Conversations May 22, 2010

Saturday, May 22, 2010

7:30 AM. Still reading Death In The Afternoon. If I had my way, I’d put out an edited addition — mutilated, people would think it at first — that showcased the truly wonderful learning there is to be had in it, merely by removing what sets up the narrator as querulous distraction. As it is, it is occasionally like listening to a great violinist wisecracking as he plays, or complaining about his hotel. And it’s a shame, because it is great playing!

Papa, how did you come to learn so much about things you came to care for? In short order, as they occur to me, writing, appreciating painting, hunting, fishing, shooting (as opposed to hunting), bullfighting, military science, wines and foods, and intangible things like the interactions in nature, and the likely responses of fish.

How do you learn anything? You pay attention, you ask, you try to get the experience yourself, and when you can’t get it — painting, the fish — you try to get inside the mind of the person who did paint, or the fish that took the hook.

But having the experience doesn’t mean just doing something and checking it off your list. It means watching somebody do it, and doing it, and remembering doing it, and analyzing what you saw somebody do and what you remember doing, and then doing it again with what you have learned, and analyzing it again, and so on. There’s always more to learn, if you keep it an active process. But it has to be active; it can’t just be doing it and not thinking about it, not learning from it. You can learn from any shot you take, any fish you bring in, any painting you see. But it doesn’t come to you. You have to go to it. That’s the only way to master anything.

Now, you’ve read about how I would analyze what specific detail evoked an emotion in me. That was my way; there are others. But the critical part is putting your attention on it. You’ve got to work it with your mind.

That doesn’t exactly mean thinking about it, though that has its place too. It means connecting with what you just did, what you just saw or felt or even heard. You’re fond of saying that sometimes something is easier done than said. This is a case of easier done than described — but it isn’t all that easy to do, either, until you know what it is you’re doing, and why. It is the difference between somebody who sees something and a trained observer seeing it; it’s the difference between a tourist watching a bull fight and an experienced viewer. At first you don’t know what to see, or how to position yourself to see it, or why it’s being done. You have to learn how to know all these things, if you’re going to understand how to learn it.

Notice what I just said. You’ve got to have the what, how, and why just to learn how to learn. They aren’t even the first step, but the step toward the first step.

You’ve got to be a reporter writing for yourself, and always on the job, or ready to be on the job. It takes energy, it takes attention, it takes disciplined intelligence and perseverance and a lot of other qualities that aren’t ladled out in bucketfuls, and anyway it takes work and the habit of work.

And you have to find a teacher. That will save you the time you need to save if you’re going to learn more than one thing in a lifetime. And that means you have to come to it in a certain attitude, or a good teacher won’t bother with you. But if you’re a good pupil and he’s a good teacher, you should be able to surpass him, finally, because he has heaved you over his shoulders, giving you what it took him long years to learn.

But remember, there is a huge difference between a teacher showing you how to catch a specific fish at a specific time, walking you through each step, and your being able to do it when he isn’t there, even in your mind. I could walk Max through catching a big marlin, but for him to know how to do it first to last, he would have had to put in concentrated time learning, and it would have had to be important to him, and he would have had to have the aptitude not just to be okay but to want to be expert.

It was a very noticeable quality of yours, that you became expert in so many areas that interested you.

I notice you didn’t mention history and great literature, but I had my footing in both of those, too. It’s just, there isn’t much call to exhibit those, or teach them to anybody, and how can you teach a mental arrangement in the way you can teach a physical skill? You can’t. Or I couldn’t, anyway.

Well, say more about that.

“Hemingway read everything,” Morley said, and I did. But I didn’t read things just to give myself something to do. I was learning all the time, and by the way, you ought to understand my irritable reaction to so much that I read if you remember your own reaction to insincere plays: They made you livid with their insincerity and their facile bandwagon-riding.

Yes. I do remember, and I see.

What’s the purpose of reading? It brings you into other worlds, right? You experience what you can’t experience any other way. It’s a time machine, and a window into other worlds, and sometimes it brings you into whole new parts of yourself that grow from that, to your amazement. So why waste of that kind of magical opportunity writing bullshit? And why waste it reading it? And to get tricked into wasting time on something that is just a fake, it’s annoying.

I read history because I liked reading it. Why else? But like you I used the books to put together a picture in my mind — a roadmap. We say it is so we can understand the present, but really does it have to have a use? What use is it to look at an Utrillo, to really look?

I think you are often underrated out of the assumption that you are under-educated. Of course that requires great stupidity in the face of the evidence, or an entire ignorance of the existence of the evidence, but there are plenty of people who fill that bill.

There always are. But if people would look at who my friends were, and what I actually included in my novels, where it fit, they’d get another idea.

The kingdom of the mind is impossible to dramatize, though.

Yes it is, and the hell with them. The real problem was, I was never in uniform.

I understand that. They were always trying to find a slot for you as peg, and you never fit.

Broke a few pegboards, though.

Yes. And maybe ultimately split the peg?

Life did that. It always does. It’s just a pleasant surprise afterwards to find out that the end of the story is more like the end of a certain way of writing the story.

Thanks for all this. Going to quit now.

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