#27: Lesson learned

You’re getting off lightly here. I was going to ask you to write about your experience of lockdown, but I took pity on you. It’s hard enough to live it, without having to scrutinise it closely. Instead, I give you a subject which could touch on lockdown if you choose, but equally might take you in an entirely different direction. Write about learning something.

Think first about the physical skills you have learned – throwing a rope, applying eyeliner or building a drystone wall. If this is your subject, focus right in on the experience. Don’t tell us the feelings it produced – the frustration of getting it wrong, the pleasure of getting it right, and so on – show us. Give us that quality of mesmerising, studious attention – a loop of yarn caught by its successor on the knitting needles, or the nuts loosening as you change a flat tyre for the first time. Whether it is touch typing, a sex act or swimming, be precise in describing the process, and the reader will share your concentration. Turn your gaze to the person teaching the skill, to the relationship between teacher and taught, or to the cycle of teaching a skill again and again, through generations. If there is a rhythm or repetitious quality to the activity, remember that this can be used to drive the poem.

At school, did you learn a version of history written by those who colonised your country, and which you later had to unlearn? Perhaps your most valuable lessons in childhood came not from school, but from the Incredible Hulk, or from your parents’ overheard arguments. Incidentally, I have fallen into the trap of assuming that you are always writing about yourself. You might be the teacher here. You might be completely absent. Why not write about Michelangelo learning to paint – Genghis Khan as a child – Helen Keller suddenly getting the idea of sign language – or people who are transformed by learning in uncomfortable ways?

You have also learned life skills like driving, or the language of a new country – go back to the moment of revelation, the moment when it clicked. You have learned things which are entirely useless from the internet, and things which are useful in your working life. Your lesson might have been a deeper one – learning to live with a partner, learning to live after losing a partner, learning the language of a disability. Perhaps you learned something that changed everything – for instance that your unborn child was in danger. In each and every one of these scenarios, you do not need to say ‘and so I learned that….’ Show the reader what happened and trust them to take the lesson on board, as you did yourself.

We’ve seen before that the best way into a subject is sometimes to look at its opposite. What have you never learned? To hold your tongue, to hold your beer, to ride a bike? To sing this irresistible song? Finally – if you choose to go there – what have you learned during this month of lockdown? Has it been a process of learning to sit quietly in a room with yourself, or learning to make 35 different things with sourdough? Have you learned how much you actually need the company of your irritating sister? Whatever you’ve learned, pass it on.

This project ends on Wednesday December 2nd, with the English lockdown. If you have enjoyed these prompts and want to pay it forward, please give something to the Trussell Trust who help to look after our food banks and people in the most urgent need, in these desperate times. You can make a donation here. Every little helps.

Published by Jo Bell

Poet, boater, archaeologist and former director of the UK's National Poetry Day. One third of @OnThisDayShe. Erstwhile UK Canal Laureate.

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