Monday, August 23, 2010

Longer, and Probably Still Incorrect

Several of the books I have read recently discuss findings of neuroscience and the plasticity of our brains. From what I have read, the assumption thus far is that genius is some kind of innate quality. Either you have it or you don't. Only, from what I understand now, the innateness of genius is false. Maybe. Related to my last post, I am struggling with skepticism in trying to understand all of these ideas. They feel slippery to me, and as soon as I try to hold on to one it flits away again.

Regardless, according to Malcolm Gladwell's recent book, Outliers, which I taught in my English 1B class at San Jose State University last year, it takes approximately 10,000 hours to excel at something, anything. I never was sure how to react to this information. The whole premise feels wrong on a gut level. But if there is one thing I have learned in the course of my college education, it's to be suspicious of my gut. Sometimes these gut level messages turn out to be cultural undercurrents that I would rather not be swimming in.

Today I read another book called The Genius in All of Us, by David Shenk. It shared similar information to that found in the Gladwell book, only I think it complemented the Gladwell in a nice way by filling in some of the detail and giving me a broader picture of how the 10,000 hours of practice works. I have to admit that this blog is directly or indirectly inspired by Gladwell's book. There is something very hopeful about the idea that hard work, not essential aptitude, might be the key to excellence. I understand that I am oversimplifying the premise of both books, but it's not my intention. Unfortunately the more nuanced understanding that I have of the ideas in these books and others is currently inaccessible to me when writing, which is why I am working on my ability to communicate this understanding through language.

I hardly know where to begin. Let me start with my love obsession affair with reading. I'm 31 years old and have been reading since about the age of four, but for the sake of simplifying the numbers, I will pretend that I was about ten when I started reading in earnest. That would give me about twenty years worth of reading practice. During that twenty years I have read continuously in my spare time, certainly at least an hour per day, and sometimes many more hours per day, so I would have to estimate that by now I have far surpassed the ten thousand hour mark for reading books. However, Shenk's book clarified that the kind of practice required to create what I would refer to as "genius" is a bit more complicated and nuanced than that. It requires, among other things, intrinsic motivation, external encouragement and a supportive environment, and a certain intensity of practice. It would mean constantly pushing the limits of ability, trying to do things that are outside the comfort zone, and shoring up weaknesses.

I think Gladwell touched on this in his book as well, but I'm not sure Shenk did in his book: the more I excelled at reading, improving in speed and comprehension and ability, the more I have grown to love reading, and now crave it and desire it strongly. I read constantly and mostly effortlessly, devouring almost everything I come across, from the trivial to the impossibly difficult. I can hardly get enough. There are not enough hours in my day and my access to books is increasingly limited, dependent on money and time and transportation.

I also find that I am growing increasingly and uncomfortably selective in my reading, as reading things that are poorly written or that express certain ideas that I disagree with can be incredibly transgressive, if that's the right word for it, and feel acutely painful. I struggled with this when I was teaching writing and had to read large volumes of nearly incoherent prose.

I'm bordering on elitism to even talk about this stuff, and it makes me uncomfortable to write: there's the shame thread again, that I keep promising to pick up on. I can't pin it down yet, as maybe I'm not ready to go there.

So lately I find that I have kind of reached many of the goals and milestones that I wanted when I was in my twenties. I am happily married, have two great kids, recently purchased a home, and finished my BA degree, followed by my MA degree, both in comparative literature. I tried teaching and for a variety of reasons that I may go into in another writing (the elusive one on shame) I have abandoned that career path, but I at least have a stable job that currently pays well and allows me to both support my family and with good management, to hopefully get my financial affairs in good order at long last. Here I am.

My job is not providing a lot of satisfaction. I'm looking around me, trying to figure out where on earth to go next. (Thus, the previous post about wishing for a PhD). I continue to crave knowledge and to read voraciously. I long for the company of smart people. I'm bored, basically. Bored silly. So I thought and thought about this, and I came to the conclusion that I should probably give this writing thing another go.

