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.

Schooling

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.

Deb in the field in Colorado working on a landslide study.
Deb in the field in Colorado working on a landslide study.
Deb in Level C gear filtering groundwater samples on a
field job.
Deb in Level C gear filtering groundwater samples on a field job.

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.

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Inspiration

Jerry skiing at Jackson Hole, Wyoming

Jerry skiing at Jackson Hole, Wyoming

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.
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Jerry at Toba Wilderness

Jerry at his most beloved cruising spot, near Toba Inlet in BC

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This post is dedicated to Jerry Blakely –  a wonderful mentor, devoted friend, and kind and generous man, who died four years ago today.

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Showing 10 comments
  • Terry Groves
    Reply

    Life is a journey, not a destination and, as in every journey we undertake, there is always something to learn. Undertaking some learning in advance of a journey is also recommended, afterall, who wants to visit a foreign country with no advance preparation to let us know what we need to be prepared for. As Deb has said, writing is another earning process, one that never ends and that is one of the parts that I love so much about it.

    Writeonski

  • Michael Crofoot
    Reply

    Very nice Deb. Let’s hear it for lifelong learning….

  • Terri-Lynn
    Reply

    Prayers for Jerry, thank you for sharing Deb.

  • Sarah Shaw
    Reply

    Nice read, thank you Deb.

  • Carol Messier
    Reply

    A beautiful dedication to Jerry. I think of Jerry often and keep a picture of him along with my brother (who passed away 2 years ago) in a spot when I need some inspiration, to remember to not sweat the small stuff, and to be kind. Jerry was always so thoughtful in what he did and said. Definitely someone who made an impression on my life even though I only knew him for a short period. I love reading your blog. It inspires me too.

  • Garry Maurath
    Reply

    Well said, and better yet, well lived.

  • Scott Burns
    Reply

    Deb – I love what your wrote! Thanks for the tribute to Jerry – a great guy! He died way too young. I love your comparisons between geologists and writers – geologists study the earth and the processes that shape it and a writer studies the human heart and the processes that shape it – I love that comparison! It is so true. I have forever in my classes taught students that rocks have a story – it is up to us to learn that story! Mother Nature is shouting out to us – we need to listen and learn that story! So true!

    Keep on blessing us with your writing!

    Scott

  • Sara Eisenberg
    Reply

    Thanks, Deb, for the many practical hints as you describe your approach to apprenticing as a writer, helpful to one who is maybe ready to graduate from the bunny slope!

  • Deborah Davis
    Reply

    Brave and persevering you!

  • Andie Ptak
    Reply

    Your strength and passion for living never ceases to amaze me. I cannot wait to read more about this “new trade.”

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