On Deciding to Learn to Write
Published in The Word Weaver, January/February 2010
Learning is a fiery force in my life. Sometimes it burns through what I’ve always known to be true like a forest fire and it isn’t until the smoke clears that I can see the opportunity for new growth. Sometimes it lights me up with joy like the sunshine because I finally understand something I didn’t understand before. Sometimes it’s more like a lighthouse, blinking through the fog to guide me to see a part of myself or the world I hadn’t realized worked that way. Fire, sunshine, and the lighthouse are metaphors that connect to the learning processes in my life.
This is how my paper began. I was taking a grad course entitled ‘Adult Learning’ at OISE, University of Toronto in Winter 2009. On the first day, our professor posed a question to us: What’s the difference between I’m learning to play the cello and playing the cello?
As writers, when is it that we go from writing drivel to wanting to write better to learning to write a story to writing a story? In one moment we are doing something (writing) and the next we want to learn how to become something deeper (a writer). Then we write and rewrite, attend workshops and rewrite, read books and rewrite, network at WCDR breakfasts and rewrite, and emerge with—ta da!—a finished manuscript. But what did we learn? How did we learn?
This is the first in a series of three articles on learning to become a writer. The articles will weave my personal experience and research with a focus on how I learn, and I’ll admit some snippets are taken from my paper Reflections on Becoming a Writer: The Metaphors Weaving Through My Learning and Life. Please feel free to share your learning journey with me too via email or my website. We can learn together.
In the mid-1980s David A. Kolb provided a model of the adult learning process. He suggests that when we learn we move in a cycle that includes experiencing, reflecting, theorizing, and applying.
I remember the experience of deciding I wanted to learn more about writing. I was working on a science fiction story about a futuristic city that removed all playgrounds and banished all forms of play. Although I was in the act of what I wanted to become, writing, the spark was a moment of insight that signalled to me I wanted to learn more.
As the cycle indicates, my next step was to start making meaning. This is a time where we reflect on what we have and determine what we need to move forward. I joined the WCDR, attended informative breakfast meetings, took tons of notes at workshops led by members (like Dorothea and Rich Helms, Sue Reynolds, and fabulous guest instructors), signed up for Advanced Creative Writing with Ruth Walker at Durham College, and read as many books on being a writer and writing that I could find.
In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott explains the transition: “Writing can give you what having a baby can give you: it can get you to start paying attention, can help you soften, can wake you up” (Lamott, 1994, p. 13). My perspective began to change and I started to see the world around me differently: like a writer.
The idea of being a writer began to weave its way through the fabric of my life. The pressures that come with deciding to become something seeped into the blank spaces on my page—the spaces between the lines and the letters grew until writer’s block set in.
Suddenly, I could see that the learning was just beginning. I had moved in a circle beginning with the writing, moving through my intentions and how I could improve the work. When I returned to the work, the act of writing, a new experience emerged and another cycle of learning began.
In Peripheral Visions: Learning Along the Way, Mary Catherine Bateson describes learning as a spiral: “Lessons too complex to grasp in a single occurrence spiral past again and again, small examples gradually revealing greater and greater implications” (Bateson, 1994, p. 30). Placing this idea alongside Kolb’s learning theory I can see how similar cycles and spirals can be. I can see Kolb’s theory spiralling through my relationships, career decisions, awareness of self, and through my learning about writing. Everything is connected in the spiral; everything is a part of everything else. Even in Kolb’s learning cycle all of the learning is informed by prior learning, everything is connected.
Take some time to reflect on the lessons spiralling through your writing. How do they connect to your life?
Gather your favourite beverage, a pen, and your journal in a quiet spot. Begin with: I remember deciding to learn to write…