If the world gave you exactly what you’ve always wanted, a chance, would you have the balls to follow through? Last Wednesday, after seven magical years rolling paper (don’t ask) in Calgary’s oil & gas downtown mecca, I was ‘temporarily’ laid off. Stress, panic, pain… the energy in this city is darkening. Continue reading
When you’ve exhausted all avenues of procrastination, when you’ve done the dishes, called your mother, cleared your inbox, and cum until your wrist aches… all that’s left is you and time, locked in a stalemate. This is the moment of courage, of faith. Why write a novel? Why put yourself through the torture of trying to communicate an intimate kaleidoscope reality, an entire world, through the blind stick figure middlemen of letters on a page? This cannot be a choice, because if it were, no novel would ever have been written. Story pushes up from somewhere deep, deep within our bodies – our words are only the tiny penis tip of our creation.
Words. Like icebergs, they hide the danger of their true momentum far beneath the surface of the screen. Words, such failingly inadequate tools of translation, trying desperately to bring two brains into harmony, two viable worlds into parallel, if only for a few hours. But this is enough. It has to be. Because it is all we have.
Our office I.T. man just caught me crying at the reception desk, a smile on my face, but tears rolling freely down my cheeks. He caught me playing with words. I can feel my story rising, but my bones won’t give it up so easily. I’m sweating in sheer liquid terror of commitment. This is National Novel Writing month and the pressure’s on. Time taunts me from my wrist, the corner of my computer screen, the phone display. Its old dare is full force in my ears…. Come on, come on Cymbria, take me, use me to hold your story away from your body long enough to share.
I am not a coward. But maybe I am. Maybe that’s why my story is so hard. My body knows the truth, that once I commit to the novel, there is no other way. Why write a novel when immortality is a lie? Trends tease, then take it all away. Computers crash and books burn. Why write a novel? Because it is not a choice. It is an act of desperation. One story standing brave before the Tiananmen onslaught of our oblivion. It is the physicality of our body’s deepest truth, and hope. We can try to mute it, tamp it down with drugs, drama, or alcohol. We can lie to ourselves and say it won’t mean anything. Or that nobody will care. Money? In this age of cheapened, transient words, money is a mockery of motivation.
If you’re already writing this November for NaNoWriMo, I am in awe of your bravery. My own novel is taking me on a far longer journey – damn it! We want to connect, to time, to ourselves, and to others – it is our most primal want. If words are your tool of connection, you have no choice. What do I want? I want magic, like the first hot breath of a BJ, I want to feel my readers wanting everything I have to give them, and then wanting more. Because in the end, want makes time real, and this is all we have.
Sweating under the old Ra-born Egyptian sun, workers beat together layers of cross-layed papyrus… A medieval lamb is slaughtered and stretched into vellum for an illuminated manuscript (so often immortalizing another Lamb)… In Gutenberg’s press, each letter, carrying its own weight, brands its ink deep into the page… With 48 words, I have just given you 26 minutes of my life. My words are not cheap. Some writers thrill in the process, but I’m not one of those 2AM keystroke masturbators. Sure, I’ve let out the occasion (brutally embarrassing!) orgasmic coffee shop exaltation when a chapter comes together. But for a sensory creature like myself, translating an entire viable world of colours, tastes, and textures into incremental contrasts of black and white is an exhausting exercise in intellectual masochism. So why bother? I write because I have to. Without this medium, I am alone in my ideas; I become mute, a helpless slave to a poorly fitting paradigm that leaves me badly blistered by the end of every workday. I’m writing to escape this cold little office and the passive, slow death it represents. OK, admittedly I’m having a bit of a shitty day here at work – let’s get back on topic. I work because I have to, because I love a man who is everything except a sugar daddy. And I write because I love myself enough to know that this is not enough. I want. I want!! When I climb down after taking my fill of pleasure from that man, I can’t help but revel in naughty glee that my love has left its marks. I was here. I took. I gave. I loved! Throughout our history, words have been born of passion and violence in both form and function. And now what? We take our fill and then turn off the screen? Blank. Nothing. No evidence of our pleasure. No reciprocation of value by the offering of space on a shelf. A denial of value and a denial of time… a denial of ourselves. When you take away the value of words, you take away their power to change. I want my books to remember me. I want to leave them sweaty, ‘red’, and desperate for air – the way they leave me. I want the responsibility for their care and ownership. I want to hold their futures in my hands. And I want them to feel time the way I do, because my own words cost me so much. I want my books wrinkled and scarred, with wayward bugs entombed and immortalized between their pages. But what if you go on vacation? Isn’t an eReader so much more convenient? Since when have words been about convenience?! The last time I opened an Agatha Christie, a small dribble of cottage sand spilled out onto my pillow. I rubbed it between my fingers as I flipped the pages and drank in my paperback’s delicious, comfortable mustiness. Suddenly I was back on the beach, savouring an old friend page by page, memory by memory. Yes, with an eReader or tablet, a Kobo or Kindle, you can bring an entire library with you on vacation, but it only takes one real book to bring the beach back home. I rest my case.
Humanity, at its most raw, is heroic. We celebrate those among us who live the glamour of our extremes and brave the consequences. When sensations and emotions are freed from social conventions to engage with the paradoxical poles of existence in an honest dialogue… well, you get On The Road.
Jack Kerouac typed his seminal Beat scroll in three mad benzedrine fuelled weeks in 1951 after seven years riding alongside its hero, Dean Moriarty – his friend Neal Cassady. Through chronicling Cassady’s untamed (let’s be honest – adolescent) humanity, Kerouac became our hero. For more than 50 years we’ve been wanking off to Kerouac’s rhythmic angst and Cassady’s inspirational intensities. But what happens to our heroes?
Jack Kerouac drank himself to death hiding away with his mother. Neal Cassady stumbled into oblivion… literally! Words have caught them at their most luminous, in that one brief brilliance when an exceptional adult intellect can sing true to its child’s soul, before the brain is forced to mature or push its truths into death. Awful, really.
Sensitive? Overwhelmed? Are you a Neal Cassady or a Jack Kerouac? Do you live your extremes or document them? Do you give of yourself, or your production? The pain is the same, and the joy, but the difference is what is offered up to time and to the broader human system. But here’s the thing. Our heroes don’t give a shit – not about legacy, humanity, or even (through legacy and humanity) immortality. Their brains care about feeling good and whatever story supports that truth – just like ours. But fame and fortune don’t matter to our heroes, social awards and ‘doing the right thing’ don’t feed or sustain – that’s why they’re our heroes!
Maybe we don’t have to choose. Maybe there’s another way. What if we make the exploration of our humanity the article of production? What if the act of life without limits becomes a chronicle in real-time that can only exist with continued participation of that life? What if we take Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle into our own systems? What if “look what I did” becomes “look what I am”? What if we let the act of writing, the mood of the day, even the choice of outfit, build our stories?
What if we dare to become our heroes?
Are you a member of AA? We get no respect. No one understands us. We’re forced to sneak off alone to little shadowy (wi-fi equipped) corners to indulge our habits. We don’t get any sympathy, let alone accreditation, for our addictions. Don’t bother hiding your insatiables behind denial. Come on in and pull up a chair. Welcome to Autodidacts Anonymous.
Throughout history, self-directed learners have been responsible for many of our greatest leaps forward in math, science, literature, architecture… etc. I keep this impressive list of self-taught innovators in my back pocket to defend myself against everyone who has called me crazy for choosing to leave university one year into my degree, when I had a 4.0 (as in perfect) GPA and full scholarships for all four years. I know you’re reading this probably thinking, “Idiot!” Shock, disbelief, pure unadulterated horror – the reactions I got were akin to if I’d confessed to a habit of maiming puppies. Worse still, I followed up my news with, “…and I want to be a writer.” Oh the agonies on the faces of those I loved!
Ten years later and I’ve never regretted my choice. Ok, ok, maybe there were one or two brief moments near the beginning when I was on lumber cash at Home Depot dealing with splinters and grumpy contractors at 7:30 in the morning. Since then, I’ve loaded up this brain with a vast and varied cache of information across more fields than I can list, all by using the 7 habits of highly effective (title inspired by this classic tome) autodidacts listed below. How the hell I’m going to use it to make a living has yet to be determined, but I can say with confidence that I have a graduate level degree equivalent in what could best be described as ‘the evolution of ideas’. In school I could feel my brain closing, tightening up, and now I know why…
Standardized education isn’t just about encoding information, it’s about encoding it in pre-prescribed neural linkage maps. The patterns of association that have been formalized by academia dictate to the brain ‘what goes with what’, ‘what came before what’, ‘this is correlated with that’, etc. Oh sure, you can put together a novel thesis within these parameters, but stray too far into divergent thinking and your 1st year T.A. or PHD committee will give you a big fat fail. How did I achieve an A+ average? I wrote my lab reports and picked my projects according to the personality of who was going to be marking them. Talk about subjective!
