Wednesday, January 28, 2015

How Writers Can Benefit from Learning to Learn

As I worked through the course, Learning to Learn and read the book, A Mind For Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even If You Flunked Algebra), I came to realize I'd practiced many of the techniques taught in the class in different areas of my life but without deep understanding of how or why they worked. I often didn't consider things that worked in one area of my life for another area. As I studied Learning to Learn, I began to make connections I'd never made before and felt energized to apply these techniques in
new areas of my life, including writing.

One common piece of advice in the writing world is to sit your butt in the chair and write. Get the words written. The idea is to take the muse out of the process, stop waiting for inspiration, and focus on getting words written. In this kind of focused writing, one to focus on the project at hand without being distracted by the multitude of other projects in the works. This allows one to free one's mind for one project because one knows the others will get their time as well.

This focused writing process can be timed using the Pomodoro method if one desires. Set a timer (I use the one on my phone) and write for the designated amount of time. Then take a break and let diffused thinking take over. I can see writers protesting right now. Writers never want to stop when the words start flowing. It can be almost painful to stop, and it can take time to get back into the project after taking a break. I also struggle to go from focused to diffuse mode, particularly when I'm writing. Once I start, I just want to keep going and will write until I'm either exhausted or feel like I've run out of words.

I've been playing around a bit with the Pomodoro method for my writing lately. I used it to write a blog post for my review website a week or so ago and it worked beautifully. I'd been struggling with what I wanted to say in this particular review for almost a month, so I decided the Pomodoro method might help. I set out to just write what I could in twenty minutes with the idea that I could go back and edit it later. Once I got started, the writing went so smoothly, I both finished writing and editing it in the twenty minutes. I took a break and came back later in the day  to give it one last edit only to discover it said what I wanted to say.

One author I know talks about doing a hated chore whenever she feels stuck. She explains that feeling stuck or what is commonly known as writer's block is really just our brain's way of telling writers they've written themselves into a corner or they need more information to proceed. While she has a point, it is also possible the writer has just been in focused mode for too long and needs some diffuse thinking time. I've tried her technique of doing a hated chore, but it's not the most effective diffuse thinking mode for me. I do better with a dance break, a walk, meditation, yoga, cooking, or sleep among other things. Each individual needs to find what triggers diffuse mode for them. What works for me might or might not work for someone else. It's important for writers to let storylines rest in diffuse mode in order to allow them to grow and find their way through various connections and pathways. This kind of diffuse mode allows us to come back to focused mode and write stories in creative ways that intrigue, entertain, and provoke thought.

Both focused and diffuse mode of thinking come into play during the research phase for writing. You focus hard, study hard, read the research, and participate in activities to better learn the research. I've researched historical figures, writing techniques, social injustice, and inequality among many other things for my books and poetry. I've taken a Citizen's Police Academy course as research. I took golf lessons as research. I've read myriad books on human and societal behavior to enhance my writing. I've recently started studying foreign languages in order to enhance my writing and help me communicate better. Traveling is also a wonderful way to enhance one's writing particularly when one seeks to use the written word to unite rather than divide. All of these things require intense focused mode to learn what the writer needs to know and then diffuse mode to assimilate it well enough to write about it effectively.

Testing one's self about one's experiences and research helps to solidify those experiences into retrievable chunks and a deeper understanding of the experience and research. If one tries to write about what one has researched before it has time to chunk, the writing is often academic, contrived, or unclear. If one gives it time to chunk in diffuse mode, then focuses to use the knowledge to write a scene, it's much easier to immerse the reader in the scene and to remember the nuances that make the scene feel real even though it's only words on a page.

In Learning to Learn, we studied the importance of studying material and recalling that material in myriad places. Writers sometimes convince ourselves that taking our work somewhere outside our normal work environments to places where there might be distractions seems like too much trouble. So we don't do it. Yet every time I have, I've always been productive.

For example, recently, I had plans to study German with a classmate. I needed to run some errands in the area before we met, so I took a few pages of editing with me just in case I finished my errands early. I was already at the cafe where we planned to meet when I saw her email saying she wasn't coming because she didn't feel well. I looked at the cup of hot tea I'd already bought. I needed to stay there for at least twenty minutes to drink it, so I pulled out my editing. I started editing those pages and whipped through close to double what I would have likely accomplished in thirty minutes at home. Even though I was in a place filled with other people around me and the noises of a busy cafe, I focused on the pages in front of me as I sipped my tea. There wasn't any of the pull of what else I needed to do. I could see the pages in a different light. I could almost see the pages as someone other than the person who wrote them and that allowed me to both appreciate and assess them in a different way than I might have at home. A change of scenery not only helps us learn by giving us different associations with what we're learning but it helps us see the work we've done in a different way, too.

