This blog was featured on 01/01/2018
How To Learn How

When I was much younger than I am now, I wanted to become a firefighter. Never mind why– it’s a long story.* I was small compared to the male firefighter Wanna-Bes I was competing with. I went to the gym and pumped a whole lot of iron and got hecka-strong. (It took a while.) I applied at every fire department hiring opportunity that came up and took the tests. First is the written — easy pie,  If you study hard. (Really hard.) Next, if you pass the written, you get to take the physical agility test. I failed the first three departments I tried for, at first by a mile, and then by inches, and finally by 0.2 of a second. I went back to the gym. I applied at more fire departments and took more tests. I failed another one. Maybe two. I don't remember now. Once I passed, It didn’t matter, I would pass some more…I had to fail, to learn how. I had never encountered those kinds of challenges, or even those kinds of objects – lifting and carrying heavy rolls of fire-hose, climbing the 100-foot aerial ladder, dragging the 160-pound dummy through the tunnel. (I only weighed 115 pounds myself.) Very soon I learned two Essential Truths, and I’ll share them with you in a minute.

There are a great many wonderful things you can learn from books. That’s one of the reasons I love them so much. But there are some things you cannot learn that way. You can’t learn how to play home-run baseball…  out of a book. You can’t learn how to downhill ski… out of a book. And you can’t learn how to be a firefighter and perform the skills a firefighter must do extremely well, very quickly, and absolutely reliably… out of a book. And even though reading great writers does help, you can't learn how to write... out of a book. Here come those Essential Truths I mentioned. (You may want to take notes.)

Essential Truth #1: The only way to learn how to do it is to do it.

Take downhill skiing, for example. The first day you go out to the bunny hill with awkward boots and slat-feet, what’s going to happen? Right! You fall on your butt. Not once, but many times. And there will be people around who will see you fall on your butt. Little kids will laugh. Some adults will smile smugly. Others will be annoyed because you’re messing up the good snow with your sit-splats, besides getting in everybody’s way. “She shouldn’t even be here! She doesn’t even know how to ski at all.”

The second day, you will again fall on your butt in front of everybody. A lot. But probably you will be doing a little bit better– there will be thrilling moments when just for short distances, you get it, and miraculously, it works. It feels like flying. Your heart is– for sure– flying. Now when you fall, you get up quicker, you want some more of that feeling.

By the third or fourth day,  your spirits lift higher, and for longer moments, right before each time you crash clumsily again. But now you will be up more times than down, and though not exactly smoothly or elegantly,  you are skiing. 

We must expect the same from our writing. In the beginning, it’s the beginning. While the first levels of success in skiing may take a few days, writing more likely will take a few years. We’re learning how to express our gift. For every great writer, there was a beginning, and for what they had to say, no one else knew how. Thus: Essential Truth #1 about writing, The only way you can learn how to do it is to do it.

Essential Truth #2: Failure is necessary.

Failing is inherent and valuable. Failing is how we learn what to do and what not to do. There is no other way. Therefore, allow yourself this. Expect to not be a brilliant writer right away. Expect a cartload of disappointments and possibly humiliations along the way. These do not prove you un-brilliant. They only mark a serious commitment to the truest and best expression of whatever is your unique personal gift. It will be different from most people. Most people live their whole lives without expressing their truth, not because they don’t have any gifts, but because they don’t have the enormous courage it takes.

Don’t be one of those. Take off down the trail, flail your poles in the air, and fall on your butt, and do it with determination. Do it with embarrassed, wounded, but unconquerable pride. Get up. Fall down. Get up. Keep going. You can do this, if you want it bad enough, because if writing is truly your path,  you will do it.

*I did become a firefighter and served eight years with
Alameda County OES Fire Department as a line firefighter and officer.

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  • Sue Turcotte

    I absolutely love this, Victoria! Intelligent, witty, and a downright joy to read. And, it holds so many truths.

    I am hesitating so hard to point out a typo, but since the word goes to the heart of your piece, I have to mention it. Here we go . . . 'There are a great many wonderful things you can learn from Brooks.' I believe you meant to write 'BOOKS, yes? If not, then jettison this comment altogether from your feed with my apologies for being a dunce.

    Oh, and did I mention you have one of my lifetime favorite names? Victoria. (sigh)