Basic Truths for Learning Languages and Creative Writing

Tracking progress ...
My Evernote tracking of my progress … and mistakes … which I usually notice after-the-fact. (sigh) It’s difficult to find intermediate level Japanese practice pages and lessons because “intermediate” means different things depending on what people previously studied vs. how much they retained. But these two bold, simple truths of learning how to master the skills I want are really all I needed to remember.

Today after finishing my Japanese reviews, I recorded my progress in my Evernote mini-journal, then attempted to track down some practice possibilities for working with subordinate clauses. Most of my review so far is basic review, which is very necessary after being away from language learning just long enough to forget most of what I previously knew. It is slowly, but surely, coming back to me — some more slowly than others. But subordinate clauses were one of the last things I remember trying to master before leaving Japan. As a result, it’s the one item I’ve reviewed so far that isn’t coming back so easily. I remember studying it and understanding it, but now my brain is answering my efforts with mush: “Nope! Not gonna happen.”

During my quest for good practice lessons with subordinate clauses, I came across a website that had this to say about it: “Good Japanese starts with mindlessly imitating good Japanese.” And “Input always comes before output.” (And my apologies for not grabbing the URL of the website. If it’s yours, or someone recognizes it, I will be happy to update and post the address link here.)

I paused, gave it some thought, and transferred those quotes to my journal, then took a screenshot so I could share what I’d learned. I didn’t get the practice exercises I was after, but I think I found something more valuable. Why are these principles such basic truths of learning, and why is it essential that they be understood for both learners of languages and creative writing (… and many other disciplines)?

Creative writing first …

How do people learn how to write? They usually come to writing because of an interest in reading and other media forms of storytelling (film, TV, graphic novels, video games, etc.). But no one learns how to write before they learn to read. To even learn how to shape an alphabet letter, one must first learn to recognize it somewhere else for what it is … and with its sound. Then the new reader must learn how to string those sounds and symbols together to decipher codes that represents familiar objects. It helps to learn reading and writing simultaneously, of course. But you don’t know what a “B” looks like until someone first shows you a “B” and says “Trace it … copy it … now write it on your own.”

You have to be familiar with the basic parts of a story from reading other people’s stories before you can write your own stories. And the more that you learn about literary analysis, the more command you will have of your creative writing process. This is not a chicken and egg scenario. Input must always come before output. Good creative writing starts with mindlessly imitating good creative writing. You cannot write without inspiration, so if you are suffering writer’s block, step away from your output long enough to look for input. This is a repetitive process in creative writing. Breathe in. Breathe out. Inspire. Aspire. If you want output, focus on input.

Read a book you’ve been wanting to read. Watch a move you’ve been wanting to watch. Look up historical, folklore, whatever that offers some real data or mysterious legends to give details and texture to your work. Take a walk, play a game, play music, do art … there are dozens of ways you can coax inspiration back into the process when it slips away. It doesn’t have to be relative to your story. You can always make it relative. But you cannot force a good story to come together if nothing is feeding your imagination.

Languages …

Language is vital to creative writing. You can see the connections in the example above. You have to know a language in order to use the code to convey a message. There is no way to convey an understandable message using a code you don’t know. Input before output. Good language learning starts with mindlessly imitating good language examples. The answer to my problem regarding lack of practice pages for subordinate clauses was staring me in the face. Instead of looking for pre-printed, special practice pages to translate, all I need is some good sentences to copy.

Tomorrow when I sit down to do Japanese grammar subordinate clauses, I will look for reading material, instead. I will look for subordinate clauses written by masters who knows how to use the language well. And then I will mindlessly copy what they wrote. And I will copy, copy, copy until I have disciplined my mind to default to their good examples. Only then can I own the skill and use it on my own.

Two additional notes …

  1. “Mindlessly” … This does not mean, “Turn off your mind.” You do need to pay attention to what you’re doing in order to learn from it. But a student learning a new craft or skill needs to be empty enough to receive new knowledge before he can do anything with it. I’m reminded of the Buddhist koan about a teacup needing to be emptied before more tea can be poured into it. The mind needs to be humble and open, rather than resisting and complaining and being impatient with the methods required to learn the skill if there is to be any new inspiration.
  2. Copying is not the same thing as stealing, although it can be. Copying someone else’s novel and slapping new names on the characters, then calling them your own borders on copyright infringement. But copying in order to learn is a necessary step in the writing process. How can you tell the difference? The serious learner will put major effort into branching away from copying “learning material” to create his own works as soon as possible. “Start copying what you love. Copy, copy, copy, copy. At the end of the copy, you will find yourself.” (Yohji Yamamoto, fashion designer) What, then, do you think Pablo Picasso meant when he said, “Good artists copy; great artists steal”? It means you must copy to learn good skills, but you will never be able to do more than duplicate a work until you can take what you learned away with you and transform it into something unique.

3 thoughts on “Basic Truths for Learning Languages and Creative Writing

  1. The input/output is a good way to think about this. It is actually pretty logical, but sometimes I really don’t notice the importance of reading A LOT to take references for my writing. Unfortunately I’m not a very constant reader. I don’t like to use the word “copy” for taking inspiration, I prefer to say “reference” (in spanish is referencia o referente, when you get inspired about the style of making something and try to replicate it), because yes, is easy to look like stealing, is a thin line.

    You make me remember that Picasso quote, is very appropriate for this. I think you can’t create something new from scratch, you need to try all the options you already know, and then you can take a distance from that and find your own way of doing things.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think that’s how most people feel about the word “copy”, so maybe that’s why I feel it’s important to understand that not all copying is bad — that it is a natural part of learning and can be a source of inspiration. “Referencia o referente” does sound more positive, though. I’m honestly not aware of any English phrases that have that shade of difference between inspiration and stealing. I have some upcoming articles relative to this topic, though, because one of my favourite writing inspirations is role-playing games. But (obviously) I can’t copy their copyrighted material, so I’ll be discussing how to use material like that as a launchpad for creating original works. What I tended to see when teaching writing was kids who stared at blank paper with nowhere to begin because they thought everything had to come directly from their own imaginations. They didn’t realize that it’s okay to have a model or borrow generic ideas. And that fear inhibited their ability to put anything down.

      As for reading … while being able to read is essential to being able to write, there are actually many other types of story-based inspiration that don’t involve reading. For example, I took a film literature class as part of my English major. There is a distinct prejudice against film and TV writing in some literature communities because books tend to be viewed as the higher art form, but visual story-telling is literature, too. It’s a different medium, so it needs to be judged on its own platform, but script writing can be just as versatile as books in different ways. Visual story-telling requires good writing and literary composition, too. (Ditto for role-playing games, which I’ll expand on in the upcoming articles.) People tend to look down on other kinds of story-telling that aren’t books, but in the process they’re missing great stories.) Stories are everywhere. Everything has a story. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I think is great that you have the opportunity to take Film Literature! I agree with you, script writing is a whole new language with his own rules and it can be as complex as any novel. I’ll be waiting to read your next articles, I really liked this one and also it helped me to learn new english words.

        Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s