I hugely support the idea that you have to learn things more than once to know them. Elizabethan English is more comprehensible the more you read it. The piano is easier the more you play it. You remember what vocabulary words mean the more you see them used in different contexts.
But in concentrating on my studies now, I am seeing how I threw away a lot of what I was offered in the way of education in my past 23 years. My vocabulary, for one, is not where it should be, and I’m working on that. I’ve pretty much lost my French and my Portuguese, and I’m losing my Spanish because I’m not using it. And much of the theory I have been reading lately is stuff similar to, exactly the same as, or excerpted from the same greater work as things that were assigned to me late in high school or in college. And yet it seems new, or at least it has the allure of discovery and sometimes the difficulty of not being able to understand. So what, did I just not pay attention before, or is it really just that hard to learn things?
Some of it is definitely a laziness and snobbery issue, but what this is really teaching me is my learning style. I’m not going to quote that pedagogical theory about different kinds of learners, but evidently I have to find selfish applications for my education to really make it stick. By that I don’t mean that I have to know that grades and degrees are on the line, but that I have to have a selfish, personal desire to learn whatever it is to make it matter enough to me to really pay attention. Otherwise, I’ll sometimes really think I’m paying attention, even taking notes, and then I’ll realize that I have no clue what was just presented to me in the last five pages.
Right now it’s Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces, and holy shit, is it fabulous. I actually haven’t read it before, but in one of my English classes we used the Bill Moyers/Joseph Campbell video interview series as a text, so some of it is a refresher. But on the other hand, none of it is, because in that English class, I was so pissed about all the times it was necessary for the professor to teach basic grammatical skills to honors college students that I just didn’t respond in the way I should have to what was a really great set of “texts” (in addition to Campbell, we watched a Kenneth Branagh-narrated documentary of Goebbels’ diaries, and read Jung and Plato and Oliver Sacks). So now I’m reading this book in its entirety, even though the rest of the class is only reading the introduction, because I’m presenting the school of myth criticism in class on Monday. I can’t say it’s painful reading. I really do love it.
Part of why I love it is because it is awakening the old me. I devoured myths, fairy tales, and folklore when I was young. And fantasy, too, of all kinds, but especially the more Campbell-approved stuff, from tons of different cultures. A lot of my collection is long gone, but I still have some Andrew Lang anthologies, Virginia Hamilton compilations, and Joe Hayes collections, so that’s not a bad starting point. One of the best personal essays I ever wrote (which got me into Columbia) was about being supernaturally drawn to a mermaid statue sitting on a pile of rocks at a dangerous beach in Brazil, where my tia decided that I must be a child of Yemanjá to be so driven to climb out to her like that. And I know this is silly because I have yet to publish any fiction, but nearly all of the projects I have proposed to myself and even begun writing or planning out have been myth- or folklore-based. Then somehow I decided that wasn’t legitimate or cool or that other people had more of a claim on it than I did (as if only one person can like mermaids or rewrite a legend), so I abandoned it and decided to attempt to be a “serious” writer of realism. And look where that got me–now I rarely write, and when I do, it’s stilted. The good parts of my writing, even today after years of craft workshops and craft readings and a degree in creative writing, are what most closely resemble the things I was naturally drawn to my entire life. The projects I’m most excited about starting when I have some free time? The one based on an epic poem, the one based on a somewhat obscure fairy tale, and the one based on the fantasy epic my father invented as a bedtime story. Yeah. Let’s get on that.
It feels good to be back to that. It feels good to be who I am again. Maybe this will lift whatever was suffocating me.