Education for the Modern Hero

Write what you know, conventional wisdom says.

We've all had problems with this advice.  I used to hate it.  These days, I interpret it differently.  Write what you know-- and what you can infer.  Write what you can assume, based on the things that have happened to you.  Write what you can guess.

I don't know what happens when a dragon breathes fire.  But I know what fire does, and I can guess.  I, personally, haven't felt the power of a wormhole-- not like Tony has-- but again, I can guess.  My writing would be pretty boring if I just wrote about basic training and being frozen.

I guess a lot of stuff, but in almost every area, I try to make it as educated a guess as I can.

How do you make an educated guess?  You already know the answer: educate yourself.

Book Learning

Read!  Attend classes!  Be scholarly and all that.  It takes time and dedication to the topic, but it's usually worth it.  I once read Moby Dick because I thought I was studying the whaling industry.  I never used that information in a finished book, but I did learn a lot.

Be smart about this, though.  If your story really needs an in-depth understanding of Kantian ethics, go for it.  If not, just get the overview.  There is no limit to what you can learn, so be careful with what you choose to pursue.  Advanced differential equations?  Not much use in literature.  Basics of astronomy?  A little more useful in the sci-fi realm.

Is it worthwhile to take classes geared toward writing?  Well, I'll let you figure that out for yourself.  I'm a special case-- I chose to join the military rather than take a single writing class.  Who knows what would have happened had I pursued a liberal arts major instead?  I probably would have enjoyed myself, and I'd probably be a better writer.  But to me, this experience was worth it.  And that brings us to the next point...


Try stuff!  Ask people to show you things!  Get out of your comfort zone.  It's easy to study a million different topics, but actually getting yourself elbow-deep in a profession or an activity is a different thing altogether.  Sometimes this isn't practical-- space, for instance, isn't something you can jump into, per se.  But there are plenty of things in this world that are worth experiencing.  Each of those experiences allows you to infer a little more about the rest of the world.

Again, be smart.  Don't hurt yourself.  Don't spend so much time trying things that you forget to write.  And don't try to do the same things you put your characters through.  That could prove fatal.

Classroom learning cannot substitute for experience.  If you have a choice between the two, choose experience.


If you're at a loss for what to try learning, try some of the following: for book learning, psychology and social sciences are always fun.  History can inspire some good stories.  Languages are a ton of fun.  It doesn't really matter what you learn, however-- a better understanding of the world, people, and past will always help flesh out your writing.  For experiences, try martial arts, visiting new places, and different styles of living.  You might end up finding a lifestyle you'd like to pursue, rather than putting your characters through it.

Finally, let me reiterate: exploration and learning are fun, but keep your goal in mind.  If you spend all this time discovering the world and yourself, but not writing, you're not moving forward on that path.  Maybe you're okay with that.  Maybe it's time to hang up the writing costume for a while as you pursue other things.  But if your goal is to improve your writing through expanding your mind, you need to keep writing.  Writers write.  Just keep that in mind.

This post was partially inspired by Iron Man's post from years ago, about learning languages.  This is still one of my favorite pieces of advice, and while I haven't settled on a single language yet, I'm working on it.  I encourage you to reread that post if it's been a while.

Write!  Live!  Learn!  But mostly, write.

~Captain America

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