Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Experience is the Best Teacher?

Experience, the old saying goes, is the best teacher. I dunno who said it first. A quick search comes up with Julius Caesar, but I wouldn't be surprised if it predates him by a couple thousand years.

We all know about learning stuff the hard way and how well it sticks. Nothing like a little scar to remind you how you got it and how you might avoid adding another keloid to your inventory.

Often this is true, but in the category of direct experience, depending on what it is, patently not so.

If you take a swan dive off a fifty-story building to the sidewalk, the concrete will eat your bones. You might have a come-to-realize micromoment between the time your head hits the walk and it turns into jello: Oops. Bad i --

Yes, you won't repeat that one again, but that's because you won't be given the choice, being dead and all.

An observation of somebody's else's dive, which is less fatal, if you aren't standing there directly underneath looking up at him when he arrives, can indeed offer a lesson.

Hmm. Maybe it would be better if I didn't jump off a tall building like that. Of course, I'm different than that fool was, but maybe not so different that I'd be able to bounce up and stroll away.

If you are reasonably sane and you touch a hot stove once, you might be forgiven for trying it a second time to be sure. Third time, you've crossed right over the county line into Stupidville, population huge and growing, and deserve what you get. Because that personal experience is non-lethal and you should have learned from it.

You don't need to take poison, nor watch anybody do it to know that it's probably not the best idea you had all day. You don't need to open your spacesuit in the vacuum of space, either. Even though, to the best of my knowledge, no human has ever done that, the fact is that if you suck all the air out of the bell jar and the mouse dies is pretty much all you need to know to make an extrapolation. In space, no one can hear you scream.

You need air to live. If you take away the air, add a temperature a couple hundred degrees below zero? In what way would that seem like a good idea if you wanted to stick around?

Which is where education -- and that includes reading both fiction and non-fiction, watching movies and television, and going places and doing things, comes in.

Wisdom isn't pegged to age. Lot of thirty-year-olds who are probably wiser than some people two or three times their age. But if you are a seeker who pays attention, chances are you will be wiser at eighty than you were at twenty. Tumbling down life's mountains tends to knock off some of the sharp edges; spending time in the river with the water flowing past can often smooth some of the rough spots.

You do have to pay attention.

I point this out because I think that such lessons -- ersatz experiences, as they are -- can be gotten from a novel, a movie, or even a music video. Not to say there isn't a lot crap in all these, but maybe if you knew there was a ten-carat diamond at the bottom of your toilet bowl, you might want to find some rubber gloves and have a look before you flush things away.

In Grand Canyon, (1991, written by Lawrence and Meg Kasdan, and a bookend to The Big Chill) Steve Martin's character, Davis, is an action moviemaker who does a lot of exploding heads. There's a scene near the end where Davis talks to Mack, the main character. Mack's problem, Davis says, is that he doesn't go to enough movies. The answers to all life's riddles can be found in the movies.

He's right. Because something is fiction doesn't mean it's not true. And in fact, what makes fiction work is the ability to put that truth in it enough for people to see and understand it.

Keep that in mind when you write it.


steve-vh said...

There's enough truth in Jeff Foxworthy's act to make him a handsome living.

Just heard his bit yesterday about childproofing your home. "when we were kids we had a 300lb Television on a TV tray. My Daddy used to say, 'let em pull it down on his head a few times, he'll learn' ".

Dan Gambiera said...

Ben Franklin said it well. Short and sweet.

Experience keeps a dear school, but fools will learn from no other.