“If you love something then you’ll teach yourself. If you don’t, others will teach you.”
—Yukitaka Yamagchu (the Tuna King of the Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo, Japan) in Eater’s Omakase: season 2, episode 13).
I treat aphorisms like other people’s dogs. Sure, everyone says their giant, slobbering Carne Corso “is just being friendly” or that their hell spawn of a Chihuahua is a dear around people, but I will stand over there until they are locked up. I deadass full stop point-blank period do not trust other people’s dogs. Or kids. Lock that shit up. Especially the kids.
But that Yamaguchi bar, like most Japanese wisdom, goes from the roota to the toota, cutting through the how-to-start hesitancy like a lightsaber through a clone droid.
And he is right: if you love something—the curiosity of its practice, and its desire to be better—you will teach yourself. Knowledge cannot be generated from nothing, of course; but the intense desire for improvement and mastery will drive the inquisitive novice to search for advice and wisdom beyond a set curriculum. Where there is no roadmap for learning, the most ardent student will fashion one from whatever is available and teach themselves.
I remember googling how to write a novel, searching for information on outlines, researching the length of chapters, how plots worked, and the mechanics behind character development. I read whatever was within easy reach. I could not wait for the right moment to start; I had to get going, somehow, someway. Novels, essays, short story collections, even the odd poem—if I thought it could help, I read it. I made notes about what I found interesting in the writing: clever descriptions, sentences that resonated with lyrical magic, manipulations of time that condensed decades into a line, unique character quirks which made a person more than a paragraph, plots that awed me, and humour that was genuinely funny. I looked at the details to which writers paid attention and the those they glossed over for guidelines about what to focus on and ignore in my own hopeful writing. I noted my reading cadences, rhythms in someone’s writings that particularly affected me with the intention of mimicking them later. I watched and read writers talking about their writing. Whenever I could get my hands on the Paris Review’s “Art of” series, I would devour them: fiction, nonfiction, poetry—all of them. James Baldwin, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Gay Talese, Hilton Als, Robert Frost, Toni Morrison, Joan Didion—whatever was not behind a paywall was incorporated into my notes.
While mastery—academic or otherwise—still eludes me, I can safely say that in this way, slowly, I came to my own understanding of what writing was and what it could be.
Yamaguchi is right: in the absence of formal training, the love of writing pushed me to teach myself what I could. I might not have the cleanest and most graceful Byakuya Kuchiki thrusts, parries, feints, or shunpo steps, but if this one-handed Kenpachi Zaraki sword swing hits you you will stay hit.
It was not just writing, though. I searched the internet for guitar playing tutorials in high school when I wanted to play Eagle Eye Cherry’s “Save Tonight” or Green Day’s “Good Riddance (Time Of Your Life)”; how to ride a unicycle when I was in university (listen, it was a strange time); for basketball defence strategies because being Shamgodded off the court was not a vibe; scrolled through hours of social salsa dancing to figure out how to string a limited number of steps into infinitely interesting patterns; and, most recently, for interesting eighth note drum fills (your boy is bring back punk rock!).
Because if ye should seek then ye shall find; and if you love something you will teach yourself.
If you do not, others will teach you.
POSTSCRIPT: The early mornings no longer have the unpleasant mystique early mornings used to have for me, that strange sensation of being the first or only one up. Now they are mere mornings; precious times for putting the body through its motions, the mind through its meditations, and the pen and paper through their paces and word counts. Discipline tends to do that; it makes the uncomfortable pleasantly rote. So far, so good. You can all off the search.
READ—Books: Dune by Frank Herbert • The Gifts Of Reading: Essays On The Joys Of Reading, Giving, And Receiving Books curated by Jennie Orchard • The Second Coming Of Mavala Shikongo by Peter Orner | Short fiction: “Petit Mort” by Zanta Nkumane (The Johannesburg Review of Books) | Long-form nonfiction: “The Deep And Twisted History Of The American Yam” by Lex Pryor (The Ringer) | Poetry: “Ancestries Of Land Mines” by Mukoma Wa Ngugi (Poetry Foundation) • “The Witr Prayer And Other Poems” by Salma Abdulatif (Lolwe) | Visual art: “Soft” by Namafu Amutse (Lolwe) | Comics & graphic novels: Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi | WATCH—Documentary: The Vietnam War (2017) | Film: Macbeth (2015) • The Tragedy Of Macbeth (2021) • Tombstone (1993) | Series: What We Do In The Shadows, season 1, 2, and 3 (2019-present) | LISTEN—Music: “Calypso Queen” by Calypso Rose • “Man On A Mission” by Oh The Larceny | TRY: Everything, but slowly and with good form.