Writing as unschooling

In Which endever* discusses the connections between unschooling and being a writer.


Hi there, endever* here! I’d like to talk a little today about writing as a form of self-directed learning.

Image description: pencil drawing of an octopus holding several open books

Never heard of the concept? It’s most frequently discussed in reference to “school-age” youth, generally as a subtype of homeschooling or as a value held by an alternative school. In the context of young people’s lives I consider unschooling necessary to anti-ageist revolution, something dear to my heart. Extrapolated to usage across the lifespan, it has a lot to do with a deliberate, holistic commitment to lifelong learning.

Unschooling/self-directed learning/autodidactism (we could quibble over definitions, but for the moment I’m just going to use those interchangeably) can take a variety of forms in people of all ages. The key is that the learner is the one deciding what to learn, when to learn it, and how to learn it. Sometimes, that means that a learner decides the best way to learn what they currently want to learn is, indeed, to go to school! But not compulsorily; it’s a free decision that isn’t founded on the myth that forced formal schooling is typically conducive to true learning. Additional, non-school forms of education can include travel, libraries, the Internet, clubs, apprenticeships/internships, employment, volunteering, mentors, (audio)books, entrepreneurship, hobbies, community workshops, private lessons, tutoring/study groups, correspondence courses, conferences, activism, and so many other options.

Image description: side view of a typical orange school bus, but it’s marked “unschool bus”

“Wait…” you may protest. “What does this have to do with writing?”

Well, first of all, unschooling is often about learning by doing, and that’s how many of us learn to write. We don’t all have the money/time/ability to study composition at university or to go take fancy workshops on the weekends. Instead, we take our own experience as readers, perhaps a few instructional books from the library, and our guts and creativity and just… go for it. This is part of the beauty of NaNoWriMo – it destroys the “but I don’t know HOW to write a novel” qualm by arguing “just write until it’s a novel – by the time you’re finished, you’ll know a lot more about how it’s best done”. When we get stuck, we may go back to our favorite books or seek out new-to-us material – especially pieces with similar themes/characters/genres to what we’re working on – and extrapolate lessons from those texts. And if you’re GeGi and I, we spend a lot of time poking each other with questions, ideas, and laments. You don’t need to convince a famous author to take on that role in your life; other learners are often the best teachers. Find another person who’s still exploring how to write, and explore together.

Writing, unless somehow you’ve got no sentient characters whatsoever in your stories, also involves learning a lot about psychology. What drives us as people/conscious entities? Does it make sense for our characters to make the choices they do, or are we jerking them around in the service of our plot? To answer these questions we need plenty of experience in (direct or vicarious) interpersonal interactions and insight into how our own minds operate. That’s learning. And while we’re talking about people skills – if you plan to turn your writing into a business, you’ll find yourself in a crash course that features unit studies on networking, publishing, and self-employment.

Then there’s all the fun topics one must research in order to write a convincing piece of fiction/an accurate piece of nonfiction/etc. You know: circuses in 1800s France, string theory, Inuit mythology, how to referee badminton… What, your story doesn’t involve badminton?! Well, insert your area of interest here. This is the real goldmine of opportunities for unschooling in your career as an author; you can find yourself unwittingly learning about all sorts of things over the course of every writing project. Investing time in solid research can make the difference in creating a story that is believable, relatable, informative, and even ethical. (By the way, I recommend doing some of this work prior to a first draft and/or saving the bulk of it for revision; don’t let complex research get anywhere near the momentum you need for a first draft – it might bog you down too much.)

Now, considering I did mention just ethics: you’ll find that as you develop your authorly evilness, you’ll need to put some interesting additions on your list of topics-to-investigate. Say, the timeline on which a body decomposes in a moist 40 degree climate. Or what kind of medical intervention is necessary to save the life of a person who’s been stabbed seventeen times. Or maybe the nutritional deficiencies associated with cannibalism. Or how exactly one organizes a coup. While I sincerely hope that you will never find yourself in need of real-life direct application of this kind of knowledge, learning in service of your story – and for the sake of learning itself – is an admirable cause. If you’re worried that the disturbing topics that your story is begging you to learn about are a little TOO disturbing, check out GeGi‘s post on the fine lines of being evil. And if you’re concerned these areas of interest ending up on your search history, it’s worth reviewing our recommendations on how you can perform evil-related research with as much privacy and discretion as possible.

As you might have already read, I’m doing a bunch of research this month as my Camp Nanowrimo project (as is GeGi). So far, I’m going slower than I’d hoped, but I am indeed learning a LOT! Topics I’ve covered so far include autistic speech patterns, how to avoid writing harmful tropes about autism, and archplot/the hero’s journey/alternative plot structures. Still on my list of areas of interest are physically disabling injuries, existing published dystopian young adult fiction, homesteading, our own world’s timeline of modern inventions, nonviolent social change, pediatric psychopharmacology, the psychology of abusers/oppressors, how to avoid writing harmful tropes about psychosis, religion as a cultural phenomenon, big picture canon revision, seceded cultures, small tribe governmental structures, and how to troubleshoot worldbuilding discontinuities. That’s a much cooler list of topics than I can find in my university’s course catalog! To be honest, I think I’m going deeper into each topic than is strictly necessary for purposes of my novels: as you might have gathered, I love learning. Already I’ve drawn from library books (fiction and nonfiction), academic journal articles, blogs, Youtube videos, my Twitter friends, podcasts, and assorted web resources of interest that had been gathering dust in my browser’s bookmarks. Additionally, I started another re-read of the Harry Potter series, because every time I go through it I learn more and more about how to write the kind of book I enjoy. (Well… and Harry Potter is my special interest.)

You don’t have to participate in NaNoWriMo to dive deep into writing-related learning, and you don’t even have to dive in deep at all! Every time you do a one-click Google for a bit of trivia your character happens to know – heck, even every time you double-check how to spell something – you’re giving yourself a quick bite of unschooling. This is learning at its best: you’re in charge. You decide what’s important to your story and how you’re going to access it. Rejoice; the world is at our fingertips! And your brain is on the edge of its seat. I gently invite you to (re)commit yourself to deliberate, creative, joyful, lifelong, self-directed learning. Your writing can only get better and better. Well… and possibly more evil. 🙂

Enjoy yourselves out there on the playground of knowledge!

learn ALL the things
Image description: meme of an angry-looking creature holding a broom and yelling “learn all the things!”

P.S. – If there’s something you want to learn for your writing and you can’t quite figure out where to start on this whole “self-directed” thing, let us know in the comments! We’ll try to help brainstorm some ideas that don’t necessarily rely on traditional schooling.

Author: endever*

hi! i'm me: queer (ace spectrum), trans (nonbinary), disabled (crazy), autistic, poor, nonviolent, and radical. i'm a wizard (ravenclaw), unschooler, infj, 4w5, crafter, and general nerd. i write: sometimes novels, sometimes poetry, and sometimes *cough* blog posts. they/them pronouns.

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