Last year, when the Caronavirus was still trapped in the lab, and the world was a safe place to travel, my husband and I went on an organized tour of Egypt, Turkey, and Jordan. A month-long trip was paid in advance; the final itinerary was mailed to us two weeks with the name of hotels, daily excursions, internal flight details all spelled out clearly.
Once there, we were met by the guides in each country who took care of everything. Each morning a bus picked us up (there were 25 of us on the trip), took us sightseeing, and deposited us back in the hotel after dinner.
Although we were not allowed to venture out on our own or eat at better places than the run-of-the-mill touristy restaurants, we didn’t have to worry about deciding what to see, how to get there, and how to beat the crowds to get the tickets to the historical landmarks.
This is what learning from teachers is like.
They plan the coursework; they give the instructions; they decide where to take you and how to get there. You follow. You get fully dependent on them. So when the time comes to be on your own, you don’t know how to cope.
That was what exactly happened to us. Everything went fine until we were exiting Egypt and going to Jordan. We were not told there was another country in between – Israel. We had to go through the immigration check, stand in line for three hours for cross-over, travel by bus for fifteen kilometers to get to the Jordan border, buy a visa, and stand in the queue again for an immigration check. Just for half a day, we were left to our resources, and we couldn’t cope.
When we want to learn something, usually, we enroll in a course.
We want to be spoon-fed just like we were in school or colleges. Even Universities follow the same pattern of set curriculum. We think the structured way of learning is the only way to learn. We think that because we haven’t tried the other way.
What is the other way?
Let’s imagine you land in a foreign country and want to explore the place by yourself. You pick up some brochures from the hotel, you search on the internet, you might buy the Lonely Planet guide, and you decide which places you are going to see. You figure out how to get there. You decide how much time you want to spend there. You may not cover the entire city, but you explore tiny increments and see all that you wanted to see in the time you have.
How does this analogy work for learning to write?
Writers used to learn to write on their own until recently, when cashing on the great demand colleges and universities have with courses and degrees in writing. Almost all universities now have a master’s degree in writing. Although they can provide the focus and structured curriculum, they could be expensive and time-consuming.
Many people take to writing at the later stage of their lives. It doesn’t make sense to university to get a degree when there are so many other resources available that don’t cost much and fit in your timetable.
Here are three resources that are enough to make you a proficient writer without a teacher.
1. Books, podcasts and videos
2. Discussion groups
3. Teaching others
All that you want to learn about writing is captured in books podcasts and videos.
You don’t need to go anywhere. Pick any topic you want to learn and research what books are available on it. Read reviews and pick two or three and start.
You can even start by reading blog posts and podcasts. Several established writers are writing beneficial articles on the art and craft of writing, and most of them are available for free. The beauty of articles is that they are shorter and can be read in a single sitting. They usually address one topic at a time and hence are very targeted.
The advantage of podcasts is that they save time. You can listen to them while cooking, exercising, or during the commute. Many podcasts have interviews with successful writers who freely share their techniques and learnings, something you may not pick up in a course.
But if you are learning by yourself, you’d have to take smaller steps.
Let’s say you want to tackle how to write short stories. You’d start with simple questions such as – what are short stories. How long are short-stories? How many characters could there be? How many events can there be? How much dialogue, exposition, and backstory can I use in there?
Then you would move on to more complex issues such as – what is common about different kinds of short stories. Where am I getting stuck? What is my approach writing them? Where does it not align with the kind of stories I want to write.
Usually by this time, when you can’t figure out answers by yourself, you feel stuck. That is when the discussion groups come in handy.
Discussion groups are a must to grow as a writer.
If you want to become a real writer, you have to be a member of a discussion group to get your work critiqued and provide feedback on other people’s writing. You will not only learn from receiving feedback but from providing feedback to others.
Sometimes you can’t locate what you are doing wrong in your writing because you are too close to it but immediately pick it up in other people’s work. Not only that, somehow you have a solution for them too, which is what you are looking for in your own work.
At that point you become a teacher yourself.
There is no better way to learn something than by teaching others.
When you learn with the intention to teach it to someone, your learning becomes more focused and intense. You want the concepts to be clear in your head so that you can explain them to others. You pay more attention. You associate new learning with your old learning and come up with better examples and analogies.
When you explain something to others, your subconscious is working on finding solutions where you are getting stuck.
It is no accident that most writers are teaching the craft to others, and that too for free. It helps them with their own learning.
I am not against learning from teachers.
Both my parents were teachers. I know the difference a good teacher can make in your life. A teacher has complete knowledge of the topic and knows how to explain it well. He or she also knows when the student is on the wrong track and quickly bringing her back on the right track.
But learning by yourself has its own advantages.
Learning something yourself might be slower but probably better in the long run. It’s similar to landing in a foreign country and walking down the streets many times.
At first, everything is brand-new and difficult to decipher. But if you walk down the streets several times, you get a pretty good understanding of where everything is located.
You find your own path. You pick up things your jaded teacher might have missed or not in touch with. You might stumble in the dark for a while, but you figure out what you need. The direction you take might lead to discoveries. Even digression has its own benefits.
The key is to walk down that street many times and discover parts of the street you may have missed earlier. You may feel that you will never become an expert, but you’ll be surprised at how much you can learn by pacing up and down and paying close attention.
Finally, when we are learning by ourselves, there is the temptation to start at the top.
I personally think that’s a mistake. It’s better to start somewhere in the middle as there is less pressure to get it right. As you get stuck, you’d have to find a way to get unstuck.
That’s approximately how you can go about teaching yourself almost anything.
That’s how a guide learns. That’s how you can learn too and become a guide for others.