Drop by Drop, and the First Principle of All Learning

I recently came across an article that I had saved a good while back, “Repetition is the First Principle of All Learning” by Robert F. Bruner (University of Virginia, Darden School of Business Administration).   I was originally interested in the article for its perspective and thoughts on classroom education. However, upon revisiting it, I was prompted to think more philosophically about my current state of affairs, and about, of all things, a fuel pump for my car.

Every situation, new or repeated, offers something to the learner.   For example, I have learned, over and over, how to do without, how to make do with what I had on hand, and when to pass the work along to someone else.  I’ve slowly acquired a number of tools, physical and otherwise, to help out.   A special wrench, for instance, that cost $19 but saves me $200 every time an Oxygen Sensor needs to be replaced in my car.   A bit of software that saves me hundreds of hours of work every year.   Or a little knowledge that prevents me from imprudently wasting my time and money hiring others to do what I can do for myself.

Writing is not much different.   There are certain necessities, to be sure.   Paper and ink, for example.   Ramen noodles, coffee, and time.   And it is in that last category, time, that I find situations repeated.

Interruptions to the “creative process” are onerous and frustrating.   My car broke down.   I need it.   I must put off my creative pursuits.   My car is old, and I’m not sure I can repair it myself.   I suspect the problem is the fuel pump, but I can’t be sure.   Tests are inconclusive, but symptoms are spot on.   Everything points to fuel starvation. I would really like to buy a new car.   But the $100 fuel pump is less expensive, if it works.   Now it sits there, waiting for me, waiting for the rain to go away, waiting to be installed.   I’ve replaced fuel pumps before, the old mechanical, pre-fuel injection types.   One time, I even replaced a mechanical pump with an electric one.   That was a long time ago.   So this will be a gamble.   If it turns out not to be the fuel pump, I’ll go from there.

Sometimes you must gamble on your abilities.   Sometimes it is necessary to be audacious.   Sometimes it’s stupid.   I have been embarrassed by the results, even humiliated.   But, from time to time, there is a bit of satisfaction when the gamble, the effort, pays off.

Repetition has been the key to learning about that.

When I was twenty-something, I worked under the hood of a car to replace an engine head and valves.   Each night after getting home from work, I labored, the engine compartment lit with flashlights and hanging light bulbs.   While I worked, sleet pelted as I hunched over, trying to shield the engine from the ice with blankets and plastic sheets, working with freezing tools and numb hands.   And since I had never attempted anything like that before, I also labored against a terrible, nagging doubt.   That was before there was an internet.   I had only a thin, general-purpose car repair guide to go by.   And only a few tools to my name.   And no one to show me how to do it.   But, also, there was no one to tell me it couldn’t be done.

A gamble?   Not really.   Not when you’ve got nothing to lose.   My car was already dead; I was just trying to resurrect it.   I was getting rides to work and to the grocery store.   I could not afford a new car.   Not even an old used one.   I had purchased this one for $200 some months before and had driven the heck out of it.   It’s demise was sudden, and, it seemed, final.

It worked.   The car was back on the road within two weeks.   After a few break-in miles, it ran like a top.

That was over 30 years ago.   But it was, in a sense, a kind of beginning.   It gave me a bit of confidence for the next challenge, a year or two later, when several water pipes under the house burst.   Having never done any plumbing, I began figuring out how to do the repairs.   They were under the house, and I’m claustrophobic.   So, in addition to the general fear of making a bigger mess of things by trying to do the repairs myself, I also had an irrational dread and anxiety of the workplace, with barely enough room to lie on my back, far away from the access door to the crawlspace.   I hated every moment of it, but I accomplished the task.

And so I learned something new.   It was a nuanced repetition of the car repair gamble.   But this time the stakes seemed psychologically higher.   My feeling of satisfaction at having running water once more was increased by a sense of having overcome something more primal, something intangible and fearful.   Dark, nasty, muddy, cramped spaces.   I am just as claustrophobic now as I was then, but I learned that I could control it.   Or I learned that, at times anyway, it could be controlled.   That I could control me.   At least a little bit.

Now, years later, I could name many other examples, some having to do with mundane, practical things.   Others having to do with relationships (much harder lessons, indeed).   Some examples that I might name would pertain to jobs and work life.   Some with stargazing.

And some with writing…

I write, edit, and rewrite.   Wash, rinse, repeat.   Every single time is a gamble.   Will I make a bigger mess of something already hopeless?   Will I fail the story, this passage, this character, the reader, or myself?    Should I give up?

“It’s like déjà vu all over again.” –Yogi Berra

Repetition may, indeed, be the first principle of all learning.   Also, it might be the basis for a kind of “stick-with-it-ness,” at least when it comes to writing.   I have grown older and maybe a little wiser.   Not all of my gambles have paid off.   Some failed catastrophically.   Some left permanent scars, and I don’t just mean physical ones.

But, now that I’m older and less humiliated by failures than before, I can say this: I’m not afraid to try. And when it comes to writing, I am not ashamed to write melodramatic scenes, or to be emotionally very close to a character. I am not ashamed to cry (though I try like the devil not to), but I am ashamed when I get angry, because surely that is a waste.  I am not afraid of failure, since failure and I are, by now, good friends.  And, as one authority on the subject put it:

“Success is the ability to go from failure to failure, without losing your enthusiasm.” –Winston Churchill

Too often, as I have learned, trying to fight off the internal obstacles is like trying to fight off claustrophobia, or winter sleet.   Sometimes it is pointless to try; they are forces of nature.   They are part of the ecosystem of things, of the external and internal worlds that I am and that I live within.   Yes, I still seek to rein in my fears, my emotions, but any control that I exert will not make the things that I fear go away, will not banish self-doubt any more than a few thin sheets of plastic can make icy skies clear off and turn into a bright warm day.

So this is what I say:

Wash, rinse, repeat.   Cry, work, write.   Render aid to the wounded.  Mourn the lost.   Honor the dead.   Look after the children.   And keep going, as long as there is strength.

Do not be afraid of repetitions.   They may be exasperating.   They may seem boring.   But they are like days and nights and all the seasons.   They come and they go, and they pass into one another.   It is not always what they contain–not always what they bring–that really matters.  What matters is what you put into those repetitions.  That is what makes each repetition, each try, just a little bit different, just a little bit new. It is what makes you a little bit different, each time, a little bit new. What you put in, to a great extent, determines what you bring away.  Sometimes it is slow work, with no great revelation.  Sometimes the change in you comes quietly, softly, sometime after the work is done, during rest, or during sleep.  That, too, is the nature of things, as said another writer, long ago…

…he who learns must suffer.
And even in our sleep, pain that cannot forget
falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despite, against our will, comes wisdom, by the awful grace of God.”    —Aeschylus


UPDATE: It wasn’t the fuel pump, after all. It was a bad spark plug. Duh!


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