For over 25 years I hated reading and writing. Then everything changed
Phonemes, graphemes, segmenting… dear lord. This is English homework for a seven-year-old in one of the laxest educational systems in the world? It boggles my mind how people can think mathematics is difficult relative to this. I can solve the Einstein field equations but for the life of me can’t help my second grader segment the word “isn’t.”
I liked math classes in school — everything was cut and dry. Answer the problems correctly, get 100%. There was no ambiguity. On the other hand, I remember my Grade 12 English teacher saying at the beginning of the semester that he never had and never will give a mark above 80%. Well, looks like you are getting about 0% of my effort, I thought. I didn’t like any of my English teachers in high school, and they definitely didn’t like me.
I read very little beyond the occasional encyclopedias, atlases, and popular science magazines my parents had lying around the house — and even then I was in it for the pictures. I hated fiction. I bullshitted every book report I ever wrote. It was probably obvious given the grades I received.
I wrote even less than I read. Why would I? I grew up in a small farming and manufacturing town in Canada’s Industrial Heartland, where “boys” did things like play sports and video games — they definitely didn’t write.
I went to university to study mathematics and physics. It was more of the same old problem-solving with formulaic steps. Follow the rules, get the grades, believe in the promise of enlightenment at the end of it all.
Then I started graduate school and everything changed.
Now, I read for at least an hour and write thousands of words per day. I have written dozens of academic journal articles, nearly one hundred books, and way too many emails.
So what the hell happened in graduate school?
When people interview authors, there is always a quirky question like “if you could visit any author from the past who would it be?” or, the dreaded “if you could give your past self one piece of advice, what would it be?” I’ve always hated answering this question because the answer I used to give was too honest to be interesting — I would say, literally, “nothing.”
That is, I wouldn’t give my past self any advice. I’m quite happy with the way things turned out. My usual answer was the result of my typical overanalysis. Due to the butterfly effect, even a small change might have drastic consequences 25 years later. So, I wouldn’t risk it, I thought. Of course, this is not the answer the interviewer is ever looking for.
Well, if I could go back to those interviews, I would certainly have changed my answer because it finally dawned on me — write.
Dear younger me, write. Write everything down. Even if your future self will be the only one who reads it, write as if they were a stranger you desperately need to convince. I promise you will thank yourself later.
You see, in graduate school, I could no longer write what I thought was meant to be written — as in, what I thought the “answer” to the assignment or test was. I had to write things for which there was no marking scheme, no templates, and definitely no grades.
But, the reason I started writing is not as interesting as the reason I kept doing it. Once I started writing, there was no turning back.
It’s nice to be in your own head. Everything is familiar and comfortable. But, it’s also pretty cramped. Ideas become muted, incompleted, and mostly forgotten. You have some amazing thoughts going on up there — and it’s not that you need to let them out or that they yearn to be free — it’s that you cannot realize your potential if you don’t write those ideas down.
When you write, you realize that the stories you tell yourself are amorphous. They feel like good stories, but when you try to actually write them down, it becomes clear that they were not even stories at all. There are so many thoughts you can’t bring to completion because your mind can only hold a portion of the story. Get too far ahead, and you’ve lost the beginning. Dwell on the beginning, and you’ll never see the end.
Think of writing as an extension of your mind, a way to augment your thoughts so that they can be iterative on, honed, and crystalized. Writing commits you, at least hypothetically, to an unambiguous story.
Your knowledge is contained in the stories you keep. Fiction, nonfiction, science, mathematics — it’s all just stories. So, write them down, young Chris, write them down.