The curious mind of a writer

Silk’s Post #62 — Writers are the original life-long learners. Don’t we have to be? They say, “write what you know.” The corollary: if you don’t know anything, you don’t have anything to write about – except perhaps your own memoir.

Hmm … could that explain the high percentage of new writers who start with a personal memoir?

While most of us are motivated by some weird creative gene that seems to compel us to express ourselves in words, I wonder whether there’s an even deeper need that we fulfill by becoming writers: the craving for knowledge, for novelty, for understanding, for bigger horizons. We writers thrive on learning.

Looked at from that perspective, there’s never been a better time in the history of the world to be a writer. The Internet is a researcher’s paradise, this is well-known. But it’s also now becoming a spectacular, populist institute of learning. A virtual bazaar of courses, workshops and training. You can find everything from tutoring for kids who are behind in school, to specialized courses and coaching for professionals (like writers), to advanced university courses – even certificate and credit courses.

Well, this is to be expected, you might think. The Internet is just one big marketplace. It offers as great an opportunity to sell education as to sell all the other stuff cluttering cyberspace: shoes, show tickets, air travel, porn, cars, books, guns, antiques, hotel rooms, real estate … the whole overwhelming avalanche of commercial goods and services that now tumble into our very homes through a thin wire or an invisible wave.

What’s amazing, though, is how many of these learning opportunities are absolutely FREE. At least for now. So take advantage.

Here are three FREE resources that I’ve recently looked into. Did I mention they’re FREE? Check them out!

1. Coursera® –


The blurb: Sounds too good to be true, but happy users say that it’s the real deal …

We believe in connecting people to a great education so that anyone around the world can learn without limits.

Coursera is an education company that partners with the top universities and organizations in the world to offer courses online for anyone to take, for free. Our technology enables our partners to teach millions of students rather than hundreds.

We envision a future where everyone has access to a world-class education that has so far been available to a select few. We aim to empower people with education that will improve their lives, the lives of their families, and the communities they live in.

The courses: Everything from science to humanities. A few of the listings today (tell me if you don’t see a few fantastic writer’s thought starters here) …

  • The Language of Hollywood: Storytelling, Sound and Color (Wesleyan University)
  • Surviving Disruptive Technologies (University of Maryland)
  • Introduction to International Criminal Law (Case Western Reserve University)
  • Plagues, Witches and War: The Worlds of Historical Fiction (University of Virginia)
  • Artificial Intelligence Planning (University of Edinburgh)
  • Introduction to Forensic Science (Nanyang Technological University)
  • Statistics: Making Sense of Data (University of Toronto)
  • Archaeology’s Dirty Little Secrets (Brown University)
  • Introduction to Astronomy (Duke University)
  • Human Trafficking (Ohio State University)
  • Early Renaissance Architecture in Italy (Sapienza University of Rome)
  • Unpredictable? Randomness, Chance and Free Will (National University of Singapore)
  • Constitutional Law (Yale University)
  • Experimental Genome Science (University of Pennsylvania)
  • Unethical Decision Making in Organizations (University of Lausanne)
  • The Music of the Beatles (University of Rochester)
  • Drugs and the Brain (California Institute of Technology)
  • Climate Change in Four Dimensions (University of California, San Diego)
  • Buddhism and Modern Psychology (Princeton University)
  • Nanotechnology and Nanosensors (Technion – Israel Institute of Technology)
  • A Beginner’s Guide to Irrational Behavior (Duke University)
  • Image and video processing: From Mars to Hollywood with a stop at the hospital (Duke University)
  • History of the Slave South (University of Pennsylvania)
  • And my favourite-sounding course of all time: How to Change the World (Wesleyan University)

The universities: Nearly 500 globally (multiple languages), most of which are nowhere near you, and you couldn’t afford to go to anyway.

2. Khan Academy –


The blurb: This invention of genius Salman Khan (with three degrees from MIT and an MBA from Harvard) is a ground-breaking resource that started microscopically and has bloomed into a towering mission, attracting support from luminaries like Bill Gates along the way …

A free world-class education for anyone anywhere.

