Friday, May 16, 2014


So, growing up, I heard many times that only experts should attempt to pick and eat wild mushrooms.  Of course, that made me wonder what qualified one as an expert.  If you eat one and live, are you then an expert?  Or is it two, or three?

Similarly, a friend of mine--well, not someone I know personally, but she's like a friend when I read her blog--mentioned the fine art of parachuting in her post this morning.  She had some beautiful images, and also a well-made point regarding how the sport pertains to writing.  Seriously, she does a wonderful job writing about it.  I'll just point you there and suggest you go read her blog, too.

That said, she makes a point with parachuting similar to what I always thought of mushrooming.  Specifically, she says, "Skydiving is an interesting sport. There are only two categories---Grand Champion and Stuff On a Rock."  What is it about skydiving that makes one an expert, then?  Is it making it safely one time to the ground and avoiding being Stuff On a Rock?  Or is it two, or three?

Spoiler: no, it's not.  Now that, I can attest to personally, as I am a (military) skydiving (relative) expert, having gone through the three week training at Ft. Benning, Georgia.  I successfully avoided becoming Stuff On a Rock five times in a row, and thus and foresooth, an expert I am.

The appropriateness of the length of the training is somewhat of a debated matter.  Two weeks of actual training seemed to drag on, honestly.  I am, of course, very much of a non-expert at skydiving instruction, and that's why I can only guess that it might have been shortened successfully.  That said, many of the body motions we went through in order to successfully avoid splatting were the types of things you have to train your body to do, and for those you need practice--two weeks of it, perhaps. 

So, like, I don't know.  That's admittedly out of my expertise.

Education?  That is my expertise, to the point where I have nearly two decades of experience in it, eight years of experience managing it, and a doctor of philosophy degree in it.  Yes, there are other experts, but I own my spot among them.  Matter of fact, there was a time right before I defended my dissertation when I was the sole expert in the universe on that one little, narrow slice of the education world. 

Oh, and I've taught math, several terms at levels from remedial college math up to calculus II.  That's not as easy as it sounds--um, not that it sounds particularly easy.  First, you have to get people to where they don't whimper in terror every time you say the name of the course.  Once that's accomplished, you have to go back and remember how it was that you learned to do it, yourself: "FOIL?  What the heck is that?  I don't remember!"  Then, at some point in the term, preferably before it begins but more likely as the term is proceeding at breakneck pace, you have to come up with other tricks to deal with the simple reality that all students don't comprehend stuff the same way.

Juggling helps sometimes, as does the ability to watch what you're writing on the board while making eye contact with every student in class simultaneously to make sure nobody slinks out in horror.

It's--exhausting.  Rewarding, too, but quite exhausting.

But teaching math is a profession, a calling.  It's way beyond what the snide "those who can, do..." insult suggests, as it requires not only a knowledge of math, but also a certain amount of expertise and experience in the techniques involved in teaching it.

That's why I've gotten irritated lately over the Internet meme showing a subtraction problem done the long, demonstrative way.  It's a method I've used to teach the topic, myself, but when I let that out in a group I get dumped on as an idiot, too.  "All y'all who've earned a buck or more teaching actual mathematics to an actual classroom of people, raise your hands," I invite them.  Hey, I've successfully taken a lot of math! the objection comes.  "Cool," I counter, "I've had thousands of dollars worth of successful dental work done on me.  Can I be your dentist?"

Expertise.  In dentistry, I got none.  In math education, though....

That leads us, not to math, but to my other favorite topic: writing.  First, let me give the big bold statement for this post:

Reading a lot does not make you an expert on writing.

There, I said it.  I know.  I, too, have seen, over and over, the exhortation by fabulous writers that, if you wish to be a writer, you must read.  That's absolutely true.  Absolutely, coldly, totally, vermouthly true.

It's just not enough.

So what does it take to build expertise in writing?  Just like anything else, it takes a certain amount of training, and it takes a certain amount of experience, hopefully without dying from it.  That mushroom expert?  He had to be shown what to look for.  I've actually taken a brief class in it--not enough to be an expert, but at least enough to identify a couple of edible varieties.  It was a short classroom experience followed by a practical exercise in the nearby woods.  And no, I didn't die from eating the mushroom, though I kinda hope you already knew that.

