Sunday, June 14, 2009

The Many Ways to Learn

Yesterday my husband Damien and I went to a panel discussion at the Alaska Book Festival. This Festival is still very new (this was the third annual) and it’s still finding its feet, so the variety of events is disappointing. Even so, every year since the first I’ve gone to at least one event and found it interesting and useful.

Yesterday’s panel discussion was perhaps the most intriguing yet. They had a nice range of panelists: a published writer, a self-published writer, an editor for a small publishing house, and a book reviewer for the local newspaper. The topic was publishing and marketing and with such a range of perspectives we learned about really the whole process, from how to make yourself stand out to get that book deal to begin with to how to market your book once it’s out there.

This is the sort of practical information that we all need to know if we want to move beyond writing stuff that we deem brilliant and then stow away in our desk drawer forever and actually writing stuff that is actually going to be read. I left the panel discussion with a page and a half of notes that I will probably revisit over and over again from now on.

Another quick anecdote and then you’ll see (I hope) where this is going: when I was an undergrad, I took a class on Latin American Women’s Lit (we read some really cool stuff in that class, by the way). One day during class the teacher stopped in the middle of a lecture and frowned at us. She wanted to know why none of us were taking notes on what she was talking about. Somebody pointed out that there are no tests in the class, just essays, so why would we need to take notes? The teacher was enraged. She said that when she graduated from college she had boxes and boxes of notes, which she’d hung on to ever since and had gone back and reviewed numerous times. Were we really just concerned with whether or not we would be tested over the information? Didn’t we want to actually learn this stuff?

As you can imagine, all of the students in the class (my young bratty self included) thought she was being absurd. You actually think we’re going to keep our college notes forever? We burn them in a primal celebration at the end of each semester. We do what it takes to get whatever grade we want and once we get that grade we move on.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned through my many years of student and then teacherhood, it’s that most people aren’t really interested in learning the things that you’re forcing them to learn (or that they feel they’re being forced to learn). But let someone go out and pursue knowledge on their own and they’ll take notes, they’ll listen closely and they’ll even look up the information later.

When I was a grad student, I was appalled by how many of the students would not do the assigned reading, and hardly anyone ever took notes during class. I’m serious! These are people who were working themselves as English teachers, who had Bachelor’s Degrees in English, and who theoretically had made a decision to really commit their lives to Literature, either as writers or scholars, and yet many of them still totally slacked off at school (and I have to admit, I slacked off sometimes too). But I’ve noticed that at Book Festival events or that sort of thing, most of the people take notes, many of them ask questions during the Q and A after, and pretty much all of them seem excited to learn what the people on stage have to teach.

The variables are so different when you’re seeking out knowledge on your own versus learning it in a formal academic program. Still, I think either way it comes down to whether or not you're willing to put the effort in. One thing that I think it’s always useful to remember, though, is that the knowledge is out there. There are writer’s groups. There are conferences. There are Book Festivals and readings and all manner of other literary and writer’s events (many of which are free!). It seems that ultimately whether you grow to the point of being able to reach success has much more to do with your own will to actually do it than whether you were accepted into or joined an MFA program.

No comments: