Going to School, Again
For me, if something’s worth doing, it’s worth learning to do it well. And that means going to school, perhaps in a traditional way, perhaps not.
I didn’t walk out of high school and into my professional life as a geologist. I went to school for six years. I studied in classrooms and labs. I tromped the Tobacco Root Mountains of Montana in field camp, and took field trips to diverse geologic terrains from the Adirondacks to the submarine canyons of St. Croix. Then I went to work, where in addition to learning the science, I was schooled in how to plan and implement a site investigation, how to interpret the collected data, how to draw maps and cross-sections that communicated that data best, and how to write a report that told a project’s story effectively. I apprenticed myself to excellent geologists and project managers. I learned my trade.
A New Trade?
I’ve always been an avid reader, I grew up in a house filled with books, and it took. I love to be transported by story, to landscapes and into emotions I’ve never known, and back to those I have. But when I sat down to write my first story, and then read the draft, yikes. It was clear to me there was much more to writing than just having a story to tell. Everyone has stories worth telling, but that doesn’t make everyone a writer. It was time to go to school again. But…I admit it was uncomfortable to be a novice, to not even know where to start. I had reached a certain age and level of competence at work, and in life. Was I really willing to not know how? Though I said I wanted to learn new things all through life, it was harder to step out of my comfort zone and do it.
Then another mentor came into my life – my late partner, Jerry. Not a natural athlete, and also of a certain age and level of competence in life, he took on learning to ski at 60. Both downhill and cross-country. He took lessons. He read and analyzed. And he practiced, taking joy in that work, celebrating his progression from green to blue to black slopes. It was inspiring. If Jerry could do it, learn something so outside his comfort zone and love the process, so could I.
I chose a non-traditional route for my education in writing, since spending months on field projects for work didn’t lend itself to a classroom schedule. I took classes at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival and the Taos Summer Writers’ Conference, I took online classes, and I studied authors I admire by reading and reading and reading. I learned to read as a writer. How did that author make me laugh? Or cry? I spent one summer re-acquainting myself with grammar, studying Sin and Syntax and Eats, Shoots & Leaves. And I practiced what I learned over and over, not unlike Jerry’s determined turns down the slopes. I still do.
It took years of my writing apprenticeship to find the story I needed to tell, then nine years and more drafts than I can count to tell it. Have I learned my craft well enough that readers will want to inhabit the world I’ve built with words and become acquainted with the characters who live in it? Again, I’ll have to step outside my comfort zone to find out. But like Jerry, I can push off the lip atop the slope and make the first turn.
This post is dedicated to Jerry Blakely – a wonderful mentor, devoted friend, and kind and generous man, who died four years ago today.