Despite my heavy reading, I have not put a lot of effort into improving my writing. In school I always did well on written assignments. I'm sure that I received plenty of feedback from good teachers over the years, and I wrote enough essays for school to keep in practice. I had a brief stint with my high school newspaper, which scared me off of pursuing journalism at all seriously.  In early high school I had a brief fertile period of writing poetry and fiction but never finished anything; in early college I played at creative writing in a couple of excellent classes, and enjoyed the freedom to experiment. In college I wrote my full share of papers.

I first started to hit the limits of my writing ability at UC Santa Cruz, where I did my upper division college work. I consistently found that my ability to put complex ideas into essay form was not keeping pace with my ability to read and understand complex ideas; it's like being able to see beautiful landscapes in my head but only having the skill to draw in crayons. Although I struggled, I still had the basic confidence that my writing was probably at least as good as the other students in my classes, and at least the professors and TAs were able to provide the right kind of supportive feedback to help me feel like I was not a lost cause. However, as the level of brilliant writing I was exposed to grew, I think it increased my anxiety about writing, to the point where I began having pretty serious writer's block by my last year. It's hard to read fantastic stuff and then to struggle with ideas and compare, and since I had never before in my life had to really struggle to write, I don't think I understood the block or how to get past it. I might have seen it as a sign that I just wasn't good at writing.

The writer's block became particularly intense and painful during graduate school at San Jose State University, where 20 page research papers were standard fare for most of the graduate level classes I attended. Each semester my anxiety increased and my block got worse, but I always managed to get out enough language to meet the bare minimum requirement. There was one semester where I had three papers due at once and had a near disaster with one paper, (I rewrote the entire paper from scratch the day before it was due, and was unable to meet the minimum length) resulting in the only B- grade that I received in graduate school.

After graduate school I believed that I hated writing and that I never, ever wanted to do it again. Isn't it ironic, then, that I ended up teaching writing classes for three years to undergraduate students? As painful as the experience was for me (hopefully not as bad for them!~) it was really good for me in certain ways. One, I had to read a lot of books on the pedagogy of writing and both to understand and teach the steps of the writing process. Two, I learned all about writer's block and learned many strategies for breaking through it. Three, I discovered that however poorly my writing compares with the thoughts in my head, it is nowhere near as bad as the average undergraduate student. Small consolation :)

The other thing it did for me was it kept me in touch with college level reading and writing; in order to teach nonfiction pieces to my students, I had to read and select them each semester and also to spend a great deal of time discussing and analyzing them in class. This was also useful in keeping my intellectual life going.

Put all of this reminicing together with the books I have been reading, and I decided that starting a blog was the best way to practice in order to hopefully, over time, bring my writing skills up to par with my ability to read. My goal is to write pieces on topics of interest to me and to start the long journey toward 10,000 hours of writing. I realize that most of it will be unprofessional or boring, etc. But the first step for me in breaking permanently my old, problematic case of writer's block, is to lower the judgement bar on the quality.

However, if David Shenk's book is right, it won't be enough to just write a lot. I will have to try new things, and push the boundaries of my abilities. I will have to stay obsessed, and not lose interest and float off to other things. I will have to gradually improve over time.

I am hoping that I will fall in love with writing the way I once did with reading. As I wrote in the PhD post, previously, I don't have the life situation to throw caution to the winds and enroll in yet another expensive graduate program. If I maintain this blog and branch out into more challenging and academic material, maybe I can eventually work on writing something worthy of publication, or the equivalent of a research paper, master's thesis, or dissertation. I can do this for free, without the emotional and material commitment of money getting involved.

Shenk's book jarred some memories and opened a few doors. I remember a pivotal moment in my childhood. I don't know how old I was exactly, but I had already found that I could read picture books to myself. Something in me prompted me to select a non picture-book one day and challenge myself to read it. I still have the book carefully preserved in a special box of keepsakes: it was Paddington Bear. I remember that it was a read challenge; that I had to read slowly; that it took me several days. I was proud when I had finished, and I enjoyed the experience. I have vague memories of reading Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys serials from my school library. I know that by fourth grade I had read Lloyd Alexander and by the end of Fifth grade, finished J.R.R. Tolkein's Lord of the Rings series. At some point in elementary school I was head of the class in speed reading, which was a proud memory.

I like being good at things. I really want to excel at something; I am a great reader, but don't know how to put that to use in and of itself, in isolation. I will set out to excel at writing, too.

No comments:

Post a Comment