Monday, October 04, 2010
A Few Thoughts on Learning
Before I start this blog post I will warn you that there is a little bit of swearing and a bit of imagery that may be slightly off-putting to some. But I think the lesson of this post is an important one and worth the risk of offending.
I am often taken aback by students and others I talk to who say they want to learn about something, but then reject information about their subject of interest.
An aspiring screenwriter once approached me. She told me that she was looking for the secret to engaging an audience. She said that there must be a way to hold an audience spellbound and keep their attention. She spoke with the passion of a person on a quest for the secret to the universe. She went on for a while wondering aloud if there was some trick or technique that might help her engage an audience in this way.
I told her that she should read interviews with Alfred Hitchcock, because he was quite articulate about how to involve an audience in your story.
The woman scoffed and said, “I don’t like Hitchcock’s movies, so I don’t care what he said.”
My head still spins when I think about it. Hitchcock had a fifty-year career all because he knew how to play an audience like a fiddle. His nickname is Master of Suspense. The man has a list of classics as long as my arm and this would-be screenwriter blew him off like a one-hit-wonder.
The truth is she didn’t want the answer to her question—she wanted to be on her intellectual quest. For her, pondering this “unanswerable” question was its own reward.
One of the other things is that people will say to me that they’d like to take my class, just to learn screenwriting. They will say, these people, that they already know how to write because they write poetry or something.
They have already made they assumption that they have they aren’t learning a new craft, but merely learning a few technical details particular to screenwriting. This is like a biologist deciding that he can build a rocket ship because he is a scientist after all. How different can it be?
I see this all the time: People dismissing new information with confidence—even cockiness—born of ignorance.
I was once introduced to the friend of a good friend of mine. Both of these people are trained martial artists. This woman, during our chance meeting on the street, mentioned that she was creating her very own martial art. This sounded ridiculous to me, and I wondered just who she thought she was.
When she and my friend were finished with their visits we said our Nice-to-meet-yous and she walked off.
As soon as she was gone, my friend turned to me and said that this woman was the best martial artist he had ever seen—she knew many martial arts and was a champion in them. Whenever she wanted to learn a new form, she never told her teacher who she was; she would take the class as if she was a beginner. She learned the basics and worked her way up to the top.
This is a person who can put her ego aside in order to learn something new. Impressive.
More than once I have finished teaching a class and students have excitedly told me how much they learned. And they say that they want to learn more. If I give them a list of movies to watch, they often point out the films that they have already seen and tell me that they don’t need to see those. Or they will watch some of the films and report back on which ones they didn’t like.
Understand that after the class they tell me how much I changed they way they “see” stories, and yet they blow off the very thing I know will help them learn more: patient study.
First, they shouldn’t refuse to watch a film they have seen because now they are looking with new eyes. They know more than they knew when they saw it before. And secondly, if they don’t like a film on my list, what they should do is ask themselves why I thought they could learn from it.
I had one student who watched, and didn’t like, Billy Wilder’s The Apartment. He had no idea why I thought it was good. But you know what he did? He watched it again. And again. And again. Until he saw what I saw. Now he loves the film and sees the craftsmanship that was invisible to him before. He did the very same thing with Hitchcock’s Rear Window. He now loves that film as well. And he has learned too how to be a better storyteller.
The following story is a little vulgar, but worth telling to make my point, I think.
I used to know a man from a West African village. We once talked about his manhood initiation ritual. He said to me in his thick accent, “In my village when you are a boy in manhood training you must go take a shit (he pronounced it sheet) in the woods.” He paused. “Then you sit all day and you watch your sheet.” Then he paused for a long while. I had no idea what he was getting at. Then he said, “Then you see everything that depends on your sheet.” The boys learn, from this exercise, their vital connection to the rest of the living world. This is a profound lesson to emerge from such seemingly pointless act.
Remember that sometimes when someone is trying to teach you something new, your job is not to judge what he or she asks you to do, but to fully understand why you should do it.
If you do this, you may be surprised by what you have allowed yourself to learn.