Friday, August 27, 2010

Learning is like a giant paper-mache doughnut

First things first. Here is a link for Maggie Stiefvater's blog which I forgot to add after raving about it in my last post, just in case anyone wants to check it out.

On to the topic of the day: LEARNING!

The other day, my totally awesome kung-fu teacher (and you thought I was kidding about going to school while standing on one leg) was trying to help us understand the value of daily practice, even when it doesn't seem to be making any difference in our performance. She said it was like a tree with life-giving sap creeping up inside. At first, only the very bottom of the trunk is alive, but over time the sap inches up until even the highest branches are vibrant with life. In other words, every practice is another inch.

But did I see myself as a majestic oak, spreading its mighty branches to the sky? No. Being me, I imagined a plastic palm tree with a bicycle pump attached.

So, as I searched for an image that did work for me, I remembered a giant paper-mache doughnut I made in art class my junior year of high school. First, I twisted newspaper into a general doughnut shape and wrapped it with masking tape. Then I spent weeks coating it in dozens of layers of newspaper. Apply a layer, let it dry. Apply a layer, let it dry. Apply a layer, let it dry -- until I never wanted to read a newspaper or eat a doughnut ever again. I could have slacked off halfway through, and slapped on a lot of glossy paint the first time I got bored. The result might have been pretty, but it would have collapsed the first time a seventh grader stole it off the display shelf and punted it across the library. Instead, I stayed the course and got something that could have been a Blunt Object in an Agatha Christie novel.

And I've realized that this is the way I learn. I never get it right the first time. I had to read Romeo and Juliet five times before I got what all the fuss was about. I had to write three dozen school essays before I realized that I had things to say that hadn't already been put into books. And I had to practice approximately 7,978 palm strikes in kung-fu before I even came close to getting them right. But now, not only can I do those things, but I can do them well, so well that when a seventh grader takes them and punts them across the library, they don't fly into pieces.

Finally, I think that writing a novel works that way too. The first draft is really just an idea, with characters who behave in more or less consistent ways as they stumble through a landscape that changes every time you see a new special on the travel channel. Second draft, your characters begin to figure out who they are, only unfortunately, you don't like your heroine--in fact, you can't stand her. Third draft, you kill your baby and replace her with a much more engaging (hopefully) twin, who (you discover one day while missing your exit on the freeway) has a brother. Fourth draft, you've finally got characters you wouldn't be ashamed to introduce to your mother, although your plot is sort of like pastry when it hasn't got enough water and refuses to stick together. Fifth draft - well, I'm not sure what happens in the fifth draft, but when I find out, I'll let you know :)

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