It has been pointed out to me over and over that I talk about what I’m going to write, but I never sit down and actually write it. That always bothers me because it’s not really true. It’s not that I don’t write, and it’s not that I don’t finish what I write. It’s just that I write toward or around a central idea and the idea keeps growing and changing and I can’t ever seem to catch up with it. As a result, I have 10 “tag lines” for the title of this book, three distinct Tables of Contents, and a deep fear that my “messy” writing process (see Chapter 4) will continue to get messier and any really good ideas I’ve ever had will get lost in the clutter.
The “supreme irony” in all of this lies lies my most recent title: Learning to Write / Writing to Learn: First Things First. That title, as I explain in the Introduction, occurred to me when I stumbled across a YouTube of Elon Musk explaining “First Principle Thinking” as opposed to “Analogy Thinking.” The difference goes something like this: When we encounter something that isn’t working very well, there are two ways to go about fixing it. The first way – and the way that we almost always use – is to look at what’s broken, figure out which of the component parts needs to be fixed, and come up with a “new and improved” version. That’s ANALOGY thinking. This version does the same thing but is better in some important way. Much of the time that works and we’re able to relax – until, of course, the next problem presents itself.
FIRST PRINCIPLE thinking takes a whole different approach. When Musk wanted to come up with a better way to store energy, he didn’t start by studying the batteries that we’re already using. Instead he started with a blank slate and asked himself about the nature of energy and why it needs to be stored in the first place. The rest of what he explained about automobiles and rocket engines in that YouTube went way over my head, but what learned about problem solving was enough for me to realize why I have never been able to move forward on this book!
The problem I’ve been working on since about 1985 is that we are somehow failing in the way we teach writing in school. “New and Improved” writing programs keep coming out, new curriculum is adopted – and replaced – and kids still resist our attempts to turn them into writers. In other words, every “new” program or curriculum is simply a tweaked version of the ones that have come before. ALL of them have value, and most of them really are better than the ones that came before in some important way. Some teachers and students embrace each one of them and others resist, but the bottom line is always status quo.
So, I asked myself, what ARE the First Principles of Writing?
Before you read on you might want to stop and ask yourself the same question. If I were teaching a workshop, of course, that’s exactly what I would do. In fact … I’ve been writing for almost an hour and I’m tired … so I’m going to stop right there and write my answer to that question in a comment.
Here’s a hint, though. The reason I titled this blog “The Supreme Irony” is that two of my three “First Principles” are the reason that I’ve been writing “toward and around” those three tables of contents for so many years …