Okay. So I’m not as organized as I pretend I am. So I don’t keep track of my non-fiction. That particular fact has never bitten me in the butt before now. I think of nonfiction as something I toss off, worth only what I get in the moment. So while I know this essay first appeared in 1994, I’m not quite sure where. Judging from its tone, it probably appeared in the Report, a writer’s magazine my husband and I (later J. Stephen and Christina F. York) used to edit. But I don’t know for sure. What I do know is that despite the subheading of this part of my site—Dated Essay of the Month—this one ain’t so dated.
The differences? Aside from the dated references (Stallone???), the rest are personal. I now exercise daily—walk, run, stretch, swim. I have to or I’ll lose the ability to write (what does that mean? Writing is a physical activity and I find I can’t sit in the chair long enough if I don’t keep up my other exercise). I also no longer attend a weekly workshop. Workshops with the same old people become…predictable…and no longer valuable. But Dean and I teach workshops for professional writers—how to maintain a career, how to improve your craft as a professional, when to quit your day job—and that serves the same function as the weekly workshop. Only now they seem to hit monthly or so. Just as valuable although they’re a bit more intense. The students teach me a lot, probably more than they learn from me.
Otherwise, the sentiment is the same right down to that sense of panic about not finishing all the projects I’ve started. Which reminds me: I don’t think I ever finished that essay by Plutarch…
A Few Words on Laziness & Responsibility
Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Some of the most educated people I know have never been to college. And it always startles me to learn that I have had more years of formal education than they have; they seem so erudite. The knowledge trips off their tongues: they’re not afraid of grand ideas or quoting a long dead philosopher. And more than that: they love learning.
So do I. I feel like the years I spent in school were only the beginning of my education. The more I read, the more I watch, the more I listen, the more I will learn. No matter how much knowledge I gain in whatever years I have on this earth, I know it will not be enough. There will always be something else, something more, something beyond.
I have also realized over the years that the one thing college teaches people is how to learn. A lot of folks tie learning with unpleasantness or with effort, and feel it is something to be abandoned at age 22 like a letter jacket or a class ring. I used to work closely with a woman who had a high school education and she had no concept of the value of applying herself, of expanding her mind. Her attitude always stopped me because it was foreign to me. We spoke English but used a different language when it came to life.
That other language crops up from time to time. People who ask me if they have to read the book if they have already seen the movie (duh! what do you expect me — a writer, to say? — no?) or believe they’re experts because they spent six weeks studying a certain topic all speak that language. So do the folks who think they can find a shortcut to becoming a professional writer. Sure, networking helps, and sitting in workshops develops the critical voice, but the only thing that will make a person a writer is to write. And the only thing that will make a professional writer is to mail the writing to an editor who may buy it. Practice the craft, learn it, and never stop learning it.
The educated friends I have — the ones without an official pedigree, no B.A., B.S., M.A., or PhD — are professional writers. Most are at the top of their field and know more about other professions, other disciplines, than most people who have completed 20+ years of school. This does not mean to become a writer a person must drop out. This means that a writer must continue learning, whether in a formal setting or not. And I think most people benefit from a formal education simply in terms of basic knowledge.
Professional writers are the only renaissance people I know. They know a lot about everything, and their knowledge is in-depth about most things. They don’t have peripatetic minds, and they aren’t dilettantes, even though it looks that way at times. They have a job which demands that they specialize in life and life is diverse. It takes discipline to tackle a subject as large as the world and not be bowed by it.
There are several ways to face a subject this large. The first is to give up. (“I will never know everything, so why even try?”) The second is to pretend. (“No one will realize that I don’t know enough.”) The third is to get by. (“Well, if I get one fact right, people will assume I know the rest.”) The fourth is to proclaim knowledge doesn’t matter. (“Not everyone can know everything.”) The fifth is to make the subject small. (“I will become an expert at everything to do with — toenails! Toenails will be my world.”) The sixth is to realize that knowledge is infinite and to pursue to the infinite with gusto. (“I will never know everything, but I will try.”)
The sixth attitude is what keeps people young, what makes writers good, and what makes conversation delightful. The truly curious aren’t afraid to ask questions or acknowledge their ignorance of a topic. They take responsibility for their own education and, in doing so, they become responsible for their own lives.
The people who crave knowledge have no tolerance for laziness. And laziness shows itself in a variety of ways— five of which are mentioned above.
When Dean and I do panels at conventions and mention our workshop, someone in the audience always ask why we — professional writers and editors — go every week. We have the same answer: we go to learn. But how can professional writers learn anything in a workshop that has people who haven’t become professionals yet? The answer is simple: knowledge comes from unexpected sources. Sure, I have valuable — very valuable — conversations from people who have written longer than I have. But the most valuable conversations come from readers who often have no theories of literature, who simply read because they love to disappear into other worlds.
I am an athlete, only the muscle I exercise constantly is my brain. If it isn’t in the same shape as Sylvester Stallone’s body, I am failing at my job. To sustain that kind of physical condition requires heavy daily exercise. And the only way to exercise the brain is to feed it new information and to make heavy use of the information it already has. To learn and grow.
I spent the first 22 years of my life in college (my father was a professor and I practically lived on campus), and I may go back someday to take a class here or there, to expand the mind in ways I can’t at home. But I consider a day wasted if I haven’t learned one new thing. And I consider each day an adventure in which I manage to attend all my classes. It frustrates me that four books sit on my couch, unread, with a fifth on my desk waiting. Not to mention the three books I didn’t buy at Barnes & Noble on Friday because I knew I couldn’t get to them right away. Or Sunday’s New York Times, half finished on the kitchen table.
So excuse the abrupt end to this essay. I have a novel to chart out this evening, followed by some manuscripts to read, a biography to finish, a new CD to listen to, and a television program to tape. In the few hours left before I go to sleep, I also plan to read the Times Entertainment section, write a few letters, and see if I can get through that essay by Plutarch which I started last night.
No homework assignments, no grades, no final exams. Just more knowledge than I can ever absorb in one lifetime…and believe me, that’s not enough.
copyright 1994 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch