NOTE: This post is about acknowledging the fact that I still have a lot to learn. In the first few paragraphs, I address a sensitive matter involving animal husbandry. Though I’ve tried not to go into great detail, and made every effort to maintain respect for the animals, if you think the topic will be too upsetting, please skip down to start reading at the paragraph that begins “It really struck a chord with me.”
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Yesterday, my Hubenstein stumbled over a Ted Talk by Mike Rowe, the “Dirty Jobs” guy. In it, Mike talks about an experience he had when filming one of his shows on a sheep farm where the job included—steady yourself on the furniture—castrating lambs. Now I’m vegan, but I made myself watch the rest of this talk (there were no visuals, thank the gods), and I’m glad I did. Here’s why.
Mike explained that he usually doesn’t do prior research for his “jobs.” He just shows up and does what he’s taught. But he knew this one would be a sensitive subject for viewers and for his crew, so he spoke to several animal welfare groups, including PETA, about how the procedure was accomplished. All three told him that the proper method of castration involved a rubber band; the rest I’ll leave to your imagination. So Mike shows up with his crew for this job and is shocked when the farmer pulls out a knife and proceeds without any band. Snip snip, the altered lamb is set on its feet, and the next lamb is put on the table for its turn.
Mike confronted the farmer and insisted that for the purposes of this film, they do it the “right” way. The farmer nods, rubber-bands the next lamb, and sets it down on its feet, whereupon it promptly falls over, trembling. Mike watched, stunned. The banded lamb could barely stand and was clearly in distress; when asked, the farmer explained that the banding process would take perhaps a week to achieve the desired result. The snipped lamb on the other hand, whose bleeding had stopped within minutes, was already playing and romping again. Mike said he realized in that moment just how wrong he’d been, even though he—and several “expert sources”—had been totally convinced they were right.
It really struck a chord with me because while I’ve never been in that particular situation, experience has taught me that learning is a lifelong process. Just when I think I know all I need to about any given subject, some new lesson comes along, smacks me in the face, and shoves me back to “grasshopper” level. The more “right” I think I am, the farther—and harder—the fall usually feels.
This has been especially true with my writing. For example, a few years ago, I was convinced my manuscript was the best it could be, that I knew exactly how to move it forward. I believed the only education I still needed to pursue revolved around how to get published. I burned 35 bridges querying agencies and publishers before realizing that my work was nowhere near ready. It was a hard lesson, one I’ve repeated with several of my short pieces, and one I’m trying harder these days to remember. Better to take longer and actually reach my goal, than to rush and never make it at all. Right?
To me, the world of writing and publishing seems to be organic. Alive. Dynamic. Readers’ demands and expectations change over time, thus rules and wish-lists change for agents and publishers. That means writers must remain vigilant and up-to-date on the latest guidelines to know what the market wants at any given time.
In such an ever-evolving industry, the implication seems clear to me that I need ongoing education. I’ve lost track of how many classes I’ve taken on the subject, how many books and blog posts I’ve read to help me improve my craft. Yet I am constantly reminded of how much I still have to learn. Even now, a simple “Show, Don’t Tell” or “Storyboarding” workshop at a conference can send me away with some tidbit of new information or creative technique which can help me further hone my skill. A Scrivener class where eight out of ten students are beginners and I am not can still teach me better ways to use that software. Beta-reading or critiquing the work of fellow writers is always an opportunity to learn new or more imaginative ways of doing/describing/detailing in my own projects.
Yet the most important thing I’ve had to learn in order to improve my proficiency is how to admit that I could always be better. That I don’t know all I need to in order to be a great writer. Other writers’ mileage may vary, but for me this lesson has rung true again and again.
There is a Buddhist parable of a student who, despite believing himself well-educated , asked a teacher about Zen. The teacher refilled the student’s tea but did not stop pouring even when the liquid overflowed the cup and ran across the table. When the student objected, the teacher said “You are like this cup. You have asked me to teach you, but I can’t fill a cup that is already full.”
This is how I try to view my knowledge of this craft. As Michael said in “Stranger in a Strange Land,” I am only an egg. Part of my journey as a writer is to keep learning, keep asking questions, keep striving toward greater command of my craft. It’s not only my duty to myself as a creative person, but to my future readers. They deserve the very best I can offer.
What are your thoughts on learning? Do you feel there is ever “enough” education or skills development, especially the field of writing and publishing?