Learning, Training, Practicing–Say What?

I talk about writing a LOT. I talk to anyone who will listen. However, I usually don’t talk about my work, my stories, what I am working on unless I am asked. Most people don’t want to hear about it, so no need to bore them with the things I find exciting in my work. Unless you are my wife, my editor or my publisher, you won’t hear me start a conversation about my writing.

Writing has brought me a lot of joy over the years. It’s been therapeutic. I’ve been able to express my sadness, anger, jealousy and resentment in stories. I’ve also been able to express my happiness, love and humor. I’ve been able to creep people out, make them cry, make them smile, make them feel. Having someone feel something after reading one of my stories is one of those things that drives me to get better, to learn how to write better with each story I tell.

Learning. That’s the ticket, as my old friend, Chris, would say. 

The entire sentence is important, but that one word … that one word makes the sentence and, for lack of a better term, the story. 

Learning is one of the most important aspects of life, and not just as a child, but as an adult as well. 

As a child, you learn how to roll over and get onto your stomach. Then you learn how to crawl. Eventually, you learn how to pull yourself up to a standing position. This is followed by many attempts to walk the way you see your parents or older siblings or anybody else in the world who, well, walks. You learn the most important word of your childhood by hearing your mother repeat, “Say Mommy.” Interestingly enough, saying Mommy or Da-da is like a competition for the parents, with each one hoping their child will say their moniker for parent first.

You learn by watching what others do, by listening to what they say. I find it interesting that as children under the age of two, we are/were at our most attentive, listening, seeing and learning selves. Little ones soak up everything you say, everything you do. Then they try these things, like walking and talking. It’s amazing. Don’t believe me? Cuss one time in front of your child and see what happens. At such a young age, we train ourselves to do things we see others do. Yes, I said train. I’ll come back to this in a second, so stick with me for the next couple to few paragraphs.

At some point, most children want to learn how to ride a bike. Most first bikes come with training wheels. They’re called training wheels for a reason: they help you stay upright on a bike as you learn to peddle and steer, as you train. You get on the bike and Mom or Dad gives you a gentle push, maybe even walking right alongside you as you first put foot to peddle and make the bike go. By doing this, you, the bike rider, are both learning and training yourself on how to do something. The learning is mental. The training is physical. Your brain tells you, push down on the peddle with this foot, then push down on the peddle with the other foot. With conscious effort, you put your foot on the peddle and push down. The peddle turns the gears with the bike chain wrapped around them. The bike goes forward. 

The effort is the training. When you actually physically do what your brain tells you to do, you are training your body how to do it and your brain how to remember it. In this case, your brain tells you how to peddle and you physically attempt it. You’ve seen someone do it, so you are already learning what you are supposed to do. The first few times are usually awkward and difficult, but eventually, the muscles in your legs and feet and hips all work together and you begin to ride the bike with less difficulty.

Then the training wheels come off and you get that push or that parent running alongside you and the front wheel wobbles as you try to steer while looking down at your feet, at the peddles that don’t want to do what you want them to do. You probably crashed a few times as you trained your legs to peddle and your body to balance and your hands to steer the handlebar straight so you don’t tip over or crash into something. 

Eventually, though … eventually, what you learned in your mind, you trained your body to do and you rode that bike. You got excited and probably screamed at the top of your lungs in happiness and exhilaration because, by God, you rode the bike. And you probably crashed. But for a moment, you rode that bike and you were the king of the world as Jack said in Titanic. 

You learned, mentally, what to do. You trained, physically, to be able to do what you learned. 

So far: learning is mental and intellectual, and training is the continued attempts to do what you learned. 

Life isn’t only about learning things and training is not just physical. It’s also about training your mind and your body to do things. 

Early in life, I was not all that great at math. Two plus two equaled four like it is supposed to, but multiplication and division and algebra were struggles to learn. Being told four multiplied by four is sixteen is great but being shown was better. Being shown was great but given problems to solve was better. I also hated it. The higher the numbers got, the more difficult it was for me to learn their totals. You want me to multiply eight by nine? Are you serious? Are you some sort of math psycho who relishes the struggles of us non-mathites? 


I also found math boring. 

Then I started watching sports. Sports is all about math. The scores are done in numbers. The statistics are all numbers. The records are numbers. Numbers. Numbers. Numbers. 

In order to understand statistics, I sat down in my room with a pencil and paper and wrote out the multiplication table, starting with one and going to twelve. I struggled with it until I realized that each number was simply added by the number of its multiplier (something the teacher could have explained and I probably would have understood a lot quicker). For example: six multiplied by seven is six added up seven times. 6+6+6+6+6+6+6= 42. I then wrote out every problem as I did in that example in the last sentence. I added them as if they were simple addition problems. 

