Learning slowly: what writing teaches me about life

Learning slowly: what writing teaches me about life
Photo by Denise Krebs. Used with permission of a Creative Commons license, which you can find here

A student came to my office today to talk about her literacy autobiography, in which she celebrates a teacher who helped her learn that becoming a writer takes lots of time. It struck me as one of those insights that everyone knows, but we need someone to put it into words for us.

One of the abilities I bring to the table is the ability to move and think quickly. In school, I was in my element during essay exams. Given thoughtful questions and 50 minutes, I was able to produce solid, well-written responses. I often do better at public speaking when it’s off the cuff than when I have time to plan. I can learn new games and new patterns with speed. All of these worked together to make me a good student, but they also worked together to teach me that being good at something was spontaneous.

In my freshman year of college I put off working on research papers until the last moment. On Sunday I began writing the first of five research papers, one for each class. I “researched” and wrote one per day. The lowest grade I received on any of them was a B+. It was the worst thing that could have happened, because I learned that I could succeed without trying very hard. Writing didn’t require lots of effort.

I didn’t have the self awareness to see that I had spent my whole life working at writing. I wrote stories and essays and journal entries and poems and news stories. I was a stringer for my local newspaper, the Santa Fe New Mexican, when I was in high school, meeting deadlines every weekend. In my personal life, student life, and work life writing figured prominently.

Yes, I was blessed with some natural ability, handed down by two very articulate parents. But I also practiced. And practiced. And practiced. Adults around me, from teachers to parents to the editor of the New Mexican invested time and attention in me. They encouraged me and gave feedback.

It wasn’t until graduate school that I learned to revise, and it changed me. It began as failure when a teacher handed back a paper and told me to try again. I was stunned and made an appointment to speak with her. She clarified the assignment and I went back and tried again, approaching the ideas from a different angle. When I returned it to her, she was stunned. She couldn’t believe that I took her revision suggestions to heart and transformed the paper.

Revision was a survival tool in graduate school. I realized I needed feedback early on so that I could revise before I handed in something to a professor. I came to accept that a thesis and dissertation were the result of writing and rewriting and rewriting again. A week before my defense a professor on my committee handed back a copy of my dissertation with comments for revision, nothing big he said. There were 121 comments.

This is not to say that revision was a good experience for me. It was torture. I had inscribed in my heart and soul that I was a writer. Not just a writer, but a good writer. Graduate school ripped away that identity, and my life since then has been a story of rebuilding my identity as a writer, but a different kind of writer. I am now a writer who needs to revise and revision has taught me about myself and my field of study. That’s especially good since I’m a writing teacher.

So my student’s high school teacher helped her learn something it’s taken much of my adulthood to learn. Writing takes time and lots of it. Not only that, but also that revision isn’t a sign of failure. Instead, it’s a just part of the writing process.

In education, we talk about “transfer,” the ability to transfer skills and knowledge in one area and use them in a different area. Transfer is the hardest part of learning. It means taking a concept from one context and using it as a lens through which to view other contexts. It means remaking knowledge and skills in light of a new context. It means seeing connections.

Writing isn’t the only thing that takes a lot of time, you see. So many things do. Like accepting yourself as you are. Like being compassionate toward yourself and others. Like experiencing an emotion without being consumed by it. Like finding balance between life and work.

I heard this recently: “Allow yourself to learn slowly.” It’s a hard thing for me to do. When I don’t get the right answers or when I struggle with a skill everyone else seems to have well in hand, I feel a grave sense of failure. But as in writing, so is life. Life is about revision, which means being willing to do it wrong and then trying again, changing things up, realizing that everyone struggles.

I’m learning to accept this. In little ways first.

Today I managed to get myself into the drive through lane of Starbucks instead of the lane that led out of the parking lot. I was behind four other cars (who, by the way, were seemingly ordering dozens of complicated drinks judging by length of the wait). Although impatience is definitely something I need to work on, it was my first reaction that needs the most help.

“Idiot,” I said to myself. But I stopped and thought for a moment. I’ll bet people do this a hundred times a day. And then I used my new rule of thumb, WWISL,“What Would I Say to Lori,” my bff. I would never, even in jest, call her an idiot. 

Because she’s not. And neither am I. I just need to allow myself to learn slowly.

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