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Month: January 2019

Face to Face with Tremain

Face to Face with Tremain

Leaving work late at night, its dark out and there’s nobody around. The train home is almost empty.

I get on board and fall into a seat. I had to pick this seat, Because across the aisle from me is Tremain.

Well, not really. I’m not sitting across the aisle from a person I made up. I’m sitting across the aisle from someone I saw on the train a year or so ago and meticulously detailed in my notebook, realizing that he was who I was looking for as a template for this character I’ve invented.

Alan Tremain is a weary detective in a story I made up that needed a POV character to anchor the action, give it context. I’d gone back and forth on who he is, and in early drafts, his personality bounces between far-too-affable to far-too-weary. I needed a face; someone for him to “be” while I figured out who he was.

And then I saw him.

I don’t know this person’s actual name. I don’t know anything about him, except for how he looks.

Tall, thin, with a pinker-than-normal cast to his skin. Short cropped gray hair, white-blue eyes and a small white goatee around his mouth, trimmed precisely and grown out to about a quarter inch. Wearing a black coat, waist length and built for action. No ring on his left hand but there’s a slight depression around his ring finger, a mute testament that there used to be one there. A faint, sardonic smile on his face. Unlike everyone else on the train he’s not looking at his phone, he’s looking out the window; one long leg bent with his foot resting on the radiator that runs along the inner wall of the train, under the seats.

But that was a year ago. My actual notes were hand-written, scribbled into a Field Notes memo book that now lives under my bed. I have a high-security system for my hand-written notes: my handwriting is terrible. Once I got out of eyeshot, I wrote up the note you see above.

And over the intervening year, this unknown fellow passenger has turned to Tremain. My detective. I’ve been thinking about this face and how he interacts with a bunch of other people I’ve invented. He doesn’t know that, of course, and, intellectually, I know he doesn’t know. But I want to grill him, ask him questions about parts of the plot that are getting away from me because he’s seen them, he’s lived them. Except of course he hasn’t. I want to ask him questions about who he is as a real person, what he likes, what he eats for dinner, how the divorce went, who got the kids if there were kids. Except I’m pretty sure that the answer to “what do you dislike” would be “strangers who ask surprisingly intimate questions on public transportation.”

So I say nothing, sitting across from someone who is incredibly important to me, someone I’ve never met.

A Novelist in Business School: The Emperor’s Club

A Novelist in Business School: The Emperor’s Club

“A Novelist In Business School” is a series about putting my literary arts brain through formal management training.

There are two parts to this one — first, my thoughts on the use of films as teaching aids. Second, my feelings about a specific movie that was recently used as a teaching aid in one of my classes.

Don’t Use Commercial Motion Pictures as Teaching Aids

There are exceptions to this rule. Film Studies classes, any of the performing arts, any course that has to do with film production or theater or even music are exempt from this rule. But for anyone else you are relying on Hollywood to make your point. Classroom movies were marginally acceptable up through about junior high school, when sometimes the teacher needed an hour or so to grade papers or take a break. But in graduate-level classes this is insane. If you have something to tell us, please tell us. Or ask us to read the novel. Yes, it will take longer, but we’ll get so much more out of it.

Especially in this case.

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A Novelist in Business School: Make it Stick

A Novelist in Business School: Make it Stick

“A Novelist In Business School”, is a series about putting my literary arts brain through formal management training.

I’ve always thought of myself as an excellent learner. I enjoy staying curious. But my innate curiosity doesn’t have a lot of bearing on formal education, because on my own I can be an educational dilettante. If my ability to learn something new doesn’t matter I can say I’ve learned it without actually gaining any knowledge.

Fortunately one of the professors in my first semester of my MBA program was aware he was teaching people who have been away from education for a while. He recommended, along with his coursework, a book called Make It Stick. This book is all about learning effectively and maximizing the time you can put into learning.

The book resonates strongly with me, and has shaped the way I study over the past year and a half. Looking back, it sheds light on experiences I’ve had but didn’t have any formal language to describe.

The thrust of Make It Stick is that we learn best when our learning is put to the test, that frequent practice of new knowledge engrains that knowledge us, and halts the progress of forgetting far better than just repeated exposure. In other words, re-reading a text doesn’t help you learn it all that much, but testing yourself on a text will force you to learn it. While I dislike this as much as anyone (what do you mean I’ve been wasting my time????) I can see how it’s true in an example from my own life.

The Twelve Steps of Laser Printers

When I was young in my career I was given the opportunity to get my A+ certification, a certificate that says you are more or less competent to do desktop support and repair. This certification asks you to identify and diagnose a wide variety of computer parts and issues. One of the more relevant and intricate things it asks about is laser printers. Anyone who has worked with a laser printer knows that they are sometimes finicky beasts, and there are a lot of moving parts in there that can fail on you mysteriously. At the time I was tasked with supporting some ten or twelve such beasties, so the information about what was going on inside them was immediately relevant to my job, and I was tested on it informally every time I was asked to get a laser printer working again. Beyond that I prepared myself a series of quizzes based on the steps of laser printing, forcing myself to recall all the steps at random intervals along with all the other things that I was being asked to learn.

I didn’t know it at the time, but I was doing exactly what Make It Stick recommends. According to the authors, repeated practice (or testing), varying your topic of study, and varying the intervals of study are the key strategies for actually learning something new. Which might be why, nine years after I left my desktop support job, I can still identify all the steps and parts of a laser printer’s paper path.

I’m trying to do the same thing as I go through school. It’s an interesting challenge, because each topic, each class, demands a different type of study. Note taking strategies that worked in my Accounting classes are less useful in marketing classes. But the process, the act of conscientious, meticulous note taking and reviewing still matters, still works.