23 April 2004

Spiral Learning

23 April 2004

There is a model of learning that says that, in general, people progress from unconscious incompetence, to conscious incompetence, to unconscious competence, to conscious competence.

Basically, a person starts out not knowing how much they don't know, progresses to the 'a little knowledge is a dangerous thing' stage, then begins to understand how much they have yet to learn, and finally, if they stick with it, they master a particular subject or skill.

This learning model has always seemed spiral in nature.  Many subjects or skills have levels of mastery that can be attained that leave the student with something that they can teach the next person coming up behind them while at the same time allowing the student to continue to learn, if they so choose.

Something this model leaves out are the feelings attached to each learning stage.  During unconscious incompetence is when I feel the most optimistic.  It is also the point at which I am most like to underestimate how long a particular project will take me.  

Conscious Incompetence is always accompanied by a sinking feeling in my gut.  This is the time when I am most likely to be derailed by illness or distracted by enthusiasm for a new project or skill set.  This is also the phase during which I am most vulnerable to mixing up the difficulty I am having learning my new subject with my own self-worth.  I, like many, tend to see my own worth in what I have accomplished, and when I am learning a new skill and taking two steps back for every one forward, it is hard not to take that struggle personally.  

Unconscious Competence is a slippery time emotionally.  Frequently, my evaluation of my own skills lags behind my actual ability. Really, I think that is the entire point of this phase of learning.  I spend so many years being conscious of my own incompetence that the time that I become fluent in what-ever-it-is, I'm in the middle of learning something else new and am dealing with a whole new round of sinking feelings.

Conscious Competence is not something I have a lot of experience with.  Perhaps I take it for granted.  I have always thought of it in terms of mastering an academic subject or a difficult skill.  I tend to assume that any skill that I can learn is one that others can master and take further.  In the past, I have seen this as an exclusive, rather than inclusive category, something obtained by professionals who have stuck it out in their field for many years.  

Upon reflection, I have come to realize is that Conscious Competence is fleeting.  It is a hilltop moment followed by another round of Unconscious Incompetence and all the steps that lead around the spiral to the next break in the clouds.  It may be, that as I spiral up the mountain, the cloud-breaks will come more frequently and last longer.  However, the trade-off is that the air is thinner and it gets more and more difficult to make it round the next bend.  At some point I have to decide when it is time to scale a different mountain and enjoy the moments of clarity that come with breathing easily. 

It is also important to realize that each skill, each mountain, does not require the same effort from each person.  Just because as skill is easy someone else, does not mean that I can follow where they lead without making sacrifices or stumbling on the path that they seem to walk with ease.

What I must remember is that the reverse is also true.  Subjects and skills that come easily to me may come to others only with long practice or much stumbling around in the dark.  Each person has to decide how much of that they are willing to put up with. 

Desire is what motivates the next step along the path.  How much do I want to be able to do what-ever-it-is that I am learning?  How much do I need a particular skill for what I want to do next in my life?  Answering these questions is much more important than asking how difficult the journey will be.  For me and the way that I learn, 'Why' is ever so much more important than 'How.'

17 April 2004

Choice, Regrets

17 April 2004

When I was in High School I faced a choice of how to spend a part of my summer vacation.  Option 1 was to travel to Oregon, as I had every summer since I could remember, and spend time with my relatives.  Option 2 was to attend a writers camp in the wilds of northwestern Wyoming.

Both events appealed to me, but in different ways.   I enjoyed the summers spent visiting my cousins and, that particular year, my Grandmother was turning 80 and the whole family was in on the party. On the other hand, I enjoyed writing and the idea of spending an entire week with people who not only understood my compulsion to write, but shared it seemed an opportunity too good to pass up.  The fact that several of my long-distance-friends were planning to attend the camp only made the choice more difficult.

There was no way I could attend both events. No manipulation of time or space that would allow me the luxury of not having to choose between being with my family on a very special day and being with my friends doing something I felt passionate about.

This was also the first time I had had to make such a choice (that I can remember).  My parents discussed the pros and cons of each choice while leaving the actual decision up to me.  Not only did they not interfere, they committed to helping me attend either event, since, as a teenager, both funds and methods of transport were limited. The only factor in the decision was which event was the one I could least bear to miss.

Life as a responsible adult is full of choices that, once made, cannot be unmade.  In the greater scheme of things this first choice was a like a driving lesson for steering though life.   I can still feel the echo of the emotions of that time and the confusing pain of realizing that regardless of my choice I would have regrets.  