Writers need to recognize The Impostor, as it's referred to in the class, when it shows up to question it and learn what works for them to quiet The Impostor's voice. It took me years to acknowledge my impostor, Little Miss Impostor, existed and even longer to figure out how to combat her insistence that everyone knew all my flaws and would never see the good in me or in my writing. Little Miss Impostor shows up at some point in every single project I do. She whispers until she screams. She insists on being heard. I've gotten better at questioning Little Miss Impostor as she tries to keep me from achieving my very best. My particular voice obsesses over perfection. It reminds me that I'm not perfect and so will never be good enough. It whispers and screams and throws temper tantrums. It plays the wise older woman and the bratty ten-year-old. It gives me sweet smiles and scowling frowns. It drives me to obsess over things no one else will ever know about let alone notice. She reminds me that I may offend family or friends if I write something even if it is the truth. She points out that every single bad thing anyone has ever said about anything I've written. She points out every single mistake I've made in past work. And on and on she goes...

Until finally I sit back, take a deep breath, and tell Little Miss Impostor it's time to run along. I'm good enough. I know what I'm doing. She always promises to return another day, and I know she will. I deal with Little Miss Impostor by reminding her and myself that I am perfectly imperfect and imperfectly perfect just as I am.

Writers spend their lives learning and writing what they learn whether in fiction, poetry, or nonfiction. It's what I do anyway. Learning to learn has the potential to help writers research and assimilate knowledge better to enhance the material they write.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Empowerment in Manipulating Glass

The Glory Hole
Kaylee and TL
Standing in the heat emanating from the glory hole, I stared at the molten flame inside and watched the clear solid ball of glass with colored glass beads pressed into it transform into a malleable form. The colored beads spread through the clear glass as the heat kissed them simultaneously. I remembered having been in a similar position a few years earlier the first time I took a glass blowing class at the same glass art studio, Jennifer Sears Glass Art Studio in Lincoln City, Oregon - perhaps, glass blowing experience would be more accurate.
Glass Paperweight I made in 2009
The first time I took the glass blowing experience, I opted to make a heart shaped glass paperweight with red and black "veins" encapsulated in clear glass. I loved the first experience but wanted to try making a bowl or a vase ever since that first experience. A visit from my niece, Kaylee, gave me the perfect opportunity for an activity I thought we'd both enjoy!
Making the paperweight had involved much manipulation of the glass through shaping, forming, and stretching but not much blowing and I wanted that experience.
Kaylee moving her initial glass blob
to the glory hole.
I glanced over at Kaylee and observed her focus on her project and felt my glass blowing rod tip ever so slightly causing the glass to slide a bit to the side. The instructor reminded me to keep it steady. I smiled as I pulled my focus back to my project. Kaylee has an independent streak that assured me she could handle herself just fine. I glanced over my shoulder and smiled at my husband, Loay, who was taking photos of both Kaylee and me as we made our bowls.
TL heating the glass in the glory hole
I looked back at my no oddly shaped ball of melting glass in the glory hole, felt the heat on my face and body, and took a deep inhale and let out a long exhale. The weight of the rod in my hands shifted as I turned the rod to keep the glass in motion to keep the melting process even. I controlled the speed and tilt of the rod. I watched how gentle turns or a hesitation in the turn changed the way the colors melted and shifted the weight of the ball. I felt a surge of both power and concern.
My instructor gave me quiet, constant instruction and encouragement.
I remembered for a moment my first experience blowing glass when I made the paperweight. I'd felt quite distracted by a desire to make sure everyone else enjoyed the experience. Loay, Mom, and my nephew, Tyler, made their own projects. Dad and Aunt Geri watched from the audience area.
This time I didn't have those concerns, so I was able to concentrate on my project more intensely. I wanted to do more but soon realized there's only so much one can do in a thirty minute class, which is why I've come to think of it more as an experience. The teacher needs to keep the project moving along mainly because the glass cools rapidly making it difficult to shape but also so other people can enjoy the experience. They have a schedule to keep. Each time the glass cools too much, it has to go back in the glory hole to heat enough to manipulate again.
So I focused on my project and on what my teacher said and watched intensely the parts he did that I couldn't. And, I imagined doing those steps myself.
TL using the wooden form.
After we removed the glass from the fire, we used a wooden form to shape it before placing it back in the fire. I loved watching how the colors spread and twisted as I held the wooden form steady and my instructor turned the rod moving the glass in the form. As I used both hands to hold the form I couldn't help but feel a sense of appreciation for the skill of the glass artists who hold the glass and turn the rod at the same time!
Kaylee manipulating the glass to
create the design.
After we heated it in the glory hole again, we shaped it once more and I used diamond shears to pull the glass while the instructor held the rod steady and turned it. The pulling and twisting manipulated the colors by stretching and moving the colors into new positions. I got into this process and let my instincts take control as I picked the next place to grab the glass with the shears and shape it. I earned praise from the instructor during this process not that I was looking for it, but it did feel good to hear! This part of the process made it feel like the bowl was mine as I let my creative instincts inject themselves. Then we heated it again and shaped it again.
Kaylee blowing the glass
Every time I stole a quick glance at Kaylee, I appreciated her confidence and concentration. She appeared to stay right in the moment of each step of the process. Her ease with the experience reminded me that it's not my responsibility to make everyone around me happy. Her brother had exhibited the same ease when he learned the process. There's something about youth that allows one to immerse one's self into new experiences with much more ease than adults seem capable. I felt a sense of release as I allowed myself to tap into that ease and just enjoy the process. There's a sense of empowerment that comes with embracing the project at hand and letting one's other responsibilities fade into the background, even if only for a little while.
TL blowing the glass
Eventually, I got to blow air through the tube to open the end of the glass ball we'd made to change the shape to a bowl. I didn't remember doing this at all with the paperweight, but perhaps I did because there is a really cool bubble shape inside the paperweight that I've always really liked. I blew gently like instructed - apparently too gently because the teacher kept telling me I could blow a bit harder. Finally, the end opened and the basic shape appeared. There is power in gentleness, something else we tend to forget. So often we only equate power with brute force. As I blew air through the tube, the change created by that gentle effort was huge just as changes in life that occur from consistent effort can be. The instructor used the tongs to spread the end open creating a basic bowl shape. Then we took it back into the glory hole.

