I’m convinced that I’ve learned more by doing things wrong than doing them right.

You know those instructional manuals that contrast the right and wrong ways of assembling some gizmo, the correct way coloured green, the wrong, possibly dangerous way shaded bold red? I’d be a good model for the red images.

I’ve always thought that the best way to teach a child not to touch a hot stove is to let them touch a hot stove. Sure, it’ll hurt, but the burn will heal and the lesson will last a lifetime. (Please don’t call child services; I’m being metaphorical, and my kids are fine.)

Luckily, I haven’t always been the one burned; I’ve learned a lot as a direct witness to others’ bungling. I worked for a sports editor once who inherited the job from his father but seemed to be the only one in the newsroom who didn’t know what nepotism meant. He knew something about sports, but he didn’t seem to know much about reporting, writing, editing, spelling, let’s face it, much about newspapering altogether. He taught me a lot.

When I began teaching at university, without any pedagogical training, I relied primarily on my experiences as a student. I had a lot of great professors, I must say, but I also endured some beauties. They taught me, inadvertently, not to use red ink with lots of exclamation marks in correcting students’ papers, at least not if you want them to read the comments. They taught me not to tell endless stories about myself, with no clear point to them – or the wrong point. For instance, one graduate student who was teaching an English literature class told us he pursued graduate studies so that he could spend his time reading the best the language had to offer, but wound up spending most of his time reading the worst – meaning our term papers. Nice.

When I became a reporter, attending the proverbial School of Hard Knocks rather than journalism school, I had to learn everything on the job, partly from watching others (see above), but also by winging it.

For instance, I learned about fact-checking by not checking my facts. One of my first stories was about a small-town Christmas parade during which, I wrote, the volunteer firefighters would be dispensing gifts to kids under 13. They’d actually planned to distribute gifts to those under 12, but, given the error in my story, felt obliged to rush out to buy more.

I learned not to ask a question unless I was prepared for the answer. Once, I asked a weightlifter I’d met for the first time, someone who’d probably never been interviewed before, whether he used steroids. Without hesitation, he said: “Yeah, that’s why I’m going to the meet in Budapest, to stock up.” Gulp. Because he clearly knew nothing about media relations, and I’m such a nice guy, I didn’t quote him – until a few months later when he tested positive at a pre-Olympic competition in South America.

Another thing I learned was not to get personal; critique the performance, not the performer. There was the time Tiger Williams threw me out of the Vancouver Canucks’ dressing room. I confess that I never liked Williams – nor did many of his teammates – but in retrospect I have to say the article I wrote about him had more to do with character assassination than critical analysis of his play. He was right to be angry.

Don’t get me wrong; I do things by observing people who really know what they’re doing, too. Especially when they’re doing something I know I can’t do – like writing fiction. I tried to write a novel once, which, had I completed it, could have been entitled Self-Indulgent Rubbish.

For instance, I’ve always wanted to read Les Misérables by Victor Hugo, in the original French. If you know the book, it’s a brick; my edition is 814 pages of what I can only guess is six-point type. I need new glasses. It’s not an easy read, but his writing and his breadth of knowledge are staggering and worth the effort.

The experience reminds me of that scene in the movie Amadeus, when the second-rate composer Salieri realizes that what he’s looking at are first drafts of Mozart’s compositions, with nary a correction to them, as if dictated by God, I think the line goes. Salieri looks up to the ceiling and simply lets the pages drop to the floor.

That’s how I feel reading Hugo. Except I dare not drop the book; it’s heavy.

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