Cate Huston writes about falling out of love with literature because of English classes, the urge to build instead of destroy, and the pigeonholing of people’s passions.

I know what that’s like. I read voraciously in grade school. My principal said I wasn’t just a bookworm, I was a booksnake. I split my free time between the library and the computer lab. I read everywhere, even while walking.

In high school and university, I learned that literature wasn’t my thing. My classmates wrote poetry, stories, even plays. I tucked my grade-school verses into a corner of my hard disk. They wrote clear, insightful literary analyses of irony or imagery—or at least I assume they were clear and insightful, given the grades they received. I struggled to do the work, or even motivate myself to do so. I still read for myself, tackling War and Peace and other classics on my own. But just like I’d ceded art to the artists, I ceded literature to others. It was not my domain. I was clearly the computer geek of my batch, and my enjoyment of that made it easier to avoid investing myself in other subjects.

We sometimes reflect on how children learn that they can’t draw, or that they can’t sing, or that they can’t act. They can, of course, but somewhere along the line, people stop trying. They think of something as outside themselves, not themselves, not for them. Despite the best intentions of teachers and family and friends, I learned that lesson. The good thing about learning that lesson, however, is that I’m learning how to unlearn it – how to reclaim those interests.

So now I write. Mostly blogs, but I’ve experimented with fiction before. I’m slowly coming to terms with the fact that other people see me as a writer – maybe not a Writer, but someone who enjoys and does well with words. I read. Mostly nonfiction, but also children’s literature (which I like because it tends to be unpretentious and not over-wrought), classics, and odd discoveries. I still can’t dissect the things I read, although I’m starting to be able to tell why I like some things and not others. I draw. Not the beautiful drawings my friends could make, but enough to make people smile. I revisit the shop and home economic skills that gave me anxiety in the classroom. I reclaim those parts of self that I’d discarded along the way.

Helping J- with homework gives me plenty of opportunities to re-encounter and reclaim. (I’m looking at you, biology, with your jargon and memorization…)

Would I have done things any differently? That overriding passion that crowded out the others gave me a lot of strength, confidence, and security, so I don’t think I would have discarded it to be more of a generalist. Some people in my class excelled in multiple areas. Perhaps if I had figured out earlier how to use a strength in one area to build strengths in another, and how to take advantage of complementary skills. I learned that towards the end of university, when blogging helped me develop reflective practice, speaking helped me learn how to scale, and learning with strangers helped me enjoy the process of figuring things out.

What will you reclaim?

  • Thanks for riffing on what I started in that post – I felt there was more to add, but didn’t seem to be able to work out what it was.

    I think something important is that just because you are not interested in literary analysis, doesn’t mean that you can’t write well. I’m not as prolific as you, but I am at times a writer as well – what seemed pointless in school is in fact a useful way to communicate what I am passionate about and further my career that way. For example, in EB we put in two patent applications and I was complemented on how well-written they were. One of them is being published – would it have got that far if I didn’t spend enough time writing to be though “good” at it? I don’t know.

    Ultimately a big part of how kids are still taught to write is the way they’ve been taught for a really long time – by taking apart stuff other people wrote and then writing about it. That didn’t work as a motivator for me, or it seems, for you. But to really communicate an idea or a technique that you think is interesting and important also requires and builds writing skills. And yet, I think the first time that was in any way part of my education I was 16.

    Anyway – thanks for the reminder that the box you’re put in at school is not where you have to stay.

  • I’ve grown into an appreciation of taking things apart – slowly, carefully, and with increasing awareness and understanding. I’m still far from being able to confidently talk about movements and quirks of art or literature. It was good to learn about rhetoric, argument, and negotiation in the lead-up to the wedding and married life, though. I don’t dissect people’s conversations, but the general patterns fascinate me. Reassembling or transforming the pieces is fun, too.

    The ability to take things apart is the ability to learn from more than just books or lectures or experiments. You play with the knowledge embedded into systems, tools, works, objects, ideas. I’ve always liked dissecting code, learning from other people’s work. It’s part of what makes computers a profoundly social experience for me – taking apart and building on other people’s work. I’d rather jump into the middle of a well-built project than to build something completely from scratch.

    As for literary analysis: I think part of it was a sneaky suspicion that people were making things up and intentionally trying to be obscure. I remember telling my teacher: “I’m a programmer. I don’t do irony.” I’m working on being able to appreciate things more. For example, I find that some poetry speaks better to me now than it did before – more experiences that relate to what I read, maybe. And I still never do it to destroy (like the way some writers’ groups tear things apart, perhaps?), but to understand, learn, and create.

    I think children’s experiences of school might be even more wonderful if they experienced writing for themselves and others instead of primarily for teachers, and I’m glad that many teachers around the world are experimenting with that. (Ditto for programming!) I’m okay with how I grew up and what I learned. I had teachers who encouraged me to write, to read, to reach out. I remember how my teachers were passionate about literature and how they wanted to share that passion with us. We haven’t figured out the secret of inspiring passion. Maybe someday. =)

    I suppose the most important thing I learned from all of that is that sometimes other people put you in a box, and sometimes you put yourself in a box, and sometimes we box in other things and other people, but none of those boxes need to be permanent. Sometimes this boxing-in happens despite the best of intentions and efforts, but you can rise above it. There’s nothing wrong with boxes. Boxes help us focus, and they allow us to experience the joy of growing beyond them.