A few months ago, my husband and I attended a tour of architecturally significant homes in Sarasota, Florida. Inside the residences, we were left to explore and discover their treasures for ourselves. The experience was heightened by the presence of local artisans at work. For people who love real estate and art, it was a gift inside a gift. Open the door to the mid-century modern home on Siesta Key and you would be greeted first by floor-to-ceiling windows that overlooked a mangrove-lined creek followed by the hunger-inducing aroma of roasted tomatoes and garlic curated by a local Italian chef working quietly in the expansive gourmet kitchen. Step across the threshold of the new construction two-story downtown, and you would find homemade cookies and watercolor paintings among the straight lines and concrete.
My favorite was Higel House, the sprawling waterfront estate once owned by the town’s former mayor. Inside, a century of mystery and history were preserved within the home’s pecky cypress walls. Outside, the bay breeze stirred the leaves of ancient banyan trees. Tucked beneath their shade, plein air painters dabbed their brushes from palette to canvas.
I’ve always wanted to paint “en plein air,” but I don’t like the idea of people peeking over my shoulder at my work in progress the same way I peeked over the shoulders of these artists. Curious how they had come by this opportunity to paint in such an idyllic setting, I asked one of the artists if they were, by chance, a group of students. It seemed like a harmless question.
Her head jerked back and her nostrils flared. “I’m not a student.” She practically spat the word.
My cheeks flushed, rivaling the crimson on her palette. “So, you’re a master?” I blurted before I could stop myself.
She paused, paintbrush midair. Her eyes slid towards mine. “No. I’m not a master.”
The unspoken question hung between us. If you’re not a student and you’re not a master, then what are you?
“I’m a professional,” she said, landing on the word with the decisiveness and finality of a brush stroke.
That awkward conversation has stayed with me for months. While I hadn’t intended to insult her, I couldn’t understand why she’d been so injured in the first place. What’s so bad about being a student? Aren’t we all students at different stages of our creative journeys?
student (noun): any person who studies, investigates, or examines thoughtfully.
While I too am a “professional” in that I get paid to write and speak about my work, I also identify as a student because I believe there is infinite room for me to learn and grow. In fact, one of the reasons I love writing is because it allows me to be an eternal student. An explorer of the world. An investigator of the obscure. A thoughtful examiner of things I don’t fully understand. Being a student not only helps me refine my craft, it reveals new dimensions within myself, which, in turn, fuels my creativity and eventually translates to stories on the page.
Being a student doesn’t mean you have to be enrolled in a formal program of study. To me, it means being open to learning in all its forms. It can be self-directed or achieved by simply experiencing the world around you.
In addition to the writing and publishing goals I set each year, I also create my own “curriculum of creativity.” While some of the learning experiences I seek are on the subject of writing and publishing, many support my creative vision indirectly—either by expanding my understanding of a subject I’m writing about or developing business and technical skills that make me a better publisher.
Over the years, I’ve tried numerous delivery formats. Here’s the mix I’m currently enjoying:
- Podcasts are hotter than ever, and it seems iTunes , Stitcher , and iHeartRADIO  have shows on every topic imaginable.
- Audiobooks are finally enjoying their moment in the spotlight, and Audible  is doing an incredible job producing high-quality original content.
- Online courses are accessible and affordable, thanks to providers like LinkedIn Learning  and The Great Courses .
- Conferences tend to energize me. If you’ve never been to a Writer Unboxed UnConference, be sure to check out this year’s event, Escape to WUnderland .
Of course, the best learning comes from life itself. As I think back to my awkward conversation with the painter, I can see where the disconnect occurred. She mistook my question as a criticism of her talent, while I was simply curious how she had landed such a cool gig. It was a one-minute master class in psychology and communication. And though I won’t earn a degree for it, I walked away with an invaluable lesson: ask better questions.
What does being a student mean to you? What role does learning play in your creative journey?