Thursday, April 03, 2008
An Autodidact in the Information Age
I consider myself an autodidact -- most of the people I know are. In fact, I agree with the saying, "Who learns, teaches himself." (Or herself). You can have a great teacher and not retain squat. You can have a lousy teacher -- or none at all -- and roll like like a juggernaut. Mostly, it's up to you.
Some things need hands-on. Hard to learn how to swim, do martial arts, or experimental high-energy particle physics without access to a pool, gym (garage, back yard), or accelerator, and somebody who knows how to show you when to duck, paddle, or which button not to push.
Formal education certainly has its pluses. These days, if you want to be a doctor or a lawyer, you have to spend years in school to be allowed to take a shot at it. Wasn't always that way -- there was a time when you could walk into the medical or legal boards tests, pay your money, and take your chance. If you passed, you were a doctor or lawyer. You had to know the material, but they didn't care how you'd learned it if you could demonstrate it properly. I believe Huey Long had three semesters of legal training when he conned the board into letting him take the exam, and he easily passed the bar to become a lawyer. Of course, they shot Huey later ...
Nowadays, you want to be an engineer and all they are hiring are folks with degrees in it, then you have to go that way. Name of the game.
I had to do a year of school to sit for the LPN exam; however, Physicians Assistant certification -- a class of medical practitioners developed largely to take advantage of medics coming home from Vietnam -- was less formal at its beginning. In the late 197o's, you could still challenge the exam, which is how I got to be a PA-C.
How I learned was to badger the doctors with whom I worked -- What's that? How do you do this? Show me ... and I read a shitload of medical books. I was shallow in some areas, but way deep in others, and I had hands-on practice. I wanted it. (Not to brag, but I passed square in the middle. Not too impressie, but there were guys with college degrees in pre-med and a year of internship in formal PA programs who flunked. The doctors I worked with expected that I wouldn't make it. I was happy to surprise them. In one case, actually astound one of 'em.)
I never graduated from college. I went to LSU for a couple years, spent most of my time at the student union or Free Speech Alley, was indifferent to grades, and probably would have flunked out if I hadn't quit first. Packed up my pregnant wife, everything we owned into three trunks, and we flew off to L.A. I wanted to train in karate, and the west coast was the best place for that. Didn't have a job, an apartment, a car. We stayed two weeks in a ratty downtown hotel, rented a VW, and went to Disneyland. And when our money ran out, I got a job. Stayed there three years, got to brown belt in Okinawa-te, and left to move back to Louisiana to start a detective agency with a buddy. I wanted a black belt, but he already had one, and offered to teach me. My own company and my own private teacher. What was not to like? (Well, the guy turned out to be crookeder than a dog leg and a back-stabbing sleazeball, but other than that, it was a good deal.)
Probably the best academic skills schools could instill into students today would be the ability to read well, and how to do research, and a desire to learn. The rest is not as important.
Formal education doesn't mean anything to a genre writer. You can be a high-school drop-out, I know a couple who make a pretty good living as writers who are. A Ph.D in English might not hurt you, but it's no guarantee. If you can tell a story, you don't need a degree. If you can't, the degree won't help. You can get more from one journalism class than you can from four years of English lit, if you want lessons in how to put it on a page.
You learn by doing. Getting it wrong, having it pointed out, fixing it, and moving on. Can you hiss the word "Damn?" No. I learned this by writing it thus: '"Damn," he hissed.' Having it get into print that way, and then getting my ass handed to me by writers who laughed their asses off at me.
When I was a beginning writer, I really wanted to go to Clarion. This is a science fiction writing conference, used to be held at a U in Michigan, I think, and was the place for budding skiffy writers. Intensive, six-weeks of live-in, write a bunch, workshopping stories, world-class teachers coming to lecture and show you how. I really wanted to go.
I couldn't afford it, neither in time nor money; I was working a 48-hour week, had a wife, two small children, a house and car note to support.
Later, when I could afford to take off because my writing was starting to earn some extra money, I didn't need to go, since I was doing better than most of the Clarion grads I knew ...
These days, you can learn worlds sitting in your chair at home. Want to know something? Google it -- a new verb, that. If you know what you are doing, research-wise, you can crosscheck it and likely come up with a valid set of facts.
That's both an advantage and a disadvantage, the search engines. If you can tap a few keys and read the result, that sometimes doesn't stick as well as if you had to catch a bus to the library, find the book, and make notes by hand. Me, I love the net, it's sooo much easier, but my research skills go back to the hoof-it-to-the-library days, and knowing how Mr. Dewey did decimals ...