Khan Academy is an organization on a mission. We’re a not-for-profit with the goal of changing education for the better by providing a free world-class education for anyone anywhere.

All of the site’s resources are available to anyone. It doesn’t matter if you are a student, teacher, home-schooler, principal, adult returning to the classroom after 20 years, or a friendly alien just trying to get a leg up in earthly biology. Khan Academy’s materials and resources are available to you completely free of charge.

The courses: A big emphasis on school-age tutoring, math and science, but spreading out into the arts and humanities, and economics. Includes amazing “partner content” from institutions like the Museum of Modern Art.

3. TED – Ideas worth spreading –


The blurb: For the three people in the world who know less about TED Talks than I do …

TED is a nonprofit devoted to Ideas Worth Spreading. It started out in 1984 as a conference bringing together people from three worlds: Technology, Entertainment, Design. Since then its scope has become ever broader. Along with two annual conferences — the TED Conference and TEDGlobal — TED includes the award-winning TED Talks video site, the Open Translation Project and TED Conversations, the inspiring TED Fellows and TEDx programs, and the annual TED Prize.

TED conferences bring together the world’s most fascinating thinkers and doers, who are challenged to give the talk of their lives (in 18 minutes or less).

On, we make the best talks and performances from TED and partners available to the world, for free. More than 1500 TED Talks are now available, with more added each week. All of the talks are subtitled in English, and many in other languages, too. These videos are released under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND license, so they can be freely shared and reposted.

The courses: Not courses as such, but rather a variety of methods for idea-sharing, including a web portal that could keep you busy for months mining for gems. Here are their recommended 11 “classic talks” for newcomers to TED (all on the website):

  • Ken Robinson: How schools kill creativity (2006), a moving case for creating an education system that nurtures creativity.
  • David Gallo: Underwater astonishments (2007), jaw-dropping footage of amazing sea creatures.
  • Sarah Kay: If I should have a daughter … (2011), a poet’s personal metamorphosis from wide-eyed teenager to a teacher connecting kids with the power of self-expression.
  • Hans Rosling: The best stats you’ve ever seen (2006), a statistics guru debunks myths about the so-called “developing world”>
  • Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: The danger of a single story (2009), a novelist tells the story of how she found her authentic cultural voice, and warns of the dangers of listening to a single voice rather than many.
  • Johnny Lee: Free or cheap Wii Remote hacks (2008), how to build sophisticated educational tools out of cheap parts.
  • Brené Brown: The power of vulnerability (2010), insights from studies of human connection, our ability to empathize, belong, love.
  • Bryan Stevenson: We need to talk about an injustice (2012), a human rights lawyer shares some hard truths about America’s justice system, with its massive imbalance along racial lines.
  • Bjarke Ingles: 3 warp-speed architecture tales (2009), a Danish architect rockets through photo/video-mingled stories of his eco-flashy designs.
  • Amy Cuddy: Your body language shapes who you are (2012), a social psychologist shows how “power posing” – simply standing in a posture of confidence – affects your brain chemistry and chances of success.
  • David Christian: The history of our world in 18 minutes (2011), a complete history of the universe from the Big Bang to the Internet, narrated with stunning illustrations.

That should keep you busy for the rest of the week!

4 thoughts on “The curious mind of a writer

  1. Wow, I’ve seen a few TED videos, and I’ve recently started seeing commercials for Khan Academy, but I didn’t realize the scale of this free access to learning. That is the best use I can think of for the Internet!

  2. I agree wholeheartedly! I think the much-ballyhooed “free market economy” has brainwashed us all into thinking that no one does anything of any real value except for money. Here’s a shining example of sharing knowledge for the betterment of humanity. Imagine!

  3. If it sounds too good to be true, sometimes it’s just good. Period. We’ve been trained so long to be paranoid of anything ‘free’ (and with good reason) that it’s hard to let go and embrace the good things that do happen once in a while – for absolutely free.

  4. This sounds like what I’d been looking for to start my second novel (slated to take far more than 5 months to write). I’m indebted to you for this, and the advice and encouragement you’ve provided in the past. THANKS SO MUCH.

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