By doing it that way, I trained my brain to add quickly. So, if someone said, ‘Hey, add this up for me,’ then tossed out a few numbers, I was/am able to tell them the answer fairly quickly. 

Learning the multiplication table wasn’t difficult, but it took training my brain to process those numbers for me to learn math. Now, math is second nature to me, and I can usually spout the answers off without much thought. 

Training is mental as well as physical. 

As we get older, learning and training become more difficult, not because it is, but because we make it difficult. I’m too old to learn new things. We make excuses as to why we can’t do something. For most of us the truth is we don’t want to learn something new, we don’t want to train our brains or our bodies to do something new. And that’s where we fail, not just in learning, but in becoming better at something … anything. It’s arrogance. It’s ignorance. It’s laziness. 

Are you still with me? I hope so.

I have a friend. Yes, just one. His name is Dameion. We both write and we both have our own viewpoints about writing and storytelling. (For the record, Dameion is one of those writers I am envious of. His words just spill off the paper.) He’s like a brother to me, one I never see, but talk to when we are both available. We were talking recently about writing. You learn how to write in school—or at least you used to. You learn basic sentence structure and punctuation but that’s pretty much it. Most of this stuff you forget. Why? Because you are told about it, not shown how to do it. When you are shown, you’re only given a handful of assignments or opportunities to actually practice it. You take a test, pass or fail, then move on to something else, so it doesn’t stick. 

What sticks is when you physically do something. By physically doing something repeatedly, you train your brain and your body to remember how to do those things. It becomes muscle memory and you do it without thinking once you’ve practiced it. For example: they say once you learn how to ride a bike, you never forget. You might get rusty, but if you learned how to ride a bike at six and you stopped riding a bike at sixteen, at fifty-three you will be able to get on a bike and ride it. Muscle memory.

Telling a story, orally, is easy. If you’ve ever told a good joke, then you have told a story. Why did the chicken cross the road doesn’t count. Okay, fine, we’ll let it count, but only if you told it to someone who had never heard the joke. Good luck with that.

When you verbally tell a story, you get into it. You add little things to show the person (or people) listening something about where you were or what was going on. You can become animated with hand gestures and tone of voice and facial expressions. By doing all of this, you show your listener(s) the story. If you are really good at it, you can be a comedian. 

You learned how to tell a story by listening to others tell stories. If they were good at it (as my grandfather was), then you will pick up some good pointers by watching them. If they were bad at it, then the lessons you pick up will not be the ones that help you tell a good story. When you’ve seen someone who can speak, either in public or private, it doesn’t mean you can become a great speaker. It just means you have seen someone else do it right. It is up to you to gleam what you can from it and practice what you learned. The practice aspect is part of the training. It’s where you train your mind to think, your voice to have tone, your facial expressions and hand gestures to be coordinated with your words.

Writing is the same. A lot of your learning comes from reading. You learn neat turns of phrases, styles, descriptors, pacing, dialogue, and plenty more from reading. The trick is to not just learn these things, but to practice them. 

When I wanted to become a better writer, I picked the brains of other writers. I asked questions and read stories that were suggested to me. If I wanted to know about dialogue, I asked questions about it, then I wrote stories that were dialogue heavy to see if I could move the story along using conversations. If I wanted to learn descriptions, I asked questions about it, then wrote stories heavy on descriptions, then flipped the script and wrote stories light on descriptions in order to try and find the sweet spot for descriptions. The talking to writers and gathering information was the learning part. The putting words to paper and writing was the training part. 

Then came the practicing.

Are you still with me? Hang on a little longer. We’re nearing an end to this (probably) confusing topic.

Practice is honing what you have learned and trained yourself to do. 

I was a good basketball player. When I was a kid I loved Len Bias, who played for the University of Maryland. He was smooth and fascinating to watch. He was, in my opinion, the greatest basketball player to never play in the NBA (he died of a drug overdose the day after being drafted by the Boston Celtics—I cried). Though I wasn’t a fan of the University of Maryland, I watched their games when they came on television just so I could see Bias play. I paid close attention to the way he shot the ball, the way he played defense, the way he moved up and down the court. Then I would go outside and try to teach myself what I saw him do. After a while, I moved on to other players who did things that interested me. Jeff Lebo played for the University of North Carolina and was a great outside shooter. Michael Jordan (come on, do I need to say who he played for?) was a phenomenal defender and a better passer than most people give him credit for. 

I watched them to learn what they did. I trained myself by trying different ways of doing what they did. I practiced daily.

Practicing something you have learned and trained on will only make you better. 

