“If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”
Sir Isaac Newton
They say that when you are ready for the lesson, life provides the teacher. Sometimes those lessons can be painful and the teachers can be the kind that rap your knuckles with a ruler and make you go sit in the corner. Life has a way of teaching us that doesn’t always follow the outline we envision in our head. I guess I was ready for the next lesson, but it didn’t come exactly in the way I envisioned.
I loved the movie Interstellar. In spite of some of the technical plot holes that were easy to overlook for the sake of the story, it was a mind-expanding movie coupled with fantastic story telling. But I did have one problem with the movie.
(Spoiler Alert!) When Cooper is in the black hole and is looking back at his daughter’s bedroom through various points of time, he concludes that the designers of this time dimension are not “they” but “we.” He makes the claim that the human race somehow lifted itself out of this desperate situation by using time as another dimension and communicating across gravity. That humans lifted themselves out of an impossible situation without help from a higher intelligence was too much for me to swallow.
It is the typical time traveler’s conundrum. If you are trapped in quicksand with no way of escape, can the “future you” travel back from the future and save the “present you”? No. But someone else from the future (who can time travel of course) can travel back in time and save you. We cannot lift ourselves out of some quagmires without the aid of others. We cannot elevate our thinking without help from someone else with more knowledge.
It is true that we are capable of original thought and that the human mind is an untapped power and underutilized resource, but most often we elevate our thinking because someone, or something, teaches us or challenges us to elevate it. When we are ready for the lesson, life provides a teacher.
Several years ago I took a class from Orson Scott Card and when it ended I asked if he recommended any other classes. He didn’t see a need for a lot of formal instruction. He recommended that I download the reading list for any creative writing masters program and read those books, but the number one thing for me to do was to write—every day. In a sense he is correct, if a writer isn’t writing are they really a writer?
So I wrote—two novels, several short stories, a few magazine articles, a monthly blog, and a nonfiction book. But just because I write, and just because I’ve been published, doesn’t mean that I am a skilled writer or that I don’t need instruction.
As I was searching for my next project I decided that it would be good to take another writing class. I heard that David Farland was one of the best writing teachers in the industry and so I looked up his courses online. He offers a variety of courses depending on skill level and since I wasn’t sure which one to take I sent him an email and asked. His response surprised me. He offered me a spot in a professional writer’s class. The only problem was that it was short notice, and I didn’t think I could clear my calendar. At first I declined, but then I got lucky and was able to secure the days off with the exception of one day. Certain I could clear that one day from my work schedule, I committed to the five-day course. Life had presented me with the teacher.
It is hard for me to spend time away from my family when I am already gone so much, but I packed my bag and headed for the airport ready for a week of learning. I was not disappointed. Dave conducted the class casually leaning back in his chair and balancing on two legs while he spoke for almost three hours without stopping. I took copious notes and wondered if he would be able to keep up that pace all week. He did.
When we finally stopped for a break I got the chance to meet some of my classmates. All of them were talented writers with successes under their belts. Some of them had been published several times. When it comes to flying airplanes I am pretty confident with my abilities, but when I get around other writers I feel like a poser, like I don’t really belong. Quite frankly, I feel like the dumbest guy in the room. This class was no different.
I have been wondering where to go next with my writing. Listening to Dave Farland made me realize that I could do so much more with my craft. He inspired me to expect more from my own abilities. He encouraged me to succeed at levels I had only dreamed about. He helped me to see that I really could produce professional work. Although I still struggle with self-doubt, he convinced me that I am capable of much more than I have yet accomplished.
As a young man I was always looking for the shortcut to success. As an older man I simply ask about the price of success, weigh whether or not I want to pay it, and start paying. I was about to find out how bad I wanted to succeed, or at least how bad I wanted to learn.
Because I wasn’t able to clear that last day of work from my schedule, on Wednesday when class ended at 3 pm, I put on my uniform and headed for the airport. I flew well into the night and ended up in San Francisco. I would miss a day of class on Thursday while I was flying, but I really wanted to catch the last day. I got as much sleep as I could before starting my flying day on Thursday because I knew that if I wanted to get back to class on Friday, it was going to be a short night. After a long day of flying I got in bed around 1 am. In order to make it back to class, I had to be up at 4 am.
Lack of sleep has a multitude of side effects—grumpiness, loss of concentration, a dull aching of joints, even a twisted sense of humor. Surprisingly, I was able to concentrate, keep a smile on my face, and even participate in the conversation. I was eager to learn. I wanted the lesson, even if it meant losing a bit of sleep to get it.
When life teaches you a lesson you either change your behavior, or perhaps you crystalize your thoughts to a point that your decisions are galvanized into action. That moment came to me while I sat in class on the last day exhausted from lack of sleep. A discussion ensued about the impact of our writing, and writing about controversial topics. Someone commented that haters are always going to hate and you can’t do anything about it. That’s when it hit me. My resolve crystalized. I knew why I was writing. Life had just taught me.
I objected to the statement. Why else do we write if we don’t want to change another person’s mind? If all we are writing for is to make a buck, there are easier ways. We should try to overcome hate. We must try to elevate the thinking of others. We have a duty to write something that does more than entertain. We must strive to raise the bar of human thought and moral behavior. Why else do we risk epic failure at the hands of countless critics if we are not attempting to both entertain and inspire?
In the bowels of a black hole surrounded by an amazing time-space continuum, Cooper stated emphatically to TARS (his companion robot) that “we” saved ourselves from catastrophic failure. I am arrogant, but not that arrogant. Just like Newton, if I see further, think more clearly, discover or apply truth, it is because I stand on the shoulders of the giants in this world, or because I have been inspired by heaven. Sometimes the shoulders of giants are not enough and we must be lifted up by an even higher power.