I choose to go to the writers camp, and now, twenty years later, I don't remember a lot of the specifics of that week.  I do remember it being a roller-coaster emotionally, but that equally was true of my day-to-day life.  What I do remember is how beautiful the camp setting was and how much time we spent writing.  

I wonder if I would have more vivid memories of that time if I had gone with my family instead or if  memories from twenty years ago would fade, regardless of the event they were attached to.  Would my life have been richer?  I don't know.  I was fortunate to have another six years to spend with my grandmother, including celebrating my wedding with  her on her birthday five years later.  

What I have learned is that I cannot do everything-- each choice, large or small, carries with it seeds of regret for opportunities missed.  However, it is important not to let regret crowd out the joy of living.

10 April 2004


10 April 2004

I write as a hobby.  Most of the short fiction that I write is set in a shared universe (Tales of the Tai-Pan Universe).  Since I don’t write professionally my muse comes and goes as she pleases.  I can set stories aside for months or even years if I don’t feel inspired to work on them.  

I have many other interests and sometimes writing just takes a back seat to what ever my current passion is, but I always come back to writing.  It is what I do when I am stressed, how I cope when the world seems out of kilter, and it can be a lot of fun when the plot and characters are cooperating.  When the muse is with me, my fingers fly over the keyboard, scenes flow together like water running downhill, and characters talk to me, narrating their story as I try to keep up with their conversations and arguments.

When the characters are silent writing can be a hard slog thought deep mud.  When I am trying to write my way though a museless story, every line is work and every paragraph feels like it has been dragged from me, rather than flowing willingly onto the page.  The characters stubbornly refuse to answer my questions and I find myself getting up and walking away from the computer or checking my email every five minutes to see if something new has come in.  My mind rebels against the hard work of carding the wool of the imagination, much preferring to work with finished thread.

However, just as I always come back to writing as the primary outlet for my imagination, sometimes I find that the hard work of writing calls to me more than the easy stories my muse provides.  Writing to the dictates of a muse is easy and fun, but like cotton candy, it is quickly gone and leaves one feeling hungry and hyper.  

For me, putting emotion and feeling into a story is difficult.  To a certain extent, I have to feel what my characters are feeling in order to write with any depth.  My muse is fickle and does not like difficult situations and she frequently deserts me just as I get to the emotional climax of a story.  Sometimes I go though three or four drafts before I have the courage to write the tough scenes and, even though I know that about myself and my muse, I haven’t quite gotten to the stage where I can sit down and let my emotions bleed into the page on the first draft.

My muse requires coaxing, she reveals more and more about the story with each draft, and is willing to go deeper only after playing about in the shallows for a time.  Sometimes I have to leave her on the shore and dive on my own into the deep water.  Someday I hope to be able to write more consistently and be less reliant on my muse.  Until then, I will keep slogging away seeing the clear path of a plot disappear into the murky swamp of words. 

02 April 2004

The Jesus Archetype

2 April 2004

I fell asleep one night meditating on two of my favorite characters in fiction:  Constable Benton Fraser, RCMP from the television show Due South and Captain Carrot Ironfoundersson, Night Watch from Terry Pratchett’s ‘Discworld’ series.

Both characters have a lot in common.  They are boys from the country who move to the big city.  They know their way around their respective cities as if they have never lived anywhere else,  yet retain their otherness and naïveté.

More importantly, they give their full attention to each person that they meet, regardless of that person’s status.  They remember each person as an individual and their authors write them in such a way that you believe that both characters will know that person if they meet again, regardless of how fleeting the first meeting was.

Finally, they frequently get the reaction 'is he for real?' from other characters in their respective universes.

I think one of the reasons I like these characters so much is because they are simultaneously a person you would want to have be on your side, while at the same time, they really would not be comfortable to be around on a day-to-day basis.  By their very actions, they make a person feel like they should be nicer, better, and more generous.  Which is much harder than it looks from the outside.

I have long known that I have a weakness for men who are strong and compassionate, naive yet aware of the people around them, and able to fight with the best of the action heros yet preferring to find peaceful solutions or talk their way out of a difficulty.  What I didn’t realize until just recently is that many of those characteristics are also attributable to Jesus.  I’ve been reading the bible as part of an ongoing project and was surprised to find such strong parallels with some of my favorite fictional characters.

So now I have a category for these two characters, men who, even though they are imaginary, inspire me to try to be a better person.  They embody the Jesus Archetype for me.  And by doing so, they allow me to examine my relationship to my faith, friends, and family in a friendly and welcoming way.  For one thing about the scriptures, they rarely make me laugh, while both Terry Pratchett and the creators of Due South make me laugh and think and learn.