What about the pedagogist--er, teacher?  There are formal training programs required of school teachers in most states, but what about college teachers?  I sat through a three-hour orientation that was more focused on required paperwork than on technique, and then I received a copy of a generic syllabus and a textbook.  After that, I spent two years, easy, bumbling around in a classroom trying various things before I was willing to consider myself fairly competent at it.

So what about writing?

We should all go sign up for an MFA, right?


Some people do take MFA courses, indeed.  I've looked into the program, myself, and when I do my intellectual mouth kinda waters a bit.  Those courses in characterization through the different types of fiction look awfully fun to me.  Besides, holding an MFA credential seems (to someone on the outside of that club) to do the same for a writer that holding a PhD credential does for a college teacher: doors, alohomora (points if you catch the reference; extra special bonus points if you can say it like Hermione).

That said, I'm still paying off my MBA and my PhD, man.  Another degree isn't going to happen anytime soon.  If you're in the same boat, then, how do you obtain expertise in writing?  Is it even possible?  The answer to that last one is pretty obvious, actually.  Yes, it is.  Many of the world's most famous authors got there without attending a formal writing program: J.K. Rowling, Danielle Steel, Barbara Kingsolver, Kurt Vonnegut, Jonathan Franzen, John Grisham....

Wait.  John Grisham is a special case, I'd just like to point out.  Writing program, he didn't do, but he was a lawyer.  Law programs, you have to admit, are writing programs.  Granted, the legal discipline tries its hardest--and frequently succeeds--to prove that there actually is something more boring and obtuse than academic writing.  Still, writing, it is.

So all that said, it has been proven that you can be a plenty-successful writer, at least at the modest level of fiscal success enjoyed by J.K. Rowling and Danielle Steel (irony alert), without going for the MFA.  But how?

Well, practicing writing is one way.  How much practice?  The best answer, I think, is "a lot."  Famous authors have pegged different word counts to a comfortable degree of ability.  I've heard three hundred thousand and five hundred thousand, both.  I'm about there, and I'll agree that, personally, I feel like my writing expertise is heads and tails above where I started. 

But that's not enough, either.

No, you also have to participate.  Go to workshops.  Go to conventions.  Do critique circles (but do smart critique circles).

Oh, and keep writing.  And keep reading.  Because even though those aren't sufficient, they're absolutely required.  Required, and fun.

Have fun!



  1. :-P~~ Had a good time ranting because I can still remember FOIL (less than 5 years ago I actually used it) but not algorithmic math from 2nd grade (30 years ago)? :-) Once you actually started explaining it made sense and yes, I do now recall where I still use it but very unconsciously, money!! Thanks though for taking the time to care enough to give a lesson to those of us who don't use it daily or rather do but don't recognize the actual process when written out! I did really appreciate it and the math lesson! hehehe it might help with high school math next year... for Sera, that is!

    1. Glad to help, Sue! Math is a lot of fun to me--well, not math, per se, but rather the ministrations and exasperations the human mind goes through to try to get a handle on it.

  2. How do you teach someone to write well? I'd guess that part of it is by looking at many many examples of writing that *you* think is good (or that a teacher things is good) and part of it is by doing it and being critiqued. So can you teach yourself? I'd guess that you can - your mistakes don't cause any real harm to anyone (especially that now if someone buys your work and thinks it stinks, they can return it for a full refund). I'd guess that someone could teach themselves dentistry too (I'm a dentist, so I AM a relative expert in that particular field) but their mistakes might cause actual, irreparable physical harm so I don't know if I'd want to go to that self-taught practitioner.

    I hope it's true that I can learn how to write without going for an MFA, because the likelihood of me doing that at my age is basically zero.

    Some people are natural explainers and make great teachers. Some people are naturally good writers and their books are definitely worth reading. (Whether mine are, I don't know...)

    1. I confess: teacher I am, but writing teacher I ain't. As you suggest, there's a natural teaching method that requires attempting, evaluating the attempt, and then attempting again, and I'd agree that that method works a lot better with writing than with dentistry.

      That said, having studied the path taken by the great writers, while I'm sure some people are naturally good writers, I think those are rarer than a lot of people realize. Most of the great writers went through a period of self-apprenticeship early on.