Always Learning

Originally posted in the 7RQ newsletter, 2018–11–21

Last weekend I was in Dublin for Writers Game, a new conference focused on bringing together writers of different disciplines — books, film, videogames, graphic novels, and virtual reality — to share our experience and learn from each other.

I was asked to deliver a talk, and as my career encompasses all of those disciplines and more, I focused on how exactly I’ve been able to do that (spoilers: mostly saying yes to new and interesting proposals despite not knowing what the hell I’m doing) and the skills I’ve developed along the way.

It was quite well-attended.

But I wasn’t just there to pontificate; I spent the rest of the weekend sitting in on other talks and workshops by the other speakers. The audience was hearteningly diverse and young, most of them just starting out in their careers — which was great to see, but I know some of them wondered why someone like me would join them for, say, a lecture by John Dawson and sit there taking notes.

The answer, of course, is that I’m still learning all the time. We all are. To call on an anecdote I used in my talk; at the age of 80, Pablo Casals — one of the greatest cellists of all time — revealed that he still practiced for four to five hours every day. When asked why, he replied, “Because I think I’m making progress.”

It’s the same for any creative worker worth their salt, including writers. The day I think I’ve written something perfect is the day I might as well hang up my keyboard — because either it’s true, in which case why risk writing anything else; or it’s not true, in which case I’ve become delusional (shush) and lost any ability to judge the quality of my own work.

Case in point: the conference’s main guest speaker was bestselling novelist Glenn Meade. Now, most of what Glenn had to say — over four separate talks throughout the weekend, by the way, that man earned his spot — was stuff I already knew, and that’s to be expected. Every good thriller writer understands the principle of “rising action”, for example, or the importance of making your protagonist do whatever they absolutely fear the most.

But halfway through one particular segment, Glenn said something — just a turn of phrase, a way of describing a principle — that sparked a sudden thought, which in turn helped unlock a thorny problem in my next novel that I’ve been chewing on for the past couple of weeks. Cue me flipping to a fresh page in my notebook and missing the next couple of minutes of Glenn’s talk because I was jotting down notes to solve said thorny problem. Sorry, Glenn.

Would I have eventually solved the problem myself anyway? Sure, probably. But it would have taken me longer, and frankly I’m annoyed with myself for not figuring it out earlier anyway. And that’s the point; no matter how experienced we might be, sometimes we’re so wrapped up in a maze of our own devising that we can’t see the wood for the trees. A new perspective, or a refresher on story basics, can work wonders. We’re all still learning.