Sunday 23 February 2020

Writing Muscles and Memory Muscles

Last week one of my students read me her essay about Aristotle's influence on Alexander the Great, and I almost cried with happiness. It was beautifully argued, beautifully structured. Did I mention she is twelve? Afterwards I handed back her previous paper, which was heavily bloodied with red ink corrections. She was not happy, and I certainly understood why. Therefore, I explained what editing is supposed to do.

Learning to write well is like bodybuilding. When you decide to develop your physical muscles, you go to a gym and lift weights. The effort actually shreds your muscles, which heal--and grow bigger--after you feed them protein and rest. Eventually you grow into a strong, wiry athlete. (In my own athletic days, an admirer once told me I resembled a Greek goddess. I didn't tell the children that part.) The next-day ache of a good workout makes you feel good because you know the process is working.

Naturally it is a good idea to have an accredited coach to teach you proper form in weightlifting so that you don't injure yourself. And when you are learning to write well, it is important to have a teacher who is herself a good writer. There are tips and tricks to discovering whether or not your teacher is a good writer, but that's a topic for another day. A good teacher cares more about developing your prose--and your ear for prose--than being popular, so when she reads your assignments, she will thoroughly ink them up. She will go through every sentence with a fine-tooth pen and mark out everything wrong. This is the literary equivalent of a muscle shredding.

You feel the writing muscles shred when you get back your formerly immaculate paper, the pride of your heart, and see it lying bloody before you. Your heart hurts. Your self-love is squashed. Your confidence is bruised. You may be tempted to think that your teacher is an idiot or a Philistine---and if you are unlucky, your teacher MIGHT be an idiot or a Philistine or BOTH. However, if you (or your parents) have chosen your teacher carefully, you should just trust that your aged teacher knows more than you do.

The next step is to rest and feed your writing muscles protein, which in the writing context means to write or type up your paper with all your writing teacher's corrections, recalling the reasons for the corrections, which hopefully she has explained to you.

Then naturally you must write another, perhaps longer, paper, and submit it to be shredded in its turn. Keep this up for six years, while reading the prose of the greatest writers slowly and carefully (and, if possible, aloud), and you will be a splendid writer. P.S. Try to write every day.

My twelve-year-old student reads very quickly while her eleven-year-old brother reads more slowly, and when I remarked on the importance of reading slowly, my twelve-year-old added that she reads most books twice. A few hours later I mentally kicked myself because I had not pointed out that this is not as effective a way to learn to write prose as reading slowly, nor does re-reading alone cement things in the memory.

Thus, yesterday I told my students the equally invaluable lesson that the only way to truly learn is through memory. I am very passionate about this because I once believed that academic success depended on reading, re-reading and (especially) marking up notes with a highlighter. I now know that highlighters are GARBAGE, and the secret to learning anything by heart is spaced repetition with homemade flashcards.

I am currently memorising my concise Polish dictionary. I am on Flashcard 281. The marvellous thing is that the more I memorise, the easier it is. I make and study ten new cards a day so I can easily determine how many days I have dedicated to the quest. Also, trying to memorise ten cards a day is not that onerous. I realised how much my memory muscles have grown when I began to learn the Apostles Creed in Polish on the bus yesterday. It was much easier than I thought it would be.

The bad news about flashcards is that they alone will not improve your foreign language conversation skills--although they certainly will help you pass written exams. No, to improve your spoken fluency, you actually have to have foreign language conversations. This means, of course, that you have to embrace the reality of making mistakes and sounding foolish to yourself. Naturally, this hurts as much or more as having a teacher ink up your deathless prose or doing 50 reps with a heavy weight. However, if you chose your language and your interlocutors wisely, the rewards of every conversation will outweigh your embarrassment.

Now, time to make a chocolate tart for tonight's pudding.

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