On Learning New Things

During my third semester at Vermont College of Fine Arts, my wonderful advisor Mary Quattlebaum gave me prompts to spark short writing exercises she called wordplays.  At one point, she asked me to write a wordplay about a time from my childhood or adolescence when I was learning something that didn’t come easily to me, and at another point, she asked me to write a scene in which the main character in my novel was learning something from another character.

I found both of those exercises extremely useful.  For the first, I wrote about learning to drive, when I couldn’t get the hang of how hard to turn the key in the ignition and it seemed like I’d never remember all of the things you were supposed to do before pulling out of the driveway.  As I wrote, I felt that anxiety and frustration rush back—that worry that I might not be able to do something everyone else in the world seemed totally capable of.  I saw myself squeezing the steering wheel too tight, hunching forward in the driver’s seat, and whipping around to tell my brothers to shut up.  And when I wrote the scene in which my main character was learning something from a boy she’d recently met (how to hit a baseball at the batting cages), I drew upon my sensory memories of learning to drive when they were appropriate, and I found out all sorts of interesting things about my character: what she does when she feels vulnerable, how she uses humor to stay in control, and how determined she can be to get something right.

While it was very helpful for me to remember what it was like to learn to drive, I hadn’t been a true beginner at anything for a long time…until I enrolled in a scuba diving class this summer.  The class was a lot of fun and I’m excited for future scuba adventures, but there was a moment during our second pool session when I got completely frazzled in a first-few-times-behind-the-wheel kind of way.


Scuba divers who are not frazzled beginners. (Photo taken by the talented Mike Fabius, who also gets credit for encouraging me to try diving.)

I was behind because I had accidentally put my wetsuit on inside out and then couldn’t get my snorkel attached to my mask.  Because I was flustered, I didn’t absorb what the instructor was demonstrating.  We were supposed to do a “tired diver’s tow,” and when it was my turn, I knew where to hold on to my buddy, but I had no idea what to do with my feet.  If I’d kept my cool, I could have figured out that the only logical possibility was to kick my fins underneath her body as I leaned back, but I froze and the instructor had to come over and demonstrate for me again.  Everyone else knew what to do, it seemed, but I just hadn’t gotten it.

I’ve been thinking about that experience at scuba class and about how much I realized about my character and remembered about myself when I wrote those wordplay scenes in which she or I was learning something new.  I think one of the best ways you can get to know a character is to place her in an unfamiliar situation to see what she does.  This idea is especially true for those of us who write for children and young adults, because young people have to learn new things all the time.  (In fact, I associate that flustered, why-can’t-I-get-this-right feeling from scuba diving class with being a teenager.)  And remembering what it was like for you to learn something new–or, better yet, leaving your comfort zone to become a beginner at something–can help you get inside your character’s skin when he or she is dealing with an unfamiliar situation.

As an added bonus, learning something brand new is also great for teachers. With the school year about to begin, it’s helpful for me to remember how uncomfortable it is to attempt something difficult, especially in front of a group.  Reading and writing didn’t give me anxiety when I was young, but certain spatial tasks (like parking a car or solving a geometry proof or figuring out what to do with my feet while dragging someone else in the water) still cause me stress.  I can be more compassionate with my students if I can stay in touch with that vulnerable feeling that arises when you do something you’re not an expert at.

How about you?  What have you gained from experiences that are new and maybe a little unsettling?  What types of tasks give you anxiety?  What do you remember about learning something that was hard for you, and what might you find out about your characters if you write scenes in which they learn something new?