All of this points to one thing in particular: training your brain. When you train your brain, it becomes muscle memory after your body is trained to do it. All of us have something we are good at, but we didn’t get good at just by saying we were going to be good at it. We became good at it after we learned, trained,  and practiced. All of that starts with your brain, with a thought your brain has, with you putting forth the effort to learn, then applying what you learned. 

The bottom line to the previous 2300 words is this: if you ever want to be good at something (you know, like writing), you need to learn it, train yourself to do it, then practice at it. Hmm … I probably could have just said that to start with …

Until we meet again, my friends, be kind to one another.


A.J.

The Misadventures of …

I’ve had an idea for years—at least since 2008—but I have never really acted on it. Until now.

A couple of weeks ago Cate and I worked the Cayce Festival of the Arts right down the road from where I grew up and at the high school I graduated from. We had my books and her bookmarks out. I did a reading of one of my short stories, which went better than expected. It was a long day, but a good one. We did okay, as far as sells were concerned. We enjoyed ourselves and we met some cool people.

One thing Cate noticed that I didn’t (probably because she is much better about these things than I am) is how many children came to our table with their parents wanting books. She noted that at least a dozen little kids came to our table looking for children’s books. Unfortunately, they walked away empty handed.

“Are you ever going to write that children’s book you talked about a few years ago?” she asked me.

“I don’t know,” I responded. “I’ve played around with the idea, but I’ve never really tried to write it.”

“You should.”

“Why is that?”

She went on to explain how many kids walked away, disappointed I didn’t have any children’s books (especially seeing how we had a stuffed teddy bear in bunny pajamas on the table).

Later that evening we talked about it again. A couple of days passed and we talked about it again.

It’s not like I don’t already have a concept for the book. I do. I think it is a good idea. I also think it will be fun to write. With that in mind, I am attempting to write a children’s book. It is a daunting task, but one I look forward to.

Let me be honest here: writing a children’s book is completely out of my element. It’s nothing like writing a short story or novel. It is completely different and new to me. It will be a learning experience, and hopefully, something I can apply to my writing as a whole, going forward.

I’m excited about this, and I hope you are, too.

Over the next few weeks I will post updates here. Part of the reason for that is to hold myself accountable. By putting this out there, it makes me stay true to my word and do it. Hopefully, if you are not excited about this right now, you will be by the end of the process.

Consider this the first update.

April 8th: Cate and I worked the Cayce Festival of the Arts and she suggested writing a children’s book.

April 9th: Scoured the computer for a file I wrote back in 2008. It took me half an hour to find it, but there it was under Misadventures of Scarecrow Girl and Pumpkin Boy. I Opened the file and read the contents—all 1489 words.

This is where I put my head in my hands and said, “What the heck was I thinking when I wrote that drivel?” It wasn’t that it was bad, but it wouldn’t do for a children’s book.

April 11th: Cate and I went to the library and checked out a few children’s books of various lengths and subjects.

April 13th: I sat down with pad and pencil and the stack of children’s books and read. I made notes in my handy dandy notebook (come on, please tell me someone got the reference), paying close attention to how much text was on the pages and how many pages were in each book. Just for the record, there was a lot more text than I expected and the average pages in each book was 28 (most of the books ran from 26-32 pages in length).

April 14th, 15th & 16th: Online research about children’s books and how to write them. There is a lot of content on the interwebs. Most of them said very similar things in what is needed in a children’s books. Notes were made. Thoughts were had. Ideas were forthcoming.

April 17th & 18th: Here is where I did a lot of reading on the actual rules of writing children’s books. As any of you who follow this page knows, I often break the rules of writing. Many writers think I suck because of that. The readers, however, like the way I write, so I break the rules when it is warranted. The thing about children’s books, though, is you can’t really break a lot of the rules. They are a tough crowd and their attention spans are not quite as long as an adult’s (for the most part). The structure, amount of pages and words and the types of words used are very important to holding that attention span.

Several pages in the notepad were filled, some of them highlighted—these are what I took as some of the most important points to remember.  I will refer back to this over and over as I go forward.

April 18th: Started outlining what I hope will be a good story. Brainstorming, complete with the thunder, lightning and rain in the brain.

April 19th: Finished the outline at lunch and read it over. There is a dilemma and a moral and it is not preachy. I like it. I think you will, as well.

April 19th: Getting more excited about this.

There is one other thing I haven’t told you. My kids, The Girl and The Boy, want to illustrate the book. This excites me as much as writing the actual story. It remains to be seen if they will actually do it, but the opportunity is there for them.

So, that is what I have for now. The beginnings of a children’s book. I hope it turns out the way I want it to. If it does, there may be more of these in the future. i don’t know yet.

What I do know is I am excited. I think I have said that a few times here in this post. I hope you all are as excited.

Until we meet again my friends, be kind to one another.

A.J.