Not only does self-directed autodidact learning let you maximize your efficiency by engaging your interest and letting your moods and energy levels personalize your self-teaching schedule, it also builds a uniquely uninhibited neural linkage map that will free your brain to make new exciting connections, interpretations, and value assignments. This map grows organically according to your research through time and allows your brain structure and the pattern/chronology of input to directly influence its design. Read on to discover the 7 habits of highly effective autodidacts…
Habit One: Autodidact mission statement
Are you a generalist or a specialist? Are you tackling a specific topic in order to build a new skill set? What is the purpose of your learning? Pure pleasure? Potential profit? An autodidact mission statement will keep you focused on your learning goals and prevent you from getting sidetracked. As a writer and generalist, my learning mission has been to build a knowledge foundation to provide the broadest possible source material for metaphors, plot, settings, and characters – with a focus on cultural paradigm shifts throughout history. What’s yours?
Habit Two: Vary your sources
We live in an autodidact paradise. This article gives a great list of learning tips, resources, and websites. But don’t forget about books, conversations, and tactile explorations. Always approach a topic from multiple perspectives by using multiple sources, especially when using the internet. And if you start watching TED talks, be warned, they are extremely addictive!
Habit Three: Develop a personalized learning system
Are you a visual, auditory, or tactile learner? Develop your learning system to maximize memory encoding efficiency. Highlighting and once-over reading are bullshit. Unless of course, you’re one of those lucky buggers with a photographic memory. I’ve designed my own handwriting font and symbol set for maximum speed and readability. Writing down quotes and important facts gets more of the body/brain involved in the process and turns auditory information into visual and tactile. Taking notes also gives you a record of your autodidacticism. Source memory is easily corrupted, therefore, personally, I don’t bother too much with noting sources. I also recommend drawing pictures and diagrams to maximize your interaction with the topic and get your right brain involved. The more you can load up your associations for a concept, the more the circuitry is strengthened.
Habit Four: Test through application and socialization
Test your knowledge by commenting on related blogs, searching out conversations with people in the field, or by problem solving within your topic. Use the skills you’ve read about in real-world situations. Quiz yourself. Identify patterns across subjects. These patterns will also help in organizing how these topics are encoded in your brain.
Habit Five: Risk the knowledge path less traveled
Yes, the more passionate you are about a topic, the easier it will be to learn. But don’t wuss out and stick to old favourites. Sometimes you will need to hunker down and tackle what I call Bridge Topics. These are the connecting links between topics that don’t immediately engage your attention but will expand your understanding of your favourites (eg. study loom history and not just haute couture). Randomize!! Take advantage of the suggestion list on Youtube. Follow seemingly unrelated topic strings concurrently. Switching it up is a great way to find new patterns and linkages. Tackle Newton for an hour then take on Victorian kitchen gardens!
Habit Six: Respect the importance of words
We encode through interpretation rather than actual word for word. Knowing this, get fierce about the specific words used by your sources, especially quotes. Otherwise, you’ll be learning through a shallow, stagnant perspective and will miss out on the true depth of your study topics. Identify words that repeat across topics. Also, this skill will help you start to pay attention to the actual words used in conversation – especially handy when ‘negotiating’ with your spouse.
Habit Seven: Revisit and review
Periodically revisit and review source material from early in your topic study. Has your perspective changed? Do more layers appear? Does the information seem more nuanced? In terms of perceived importance, which facts stick out as ‘loud’, which are ‘quiet’? Ideally, this pattern will have changed since your first encounter, as your understanding will have evolved. Have you developed your own theses about the topic? Do these challenge the original source but hold up to argument? If so, give yourself a pat on the back. You’ve learned something. Which, I believe, is the whole point.