Thursday, November 20, 2014

I Am an Unschooler

From this moment on I am identifying as an unschooler even though I was forced to go to school. I do not forgive the adults who forced structure on me, no matter how young I was at the time.

So, I think I've internalized a bunch of icky school stuff that I need to purge out of my system, and the first is the idea of needing any kind of structure in my life. From this moment on, I intend to run wild and free, doing what I want when I want, and not have one ounce of structure in my life.

I something HUGE that I internalized from my writing classes, but wasn't true, was that the reason I didn't finish any of the cool things I was writing when I was younger was because I didn't have a structured schedule, and now that I was writing stories for "real" in a graded class with deadlines, I could finish what I started and do a better job. BULLSHIT!!!!! I cannot believe that I ever believed this lie. I'm glad I took writing classes because they were fun at the time and helped me get back into the routine of writing (which I would not have gotten out of if I hadn't gone to college in the first place!), but there is no way in hell that the structure and grades made anything better, and the grading part forced me to change cool-topic stories into ordinary stories about the three "universal" "only-stuff-worth-writing-about," themes of love, sex, and death. (Nothing against these themes, but they are not universal and not the only things worth writing about).

Something very important that I realize now about the things I wrote when I was younger, on my own, in a completely unstructured way: I never had a serious goal of finishing any of them. Writing was a just-for-fun activity for me. If I'm reading a book, and I get bored with it or more interested in other things and decide not to finish, I don't consider that to be "failing" because I never had a serious goal of finishing the book in the first place. I get interest in new things all the time, and get bored with old things, so I end up having a lot of unfinished projects. This is not a problem unless I seriously want to finish something, and when I was younger, I didn't want to. I was perfectly happy working on projects for fun and then moving on when they got boring and something else became more fun. I had a really fun time with all of the cool projects I worked on when I was younger, and having fun was what wanted to do, so I did accomplish that goal.

What I realize now about finishing stories because I had deadlines in a structured class is that I should have never thought that this was the *only* way for me to get things done because I had never really set a goal of finishing anything completely on my own unstructured schedule. I hadn't failed to do that, I had just never tried. When I wrote The Unencrypted Truth (100 pages long), I had a serious goal of finishing it, but I did not have a deadline or schedule. I finished in about three months. This taught me two things: that I am perfectly capable of finishing what I start when I want to without having any kind of externally-imposed deadline or structure, and that I have a natural, comfortable pace of about 10,000 words a month, and I should use that as my guideline for writing goals rather than trying to copy what "real" writers do. I am a real writer and this is my pace. Most books nowadays are between 50,000-100,000 words. That means I'd be finishing the bulk of a book in 5-10 months. That is perfectly awesome and nothing that I should feel bad about!

I've also learned that I don't like the imposed structure of having a to write a certain word count per day. I've always felt like that was the "right" way to do it because in school we were always supposed to break projects down into pieces and use time management and stuff like that. I realize now that this doesn't work for me, and what does work for me is having a monthly goal rather than a daily goal. That way I have a lot of freedom within that month. I can have times when I'm really engaged and times when I'm less engaged, and it comes out the same in the end.

I am never willing to put more time, effort, and energy into something that I don't care about than I put into something I do care about. (Work is different since I get paid, but there's still a limit). What this meant for me back when I was a student was that, because I was burning myself out, losing sleep, and missing out on fun things I wanted to do because of my schoolwork, I basically had to do the same thing with whatever mattered to me. I was forced to care about school and treat it like a priority when it was nowhere near the top of my list. I never felt like I had a choice about that. So the only way I could fight back, fight for what I truly cared about, was to treat what I really cared about the same way I treated school. I needed to drink caffeine, pull all-nighters, and miss out on other fun things I felt like doing in order to spend a ton of time writing.

Sometimes people saw that I was stressed out and recommended that I ease up a bit, but I thought that was bullshit because if I had a big test coming up, I don't think I would be advised to just study when I was in the mood or felt "inspired." If I had a paper due on Friday, I don't think anyone would suggest that I just decide to spend a certain amount of time on the paper each night and not worry about how many pages I produced. I was given advice like this with stuff I did care about, and it just showed me how little anyone accepted that my personal goals were more important than school. I do write when I'm not in the mood and I do keep track of quantity rather than time spent. I'm not going to treat what matters most to me like it's just a hobby or something I do on the side.

But here's what I have learned from not being a student anymore: I am not a fast lane kind of person. I like my life to go at leisurely pace without any pressure. When I think about the sleep-deprived zombie I was during midterms and finals in college, I realize there were two things wrong with that: One was that I was putting in all that effort for something I never really cared about, and the second was that I was doing that at all! I do not ever want to be sleep-deprived or missing out on fun things for any reason. If I need caffeine to keep me going, that means that something is wrong with my life because I do not want the kind of lifestyle where I need caffeine. Back when I was a student, the only way I could fight back against school was to treat everything else the same way, but now that I'm out, I can finally say that no, I'm not going to burn myself out over writing a book because I do not want to burn myself out for anything.

Other important thing I learned: What really motivated me about fiction writing class, what made me want to do the best I could on my stories, had nothing to do with grades or structure. What I cared about was the attention. Everyone had a workshop for each of their stories. When it was your turn, everyone spent an entire half of the class talking about your story. It was like a performance to look forward to. I got to be a superstar. That is what I really liked best about fiction writing class and why the class motivated me to do a better job. My writing classes taught me just how important it is for me to have a performance type of event to look forward to when I'm doing something on my own. When I finished my first novel, I was absolutely craving a big party or celebration afterwards and didn't really have one. I was also craving a celebration after writing The Unencrypted Truth and didn't have one. This time is different. As soon as I finish writing this book, as soon as I've done my absolute best with it and I'm ready to get feedback from my friends before sending it off to a publisher, I'm going to have a celebration! I'm going to invite all my friends over and have a reading! (The reading was my friend's idea, and it sounds awesome!) Now that I understand just how important this big performance event is to me, I can be sure to always have one planned when I'm trying to finish a book.

I also know that I'm an instant gratification person, not the delayed gratification type. Schools always pushed me to be more of a delayed gratification and long-term oriented person, but that was never for me. The way to accomplish long-term goals when you're more short-term oriented is to give yourself lots of short-term gratification along the way. Now, when I say short-term gratification, I'm not talking about external rewards that are unrelated to writing, such as buying something special for myself if I complete a certain number of pages. This tells my brain (and often rightfully so) that I must not really want to do whatever I am doing if I need to bribe myself, and I start to lose any genuine interest I had in the activity. The short-term gratification I need has to come straight from what I'm doing. Basically, I need a chance to show off what I've accomplished before the big final performance. Kind of like when I was in plays, and I'd look forward to going to rehearsals and showing everyone how much I'd practiced. I don't like to work on personal projects in total isolation - I need those "rehearsals" leading up to the performance. So I've read sections of the book to my friends and I've been sending drafts to a friend who is going to help me edit. Sharing parts of the book ahead of time has really helped me to stay motivated and engaged.

And I should mention that I don't think there's anything wrong with showing off as long as you're not arrogant or putting other people down. I love to show people what I've done and feel like a superstar, but I don't think I'm better than other people, and I love to see my friends be superstars and showcase their talents as well.

So there you have it. This is what I'm learning about how to do stuff my way, as the unschooler I am at heart. Don't listen to anyone who tells you there's only one right way of doing something.  Find what works for you, even it's nothing like what you've been told.

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