On learning the basics, and also on learning what the basics are

As something of a serial hobbyist, I’ve been slowly working my way through trying things that I’m not particularly good at. (Singing, running, rock climbing–though a potential wrist injury a couple classes in made me back off from that last.) I find it’s good for me to get outside my comfort zone and scare myself a little. Lately, I’ve been thinking about drawing and sketching. Drawing is particularly scary for me because I know plenty of people who aren’t doing it as a hobby and are in fact quite good at it, and also because I’ve spent decades processing the world, even the visual world, through words far more than images, and have grown comfortable with that.

So I got up my nerve and began asking for a few beginner resources. In addition to a couple book recs (I gather Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain is actually worthwhile, in spite of my irritation with a supposed left/right brain dichotomy that doesn’t really exist), I also received a lot of suggestions along the lines of “Draw every chance you get!” and “Pay attention to the world around you!” and, basically, “Just do it!” This was fascinating to me for two reasons:

  1. I’ve given the exact same advice to people who’ve asked me how to start writing.
  2. That advice turned out, nonetheless, to be not at all useful to me.

I know a classical musician who didn’t start playing until high school, something at odds with our standard image of classical musicians beginning to play almost before they can form full sentences. He told me that one useful thing about starting late was that it made him a better teacher, because he remembered what the learning process was like, unlike musicians who started at 3 or 4, when we don’t think about how we learn–we just do.

I was writing pretty much from the time I could form a coherent sentence, and telling stories long before then. When I think of all the hard work I put (continue to put) into learning to write, I’m thinking mostly of work begun when I started trying to publish–work focused on taking the words I already knew how to put on the page and shaping them in ways that would reach readers.

I don’t think of the fact that I already knew how to construct a coherent sentence–I learned that so young that it feels like, well, breathing. I think of all the work I’ve put into building on that basic thing, but not about the thing itself.

For those who’ve drawn all their lives, I suspect it’s much the same: they already know how to put pencil to page and approximate what they see in the world around them, and have since before they can remember. The work they’ve been focused on is all about learning how to do that basic thing well, not on learning how to do it at all. It’s no more intuitive to someone who’s drawn all their life that I might be looking for guidance on things as basic as how to hold a pencil and vary the darkness of the marks I make on the page than it is for me that someone asking me how to write might want to know how to construct sentences, rather than to use those sentences to craft stories.

So I’ve been thinking about this, and thinking about how when someone asks for writing advice, it’s important to know where they’re asking for it from. I tend to think of myself as self-taught (I wasn’t a creative writing major), and so don’t really have how-to-write texts at hand to recommend. But I’m really not so much self-taught as someone who learned certain basics before I was conscious of learning them. So “just pay attention and keep working at it!” is useful advice for many writers, but not all writers, just like “just keep drawing!” is useful for many artists, but not all of them. In both cases, that advice presupposes some basic tools have already been acquired, tools so basic we might not realize they even are tools.

I need to keep thinking about this. In the meantime, if anyone else is looking for a really basic introduction to drawing, I discovered this old Drawing 101 course on reddit, which so far, at least, seems to be just the thing for this almost total beginner.

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