Teacher forming
the fluted bowl shape
We removed it from the glory hole. I thought for a moment about how we used heat and cold to manipulate the glass. The heat allowed us to change the glass and the cool solidified our efforts. Then the teacher held it upside down and twirled it around until the glass curved like waves and took the shape of a fluted bowl. So cool!
I both wanted to do this part and was relieved he did it. How exciting it would be to create that effect, but I get the impression that's an advanced technique. I watched the bowl take shape and felt a sense of accomplishment even given the collaborative effort.
Stamping the bowl.
After he pressed a ball of glass onto the bottom of the bowl and stamped it, he placed it in the annealer to cool. The annealer allows it to cool in a controlled environment, so it doesn't cool too fast. Just like in life, we have to allow things to heat and cool at the proper rates to exact the change we desire.
Then there was the wait for the final product...
While the glass blowing experience is definitely a collaborative effort, there's something empowering about feeling the heat emanating from the glory hole and watching the glass change into something that has a bit of your personality in it.
Kaylee's bowl ready
for the annealer.
While the first experience was fun, I felt more immersed in the second experience. I felt a sense of what I was doing and what I was creating. I felt ownership of the project in a way I didn't the first time. Was it a matter of having already had the experience or was it a matter of that feeling of being free to concentrate on the project without worrying about the experience others' were having? I'm not sure, maybe a bit of both. One thing is certain, watching a lump of clear glass with glass beads pressed into it morph into a beautiful piece of which one can be proud gives one a sense of accomplishment!
One consistent feeling between the two experiences was the sense of self-expression, freedom, and empowerment that came from the process of trying something I'd never dreamed I could do.
Granted, I didn't learn enough to try anything like this on my own, but what I did accomplish reminded me I have the power to learn new things and to create new experiences in my life...
TL's finished product
Kaylee's finished product
Like many other things I've done, glass blowing required me to stay in the moment. I've discovered so many things in life go so much better when one focuses on the moment at hand instead of thinking about what comes next...