Friday, October 29, 2010

How to Write the Truth

A few years ago, I was looking through some stories I had written when I was younger, and found one that was hard to understand.  It was one I wrote in 7th grade, based on a true story: A girl gets a substitute teacher who seems really mean at first, but the girl develops a special bond with her by the end.  The substitute has a keen sense of the kids' social dynamics and has a way of reducing relational bullying in the class without letting on that she's doing this on purpose. 

The problem with this story is that I was never clear about what was going on in the classroom before this teacher came along.  We get the sense that the main character has experienced relational bullying, but we never see it happening.  She's always referencing a conflict with certain classmates, but we have zero idea what the problem is. My guess is that I didn't want to get into the details because I was too close to it.  I was unfamiliar with the term "relational bullying" in middle school, and wasn't sure if what went on in my school would even be classified as bullying.  For these reasons, I circled my way around the central conflict and hoped the reader would know what was going on.

I did something similar in a semi-true story that I wrote for my college fiction writing class - I jumped around a lot, saying things like "We talked all night" without even saying what the characters were talking about.  I had the lead character hanging out with some people, and a moment later saying that they weren't really her friends, with no explanation of what the problem is or why she is hanging out with them in spite of this. My classmates pointed out these issues, an as I was editing and adding more detail, it became clear why I hadn't included those details in the first place - because everything I wrote about was still going on, and it hurt to relive everything and to create false conclusions for issues that had not been resolved.

I am almost finished editing my first novel and am beginning to outline my second one, which is based on a true story. And as I envision the scenes, I find myself doing what I did for that seventh grade story and for my first fiction writing class - I keep circling around the core issues, making references to things as if the reader already knows what I'm talking about. I thought I had learned better than that, but I guess I'm just afraid. I really wish certain parts would just write themselves so that I don't actually have to go back there.  

I have a lot of respect for people who tell their stories.  I was just rereading my professor Jenny Boylan's memoir, "I'm Looking Through You," and admiring how much courage it must have taken to become her real self and tell her story.  One of our earliest classes was a lecture on inspiration, which I assumed would mean learning how to observe things and write down people's conversations, but instead, Jenny told us that we each had something to say, something that only we could say, and that we shouldn't be afraid to tell our stories.  

So I'm going ahead with my second book, and I will be clear.  I'll be aware of my tendency to circle around things from the start.  Every time a person says how they feel about something, I will make sure the reader knows why.  Even if it means reliving everything.  I've seen so many classmates take on a heavy course load and say, "I'm gonna die this year," while their tone would indicate that this was ultimately okay, no matter how much they would complain later on.  I suppose I'm about to embark on similar journey.  For the next six months, or however long it takes me to complete my second book, I will constantly be screaming in caps lock about the past not leaving me alone.  And you can tell me I'm crazy to do something I don't have to do when it hurts, but people do it all the time. Passion trumps pain.  And sometimes we do things that hurt because not doing them would hurt even more.

**2012 Update: If you're wondering why I haven't been screaming in caps lock over this second novel, it's because I got a better story idea and decided to save this true story for my third novel. I will get to it, and when I do, it will be a lot less painful.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Why Correlation Is Not Causation

I've been thinking a lot about regrets lately, mainly in terms of my college choice.  I keep going back and analyzing what I was thinking at the time, how I could have ever thought that I would be happy with the choice I made.  A lot of people choose a school for its academic programs, but my choice was based entirely on where I would have the most fun, be the happiest, and feel like I belong.  With those priorities, it's hard to understand what went wrong.

Then I starting thinking about my psych stats class, which psychology majors were required to take.  Most students found this class a bit of a drag, but there were parts of the class that I had fun with, particularly correlation without causation.  For example: if a study shows that students who sit in the front of the class tend to do better in school than students who sit in the back, you can't tell for sure whether sitting up front causes students to do better, because there could be other reasons for the correlation (ex: maybe students who are more studious tend to sit in the front).  In stats class, we were often given homework problems in which someone would claim that A causes B, and we would have to explain why this wasn't necessarily true and come up with alternative explanations.  I loved thinking up alternative explanations.  There are only three basic types of correlations: A causes B, B causes A, or a third factor C causes both A and B.  But since that third factor could be anything, the explanations can be infinite.

But for a required class that was only supposed to teach us how to run a psych study, I realize now that it's really applicable to other things. Here are a couple of statements that might have appeared on our homework, statements we would be asked to challenge:

1. Students at school A have higher scores on a large number of positive, socially desirable things than students at school B.  Therefore, school A is better for everyone.

2. A student wants to go to the college where she'll have the most fun, be the happiest, and feel like she belongs.  The best college for her would be a place where students have the most fun, are the happiest, and feel a sense of belonging

It's obvious to me that these statements are not true, and I could list a ton of reasons why with alternative explanations.  But I didn't always get it.  There was a time when I believed these statements, back when I applied to college. Maybe I needed all those examples in statistics class to really understand.  I hope that I'll be less naive now, that I will no longer look at things and see the explanation that I want to see, when a million other explanations are possible.  And if I ever help someone look at colleges or jobs or anything, I will use my understanding of correlation explanations to help them make the right personal choice.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

What Does Your Bedroom Reveal?

I have always loved seeing people's bedrooms because I feel like I'm peeking into the person's soul.  Last year I read about a study in which participants went into the dorm rooms of students that they didn't know and rated their personalities based only on the room.  For traits that were not centered around social interactions, the ratings were about the same as the ratings that the students' close friends gave them.  This made me realize just how intense it really is to enter someone else's bedroom.  It's normal to bring friends into your bedroom when they come over to your parents' house, but once people own an apartment or house, it becomes more normal to keep guests in the living room or some other visiting area that is separate from their bedroom.  Usually when you're visiting someone in a two-story house, you stay on the first floor, away from the bedrooms.  I do think that when people own the entire house, every part of it expresses them, but I always have a desire to see adults' bedrooms.  I'm always curious how the upstairs is different from the first floor, where they keep their visitors.  When I get my own apartment - even if I own a two-story house someday - I will always invite my friends into my bedroom and hope that they will do the same.

Saturday, October 9, 2010


As language evolves, words take on new meanings. Sometimes a word that used to cover a variety of things can start to mean something more specific, like the way that "partying" usually implies drinking now, but as the word evolved, we never got a new word that included other types of parties. It's like if strawberries get so popular that when we say "fruit," we're only talking about strawberries.  Good for strawberries, I guess, but what about all the other fruits?