There’s a set of steps I always go through when learning something new and complex. It starts with the consuming feeling – I must do this, there’s no other choice. It takes over all of my spare brain power and starts to colour everything else in my life.
Then there’s the part where I start to see results – the pattern emerges in a knitting project; I complete a few sketches that look halfway decent; I get a couple of stories under my belt. This stage is lots of fun and it feels great. I get that lovely stretchy feeling in my brain and a growing sense of accomplishment.
The part that I always forget about until I hit up against it. Maybe it’s like what they say about giving birth and forgetting just how bad it actually is. I’m sure it’s really the most critical part of the learning process, but it’s also by far the most painful. I like to think it’s when the new neural connections I’m making start to conflict with some old, outdated ones, so those need to be broken down and rebuilt into a new configuration that incorporates the thing I’m learning. But man, does it suck.
I can tell when I get to this part because I start making excuses to myself not to do the thing. I start skipping it or ‘forgetting’ or getting interested in something else. I pick apart the teaching materials, finding every flaw or hole and seizing on them as proof that what I’m trying to do isn’t really possible and so therefore I can be forgiven for not doing it perfectly.
The example that always comes to mind as the archetype for this stage of learning is when I was taking life drawing classes as part of a course in college. We had six hours per week, in two three-hour sessions. When I started the course, I was pretty happy with my life drawing skills. I was no Degas, but I could consistently produce reasonably accurate, clean, neat, and balanced drawings of people.
In almost the first lesson the teacher told me I was doing it all wrong. I was using ‘hairy’ lines, I didn’t have enough of a sense of weight in my figures, they were too small and tidy… I resisted it for a long time. I followed along with everything we were meant to be doing, but some part of me held back, a little core of I’m-still-going-to-do-it-my-way. But over time, throughout the year, the techniques we were learning sank in. I started to be ok with extreme shading, with making one single ‘sensitive’ line instead of approximating and taking an average, with doing ten-second sketches and letting them go and moving on and knowing there was plenty more where those came from.
I can recognize it very well at this stage, and I know (I know, I know…) that if I keep working at it and don’t let myself get sidetracked that it will lead in time to a breakthrough which will see a burst of improvement in quality. By the end of that year, my drawings had improved unrecognisably, although it had cost me a huge amount of mental energy and resistance to get there.
And yet, even knowing this, I still go through that same stage when I learn something new. I wish I could skip this part and just say, yes, there’s lots I don’t know about this so I’m going to trust in people who know more than I do and keep at it. That never happens. I still struggle and fight with myself, and question the materials, and the integrity of the people around me, and my own sanity.
Who knows, maybe that too is an essential part of the process?