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Friday, March 30, 2007

On Writing

We are participants in a homeschool co-op. Of the twenty or so families involved, two of us are unschoolers. This year my 11-year-old signed up for a writing class that is structured like a traditional academic class, with assignments and homework. She's been taking it for three months. She's done almost no writing in it at all.

Oh, she puts pencil to paper every week, works on her word lists and her phrase lists and her re-writes of the instructor's paragraphs. She copies and edits and inserts and deletes and tries to remember all of the instructor's rules. She turns in her assignments, she does her classwork, but it has been one exercise in frustration after another. And it's not writing.

If you want to learn to swim, you don't spend your time reading articles about how to move your arms and legs, you get in the water and you move your arms and legs. Maybe you watch how others move, maybe you try to imitate what you see, but mostly you gauge your success by how well you stay afloat.

In this class, my daughter is bobbing around wearing the instructor's life jacket.

We learn a thing by doing it, over and over, until we gain a sense of mastery. To learn to write, we must write. Rules of grammer and sentence structure are learned along the way, just as they are absorbed when we learn to speak and read -- imperfectly at first, and then with increasing facility. We learn to write by writing: by putting pen or pencil to paper and getting it down.

Once we have our words on paper we're free to play with them all we want. We can edit, revise, insert and delete to our heart's content. But without the words on paper -- our words, our thoughts, our expressions -- we may as well be trying to bake a cake using pictures of the ingredients. All the parts are there, but it'll never add up to anything we can sink our teeth into.

My daughter wants to finish out the session, because she doesn't like to quit. Fair enough. Her desire to write does not seem to have been diminished by anemic "instruction." She is working on a book. She began writing it long before taking this class, and works on it with relish, in spite of this class. I suspect it will eventually be one tasty read.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Influential Reads Part 1

The Artist's Way series by Julia Cameron. I return to these again and again. A 12-step recovery program for the creative soul.

The Book of Learning & Forgetting by Frank Smith. A gentle and probing look at how people really learn, and how the so-called experts can get it so wrong.

Straw Dogs by John Gray. Not the Sam Peckinpah film, and not the Venus & Mars author. Unblinkered essays on human culture and civilization.

The Culture of Make Believe and A Language Older Than Words by Derrick Jensen. Heartbreaking and raw, but worth every moment spent with them. My copy of Language is so well-thumbed it has fallen apart (no small thanks to the modern binding process, which is so inferior to past practices it has virtually guaranteed that none of the paperbound books produced in the last 30 years will outlast the current generation of readers. A pathetic state of affairs.)

Friday, March 9, 2007

Dragon Art

My daughter loves dragons. She has shelves full of figurines, books, calendars, and a portfolio full of dragon drawings and paintings dating back to when she was six or seven. She can explain in detail the differences between eastern and western dragons, basilisks and wyverns, winged and serpentine dragons. She has a particular fondness for European dragons, with their glowering expressions and enormous bat-like wings.

The painting above is one she did last Saturday afternoon when her art instructor came in and said one of the downtown galleries was having a Chinese New Year festival and needed Chinese dragon art for the walls, and needed it immediately, that afternoon. "I don't usually do Chinese dragons," my daughter said, "but I'll try." The finished piece, matted to 8x10, is now hanging at Art Colony Gallery in Haynie's Corner in the Evansville Arts District downtown. Am I proud of my kid or what?