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“The hardest to learn was the least complicated”

June 27, 2011

I went back to my high school last week, to watch the annual musical production (Les Miserables, and it was awesome).

It made me a little nostalgic, reflecting on my younger self. Apparently I was a book snob early on: my English teacher recounted how I rebelled against reading Mrs Doubtfire in Year 9 – ‘why do we have to read this teen fiction crap?’ I demanded to know.

Anyway, if I could tell that younger self a few things about life, work and writing, what would they be? (I’m sure my advice about boys would be more useful at the time, but less relevant to this blog).

  1. You’ll need to forget everything they teach you about writing. Big words don’t make you sound smart, they make you sound like a wanker most of the time. A few well-placed words are fine, but go easy on the Thesaurus function in your WordPerfect program.
  2. You are right to reject teen fiction. Spend your time wisely, because there are so many good books to read, and you’ll still be trying to get through them 20 years later. (Hold off on Heart of Darkness though, you won’t get it for a few years yet).
  3. Being a ‘good writer’ at school doesn’t really mean you are. It just means you are more literate than most of your peers. Being a ‘good writer’ actually requires lots of practice, patience and red pen from your designated mentor/s.
  4. Vocational degrees aren’t really worth the pain. A communications degree teaches you very little about the real world of PR.  Why put yourself through all that pain, when you could be studying Arts? (Well, that’s what I did).
  5. It’s good to know a little bit about a lot of things. Reading widely, shooting the breeze with smart people, clicking on interesting hyperlinks, listening to music that’s not on the charts, watching the History channel. However you do it, you need context for your writing – not just content.
  6. You don’t know what you like, ’til you try it. I had never picked up the business section of the newspaper before I started in this game. And yet this Green Left Weekly-reading, Billy Bragg-listening, Marxism-studying graduate was instantly hooked on corporate communication. Who knew?
  7. Your Cold War essay won’t really benefit from you watching Rocky IV. Just because Rocky fights the Soviet hero Drago, doesn’t mean you are actually studying.
I’ll finish here before I wander too far into self-indulgent proselytising.
But what about you? What would you tell your 16-year-old self (other than: ‘you should drop that loser, he’s not worth the tears’)?
Hat tip to the Indigo Girls for the post title, and to Steve for the Rocky clip.

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  1. Great post! This advice (including “drop that loser”, and especially “hold off on Heart of Darkness”) is *exactly* what I wish I could have told myself back then. The curiosity about the human psyche that led me to start a psychology degree could have been just as well sated by reading more fiction, so I’d add “Get into Russian literature earlier!”
    Aside from that I’d just like to say that the Rocky series is a really good one. You shouldn’t consider that time as wasted, even though it didn’t assist your Cold War essay.

  2. Oh, sorry if I was unclear – Rocky wasn’t at all a waste of time. Just a waste of *studying* time.
    But I don’t know about Russian lit in your teens – it’s an angst-ridden time as it is, and reading Crime & Punishment is about as cheering as listening to grunge.

  3. I would have told myself that: you can still write a good story without it having to have a tricky, unexpected ending; you can look past the co-incidence riddled twists of David Copperfield and still respect the work; you ought to have picked Latin as an elective subject; you shoud have investigated things like the subjunctive intead of just half-knowing something about it; and you needn’t have worried about all those cool, pretty girls who just thought you were a nerd, coz they won’t think the same thing down the track when you are a lawyer.

  4. Fortunately, there are few people who will be able to call you on your insufficient understanding of the subjunctive. Most have never heard of it. But one day, you’ll have a precocious daughter who battles these esoteric topics out with you, so it’s best to start early.

  5. One caveat here: don’t watch the History channel. I’m a research junkie, which is to say that I double-check just about everything. You do not want to take the History channel at their word.

    That being said, I recently graduated from a college (received four of those nifty two-year degrees) and I was feeling nostalgic myself, so I’ve thought a lot about what you’re saying here. Definitely the one about writing: one of my first classes was an honors English course with a professor who wore a straw hat with a Grateful Dead pin on it, khaki shorts, sandles and a ponytail. Brilliant man. One of the first things he said was, “Remember what you learned in high school about writing? Yeah? Throw it out. It’s crap.”

    A beautiful sentiment, I think.

    As for what I would tell my 16-year old self (even though it was a mere five years ago): Others perception of you is more accurate than your own. There is a long story to why I would say that and its one that I won’t share in a comment thread, but over the years, I have learned the most about myself through the eyes of others and I continue to do so.

    • Thanks for sharing – that professor sounds cool! Your comment about others’ perceptions is interesting. I was once told, in an affectionate way, that I’m bossy and opinionated (by my boss!). I’d never thought about myself like that, but it’s patently true.

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  1. 7 things I’d tell my teenage self about life, work, and writing |
  2. Financial Buzz - 7 things I’d tell my teenage self about life, work, and writing
  3. 7 things I’d tell my teenage self about life, work, and writing : Financial Planners

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