Monday, June 30, 2014

Teaching Yourself a Lesson You Always Knew

Writing is, at its core, about exchanging ideas.  Sometimes those ideas are new to us, other times they're new spins on well-worn ideas, and still other times they're lessons that we know well, but which bear repeating (sometimes they're none of those things, but... well, that's not ideal).  What I'd like to talk about, though, is what you can learn from writing, and it usually seems to fall into that third category.  Click down below the break for my ramblings.

There's a bit from one of my fanfics, Letters from a Senior to a Junior Changeling, that I'd like to start by quoting.  In it, the senior changeling explains how to sow discontent between a mother and son:

Go to the mother and tell her how wonderful are all the many little things she surely does for him. Then, when she is inflated with your praise, casually offer that you can’t see why he never speaks of his appreciation himself. Likewise, go to the son and tell him what a dutiful child he is to care so for the mare. Speak glowingly of how patient he is with her, even though she doesn’t seem at all grateful. His smile may falter a bit at this, but do not press the attack. Instead, carry on as though you did not notice, praising the myriad sacrifices he daily makes for her.
Pepper your conversations with such minuscule barbs, and you will soon see just how quick these ponies are to turn from harmony to chaos. One day, the mother will pass her son as he washes the dishes, and the grudge your words have planted in him will burst forth. “These are your dishes too,” he will snap. “The least you could do is say thank-you.”
But by now, the mare will be too wrapped up in her own perceived grievances to consider what a little thing this is to ask. Instead, she will take offense. How can he ask me for thanks, she will think to herself, when I am the one who fixes supper each night for the both of us? And she will respond with some jab of her own, and soon the two will be screaming at each other over nothing more significant than a basic household responsibility, two minutes’ work at the most.
If that sounds totally trite and artificial... um, oops.  But if it sounds completely realistic to you, it's because I have done that exact thing.  Multiple times.  Something about doing dishes hits that puts me in a bad mood, I guess (better than being in charge of laundry, though), and I've gotten into more than one spat with family or roommates because I was doing the dishes, and some slight (perceived or otherwise) got me so riled up about my own grievances (perceived or otherwise) that I just had to pick a fight about it.

But, funny thing: since first writing that story nearly two years ago, it hasn't happened again.  Granted, a lot of that is that I'm not regularly in the position of doing others' dishes these days (let alone feeling that I'm being insufficiently lauded for it), but even when I've had a chance to be aggrieved, I haven't been.  And wouldn't you know?  It's because whenever I start to get annoyed while washing plates, I think of that passage that I wrote.  Seeing things through my own refracted past perspective helps me see just how petty I'm being.

There is nothing particularly clever or novel about the idea "maybe you shouldn't get so riled up about something trivial."  Goodness knows, I've heard variations on that theme plenty of times.  But when you put some time and effort into writing something, I find it's hard not to internalize what you've written.  Although it certainly wasn't my intention, writing that passage provoked a positive change in me that dozens of childhood parental lectures only partly produced.

This is kind of a silly, trivial example, but I chose it because I think it makes for a good illustration (and because I think it's funny--"fanfic taught me not to be a jerk about dishes" would be a great Weekly World News headline, wouldn't it?).  The best way to learn a subject is to teach it, they say (they're right).  Perhaps the best way to learn a lesson is to write it.


  1. "Perhaps the best way to learn a lesson is to write it."

    Hah! That's great! So Twilight was right all along.

  2. Well, I had a comment, but it just disappeared into the aether upon posting (again)! I'm gonna need to start copying my comments before I post them

    Don't remember my exact words, but I basically said I liked this post, as well as the passage back when I read your fic, and I brought up the idea of a writer whose body of work is entirely built on the concept of improving themselves as a person

  3. 1995. probably my favourite album in the world: Jagged Little Pill.

    "We'll love you just the way you are, if you're perfect" --Perfect, Alanis Morissette.

    Wonderfully biting social commentary there, and little wonder that I went on to write:

    “You were struggling to hold yourself together after the nexus had taken so much out of you. You could not answer me when I asked how you were feeling, but you made it clear that there was something you wanted me to know. It was clear because I wanted it too. I recognised my own desires and I failed you terribly because let it cloud my judgement.”

    At that, Rarity opened her eyes and met the princess’s stare silently.

    “Yes, Rarity, I failed you. We have all failed you. Twilight, Splashdown, Thunderer, Silverlight, even Celestia, all heaped praise upon your strength of character, but none of them told you, did they?”

    Luna’s hoof gently brushed away a tear as it rolled down Rarity’s face, but more soon came to replace it.

    “It was you who insisted on investigating Twilight’s dream, and you who struggled on to help your friends when you became ill. You insisted on investigating Twilight’s missing book and almost bested Sonata face-to-face -- which few ponies can boast. Splashdown told me what he said to you this morning. He was wrong. It was my pleasure to use your title, just as you seemed thrilled to stand beside me, even through those dreary meetings. It didn’t matter whether you understood me: it was enough that you listened. In return, I wanted you to feel heard and appreciated, but I should never have pressured you. You see, there are some places that even my sister’s grace cannot reach, so I look for the places where she casts only shadows -- places I might feel useful.” Luna’s hoof slid down and tapped Rarity’s chest. “Today, that was here.”

    --Princess Luna from Shades of Grey, by InquisitorM

    Because there are no such thing as brutal honesty, only assumptions left too long without the illumination of the truth.


  4. Hm. If anything, my writing works in reverse. Not that this is rare in the least, but I often write of situations that have happened to me in real life, and so the lesson is already internalized. I can't think of an instance where I typed out a flash of insight which I later applied to real life. I guess I'm more reflective and less proactive in my old age.

  5. In short, that would be the exact thing that probably separated the Royal Pony Sisters, small things that drove larger and larger wedges between them as they concentrated on them instead of the love between two sisters.... Um.... As a father of twin teenage girls, perhaps I should phrase that as the love that is SUPPOSED to be between sisters. The same thing breaks up marriages, corporations, and families every year, over and over.

    History doesn't repeat itself, but it rhymes. -- Joseph Anthony Wittreich

    1. I guess it is like poetry, every stanza kinda rhymes with the last one.

  6. I learned a lesson like that, not by writing about it, but by dreaming about it.I used to argue with my mother over which way to put the forks in the dishwasher. I said they should go handle up, so they would get clean between the tines. She said they should go handle down, so they wouldn't poke through the mesh and jam something. Or maybe it was the other way around. I forget. I do remember arguing about it and being irritated that she couldn't see that I was right.

    Then I dreamed that she was dead, and that I was loading the dishwasher. I put all the forks in the way she wanted them, crying and wishing she were alive so that I could do it her way for her.

    Then I woke up, and she was, and I did, from then on.

    1. Wow, surreal dream.