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.

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