April 7, 2011

How Much More Do You Have to Learn?

Penrose never-ending stairs optical illusion from the movie Inception

In my last post, I lamented how it’s hard for us to see our learning curve and know how much more we have yet to understand.  I wanted to know how close I was to that elusive “destination” of knowing everything I need to know about writing.

*pshaw*  Silly me for thinking such a destination actually existed.  Just as we can’t be perfect, we can’t know everything there is to know.

We can learn about specific skills and improve our craft, but we should never stop learning.  In fact, if I ever did feel that I’d learned everything about writing, I’d probably get bored and move on to something else.  Luckily, I don’t think I’m in danger of that anytime soon.

Several months ago, I came across the theory of competence and how it related to writing.  There’s a great blog post about it by Sarah Goslee here.

  • Unconscious incompetence:  This is the “you don’t know what all you don’t know” stage.  As Sarah writes:  “In the writing realm, these are people who’ve never written any fiction (and possibly never read any) but tell you how easy it is to just sit at the computer all day and make stuff up.”
  • Conscious incompetence:  This is the depressing stage because you start to realize just how much you have to learn.  Writers reach this stage and despair of ever being as good as the published authors out there.  They make it look so easy.
  • Conscious competence:  By this stage you know what you’re doing but it takes conscious effort.  We might be good at certain aspects of storytelling or craft, but it’s not easy.
  • Unconscious competence:  This is the stage we dream of, where the words flow smoothly, plots hang together automatically (even if we’re a pantser), and we never have to worry about pacing issues.  We think everything will be easy, if only we could learn enough to reach this stage.

Okay, maybe I’m the only one who dreamed of that last scenario, but I doubt it.  And for those you with me in that delusion, I’m sorry to say—We’ll never reach that stage.

In her blog post, Sarah wrote:

Attaining unconscious competence really just unlocks the next level so you can see all the new things you are bad at that you didn’t even realize existed.

And it’s true.  Learning never ends.  Like a mobius strip, Escher sketch, or the Penrose stairs made famous in Inception, we might reach unconscious competence on some aspect of our skill set, but there is always more to learn.

Stacey Kendall Glick, a VP and agent at Dystel & Goderich Literary Management, inspired all this thinking with her blog post yesterday about the relationship between skill and instinct:

Just when you’ve become comfortable and feel like you’re at the top of your game, that’s the perfect time to start learning new skills, and rethinking your instincts (if that’s even possible) in order to stretch yourself even more.

(And she linked to this post of mine.  Cool, eh?)

I’m happy to say that her post invigorated me, rather than make me depressed that all this learning would never end.  I want to keep learning, growing, and pushing myself.  Stagnation is one step away from death.

So I take back my desire to know exactly where I am on the learning curve.  I’m learning and progressing and I guess that will be enough.

Does it bother you that you don’t know how much more you have to learn?  Do you enjoy the learning journey or do you long for it to end?  What kind of progress feels most like an accomplishment to you?

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Comments — What do you think?

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Sondrae Bennett
Sondrae Bennett

Really great post. I’m with you. Knowing there’s infinite ways to improve and infinite things to learn is invigorating!

Kerry Meacham
Kerry Meacham

The great thing about writing is that you can always be learning. How much do I have to learn? Lots, lots, lots, and lots more. But I’m okay with that. I enjoy the process of writing and creating, so it’s fun as I learn. Plus there are so many great people in the writing community, like you Jami, that really encourage those of us in CI stage


Awesome post. It’s good to know it’s not just me that feels I’ll never truly learn all there is to learn about writing. And that’s the beauty of it; we don’t ever want to reach that destination. A great song writer once wrote, “If I ever claim to be a wise man, it surely means that I don’t know.”

Hilary Clark

I love to learn, thank God. I’m certainly still in the early CI stage and expect to be there for quite a while, but I’m okay with that. My brain enjoys being spongy and soaking up knowledge from every possible credible source. My paternal grandpa used to say “learn something new every day”. I consider that a good motto to live by.

Natalie Fay

Well, I don’t believe in perfection, I believe in improvement. I devote half of my time to write and the other half to study.

What I do to check my process is to read things I wrote in the past, it is a great exercise because “you can see all the new things you are bad at that you didn’t even realize existed.” (as you quoted in your post) And when I say things that I wrote in the past I don’t mean ancient past, I try to revise things that I wrote one month ago or so.

What bothers me the most is not to reach perfection (I don’t even believe on it), it is to know when I will good enough for publishing. I see the good stuff that is published out there, and I know I’m not there. Not in a melodramatic way, it is just a statement.


Great post, Jami:

I’m thinking that because writing is a creative process you’ll never learn everything there is to know about it. Never. Oh, sure, you can nail the mechanics all day long, but the meat of the meal is in the telling – and no two writers say things the same way. That’s the beauty of the process. The landscape is constantly changing, and conscious or subconsciously we adapt and move with it – picking up new concepts or ideas along the way.

I liked your line: Stagnation is one step away from death.

That’s true – especially for a writer. Forward motion naturally brings change and can, in fact, breath life into an old idea – more often than not, though, it inspires new and exciting avenues for a writer to travel.

All good thoughts! 🙂


J.A. Paul

That’s what I love about writing. There are so many new things to learn. If you are writing a story about scuba diving you can take a break from the usual ‘how to properly write’ and learn how to use a buoyancy compensator or how not to get the bends (a decompression syndrome). And then the next week you can learn about the ancient buildings in the background of Jami’s website if you want.

Learning never ends, and if you are a good writer who researches well, then you can have some real fun with it. Like Sondrae said, learning is invigorating!

Laura Pauling

I think that’s the beauty of pursuing any art. We can always improve, stretch, change, grow and get better!


Murphy took the words right out of my mouth (I know, cliche) but she has sound advice. Learning is all relative in how we perceive the world in which we live. We change a little each day, although not perceptual at times. Therefor, our writing changes.

And like J.A.Paul said, as a writer there is always something new to learn. I have OCD and one of my obsessions is the recurring thought “why can’t I be in every occupation ever created”. I know, sounds silly. That’s OCD for ya. But, I can actually relieve this obsession (for a short time) by writing a character in a specific vocation, and explore it further.

Didn’t mean to make this comment personal.

Gene Lempp
Gene Lempp

I’m glad there is more to know than I can learn in a lifetime, not just in writing, but in life, otherwise where would the challenge be? And what would we have to write about? Life is an active experience, which gladly, for me at least, means that we are learning every moment. Sure, most moments aren’t “movie excitement” but they are an experience.
Randy Ingermanson has a saying that I think applies to progress and accomplishment: “How do you eat an elephant? One forkful at a time.” Every time I read, every time I write, every time I get out of the chair and go do something, anything, it is an accomplishment and if I’m actively thinking and participating, well, then it is progress, another forkful eaten.
Thanks for another thought gem Jami 🙂



You’ve nailed exactly the process I go through. I, too, would probably stop writing if I knew all there is to know. It is the learning that keep me in it. At the same time, I have a strong perfectionistic streak and I struggle with it. After struggling for years and failing to embrace the “good enough” concept, I’ve finally decided (if for no other reason than simply to keep myself sane) that perfectionism is part of my process. And I rely on the Martha Graham: “No artist is pleased. There is no satisfaction whatsoever at any time. There is only a queer, divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keep us marching and makes us more alive.”


Right. Here’s the thing. I just finished Hemingway’s “Across the River and Into the Woods,” and it’s interesting, because it’s much more in the head of the MC than most of his other stuff is. It’s kind of experimental, in a way, but still with the classic Papa style. And y’know what? The novel didn’t meet with much critical acclaim.

Sure, he was hailed as a genius at first, with The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms, but he seemed to be in decline in the critics’ estimation until he blew everyone out of the water with The Old Man and the Sea. Doesn’t mean he still wasn’t trying new things with his storytelling in the interim. He was.

So yeah. I agree with you. 🙂

Also, I’m kinda of the opinion that you write what you’re going to write, and what pleases you, and bugger everyone who doesn’t like it. If it works for you, and it works for enough of your readers, then do it. Screw them that don’t like it. I may have an attitude problem, though. *shrugs* 😉

Julie Musil

Wow, this post is exactly what I needed to read today. Sometimes I feel as if I have too much to learn, and that I’ll never know enough. But I should feel glad about what I have learned, and celebrate that. Thanks for the inspiration!


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My mind-blowing ignorance doesn’t bother me at all, lol.

In fact, apart from my love for my characters and my desire to let out and realize all those stories that I’m passionate about, my greatest joy in writing is in the endlessness of learning.

Every time I discover something new–especially when I’ve come to this insight myself, not because someone taught me—I exult. These moments of epiphany are so rewarding, so exciting, that writing is worth it just for the sake of coming across these new eye-openers. Each new thing I learn is one more area illuminated for me in the dark world of this mysterious thing known as story writing.

I have a belief that one day, I will reach the transcendental, glorious “heights” of writing. By this, I don’t mean the heights of my skill, but rather, of my knowledge and understanding—I will know everything there is to know about story telling. Of course, there is no such thing as “knowing everything”, but I find this idealistic notion very motivating. And the image of “The Heights” fascinates and attracts me very much.


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