Writing Right with Dmitri: State-Based Learning, and How to Avoid It

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Writing Right with Dmitri: State-Based Learning, and How to Avoid It

Editor at work.

I have never understood the concept of 'writer's block'. People discuss this as a genuine disease. They solicit commiserations for this affliction. They suggest treatments and cures. They worry about getting it, as if it were the coronavirus. (Don't touch your face, and wash your hands.) I don't think it exists, and I'll tell you why.

I've asked myself, 'How does this sort of thing get started, and what can we do about it?' When I see columns about how people need their 'special pencil' to write, or how the room has to be a certain temperature….or how they need coffee or alcohol to 'fuel the process', I want to yell, 'Don't do this!'

I heard an interview on Terry Gross' radio programme once, where a young man said he spent his university years with a serious substance abuse problem. After graduation, he ran into difficulties. He got 'clean and sober'. It was then that he discovered that he'd forgotten every single thing he'd learned at university. He'd acquired all his knowledge and skills in a drug-induced altered state. He couldn't remember anything while sober.

I've come to the conclusion that the problem may be state-based activity. State-based activity is a bad thing, and needs to stop – certainly when it involves important things like writing. So let's talk about it.

State-Based Learning: Don't Be a Goose

The wonderful Professor Konrad Lorenz had a pet goose named Martina. Martina lived in his house and slept in an upstairs bedroom. Every evening at twilight, she'd come into the house and climb the stairs. But she always stopped at the landing to look out the window and reorient herself before continuing up the dark stairway.

One day, Lorenz forgot to open the door for Martina until it was gone dark. The goose ran up the stairs, but didn't see the window until she'd passed it, because it, too, was dark. Suddenly, she realised something was wrong. She panicked – and ran back down the stairs! It was only after she'd gone back up and paused at the window that she calmed down. Lorenz learned that changing long-established patterns can cause acute anxiety. (He observed this in himself, too.)

That's what I mean by 'state-based learning'. If you impose extraneous conditions on an activity, you may experience existential panic when all of those conditions aren't met, even the ones that are totally unnecessary to the task.

Another example is the following ridiculous tale, which I have heard as a sermon illustration more times than I care to recall. (I am convinced that there is an occult volume of these sermon illustrations, passed around by Baptist preachers in a solemn ceremony not open to the public, probably held on Lottie Moon's birthday and passed on with vows of secrecy.)

John liked it when Mary baked a ham, such as when the preacher came to call. (Hint.) But he observed that she had a curious custom for baking it: she always cut off one end of the ham, and placed it to one side in the roasting pan. This 'extra' piece of ham was no different from the rest of the meat: it didn't taste any different, it wasn't a 'special' part, or anything. It was just off to one side.

'Why do you cut the ham like that?' he asked.

Mary shrugged. 'I don’t know, actually. That's just the way Mom always does it.'

Curious, John asked his mother-in-law why she always cut off the end of the ham. The answer was not enlightening.

'My mother always does that, so that's the way I do it,' was the reply. So off John went to his wife's grandmother with his question about ham preparation.

Grandmother roared with laughter. She opened her pots-and-pans drawer and took out…a square pan! 'I always cut off one end of the ham and place it sideways because otherwise, it wouldn't fit in the pan. You kids are idiots.'

The moral of this story is: don't be a goose.

Eliminating State-Based Learning: Be Like Mrs Gheorgheni

My mother was an adaptable woman. In her lifetime, she lived in seven different cities. She lived in rooming houses, apartments, and single-family dwellings. She drove herself through flat places, hilly places, urban, suburban, and mountainous landscapes, in all weathers, including snow. Learning to drive well in snow was an accomplishment for a lady who grew up in snow-free Mississippi.

My mom lived before Satnav. She lived before Googlemaps. What she had was a good sense of direction, unlike me, and an adventurous spirit. I've got that, too, I just get lost a lot.

I remember as a kid when we first moved to the area around Pittsburgh. Out new home was beautifully hilly. The roads, which had evolved from ancient Native American trails, wound around and around those hills. Even in the 'town' parts, the streets could be tricky: a university friend of mine grew up in a house surrounded on three sides by the same street. And then, of course, there were the steeply-angled cobblestoned streets in places like Etna and Millvale, where you couldn't park in winter. And the trolley tracks. But navigating was by far the biggest challenge.

We arrived in North Hills in June. By September, when we kids went off to school, my mom knew her way around. How did she do it? She spent the summer practising. Every time we'd go to a store, or an office, or to visit somewhere, she'd try taking a different way home. If we didn't have anywhere to go, she'd make up a destination and try different routes. She'd say, 'We might get lost. But we'll learn something.' And we did.

The other day, Elektra, my sisters, and I were trying to find the Italian restaurant in Dubois. My youngest sister was driving. She uses Satnav. We got very, very lost, a fact we realised once we'd run out of town and were back out in the woods.

We all laughed. My other sister said, 'Well, we got lost. But we learned something.'

And so will you. Try things. Get lost. Try to find your way back. The journey will be fun. And you won't be a goose or a sermon illustration.

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