deliberate is the way to do it. Move too fast and you sacrifice effectiveness, thorough awareness of surroundings, or good aim and transition (respectively).
Smooth really is fast, if you think about it.
I thought of this phrase when I thought of how I “learned” (am learning) to write. I’ve mentioned previously that I didn’t want to grow up to be a writer, per se. I just liked stories and wanted them to go the way I wanted them to go–I wanted my daydreams and imaginary adventures to be thorough and complete stories. It never occurred to me that this is why people become writers, or anything like that. I just did it for my own good fun, by instinct.
I wrote stuff and scrapped it, tried again when I got the bug for it, forgot about it, came back around, and tried again. I coerced others to read what I was writing just because I wanted to share the story and fun (later I found out that this is called having critique partners or beta readers).
But instinct can only get you so far, in writing as in learning languages. Most people (wisely) go to writing courses to learn the “grammar” (or rules and methods) of writing. For writing, like any good craft, is not lawless. You can only break the rules well if you know them well to begin with, as they say.
Structure is by no means bad, but I am historically bad at structure. (Ask my teachers from school days). This means that I have to learn it the hard way. Slowly. I don’t learn it in the traditional instructive “classroom style” but by trial and error.
I’m sure I’m far from the only person who learns this way, and others who do could attest to the strengths and weaknesses of instinctive/experiential learning. You can spend a lot of time banging your head against a wall, or making stupid mistakes before a given principle “clicks” for your instinct and becomes a part of your writing vocabulary. Sometimes it can be slow work.
But sometimes slow begets smooth…and, of course, smooth is fast. I take my roundabout way, but I’ll get there in due time.