Thursday, November 22, 2012

Lack of Empathy Is Not a Lack of Caring

When we hear that someone lacks empathy, most of us automatically think that the person doesn't care about the well-being of anyone else.  I used to think the same way, but then I met a close friend who does not experience empathy or emotions the way that a lot of people do, and who does believe that other people's experiences matter.  Empathy can be a helpful quality, but a lack of empathy is not a lack of caring.

Let's say that your friend is disappointed about not getting into the school play. Most people can relate to something like this, and would be understanding toward their friend. Now let's say your friend is still very upset a month later. At this point, people stop understanding and tell their friend to get over it. Why? Because now, not as many people can relate. Those people who put themselves in their friends' shoes at first are now thinking "I wouldn't be so upset if that happened to me." Most of the time, when we put ourselves in someone else's position, we don't put ourselves into the person's mindset.  We put ourselves, with our own mindsets, into the other person's situation. Putting yourself in someone else's position can be helpful in understanding the person, but sometimes our need to relate someone on an emotional level can prevent us from accepting others' experiences that we can't relate to at all.

Empathy is one way to understand someone, but it's not the only way.  You can also understand things from a logical, non-emotionally-attached viewpoint that if something is hurting someone, then that thing is a problem and needs to be fixed.  The lack of emotional attachment can mean accepting the other person's mindset and not taking into account whether you would feel the same way in that situation.  A person who does not experience empathy can care about what other people are going through just as much as someone who is very empathetic.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Pressure to Do All You Can

Whenever people talk about succeeding or fulfilling your potential, it always involves holding the most that you can.  But what if you don't want to do all you can?  What if you're happy filling only a small portion of your total capacity?

Here's a fictional story I liked to tell my college classmates: I once bought a bookshelf that could hold 100 pounds.  When the shelf was almost half full, it began creaking and swaying, like it couldn't hold any more. I double-checked the box label to make sure it said 100 pounds.  I weighed all of the books to make sure that I was nowhere near the maximum.  So I continued to pile the books, and the shelf kept creaking, until one day, the shelf collapsed. I think that the bookshelf was trying to tell me something - just because it could hold 100 pounds didn't mean that it wanted to.  Maybe it was happy with only half of its space filled. I like to imagine that all that creaking and swaying wasn't a struggle, but warning sign for me to stop.  The shelf didn't collapse because I added more than capacity, it self-destructed because it wasn't happy doing more.

So instead of looking at potential and box labels, we should listen.  Listen to what makes people happy and remember that what someone can hold is not necessarily what they want to hold.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Denying Convictions

(I did enjoy the party in this picture)
Person 1: "I hated that party."
Person 2: "You didn't have any fun at all?"
Person 1: "No."
Person 2: "But there must have been something you liked?"
Person 1: "No."
Person 2: "But what about when we played games?"
Person 1: "No."
Person 2: "How about when we all danced?"
Person 1: "No."
Person 2: "But, um, there was root beer at the party!  You like root beer, right?"
Person 1: "Yeah..."
Person 2: "So you did have some fun at the party!"
Person 1: "I said no. Why can't you accept my answer?"

As silly as this may sound, it is a very, very common conversation, although most of us won't call Person 2 out on not accepting our answer.  For me, these conversations are usually about school rather than parties, but let's use the party example for now:

One of the reasons that Person 2 might be so hung up on Person 1 having fun at a party that's already happened is if Person 2 feels some sort of responsibility, like it was their fault that Person 1 didn't have fun.  Here are the possibilities of who Person 2 could be:

Host - If I were hosting a party, I would feel bad that someone hated it because I'd feel responsible for everyone's enjoyment.  I can see why a party host may try to deny their friend's feelings and insist that their friend must have liked something about the party.

Guest - If I were a guest at the party, I would feel bad if I could have helped my friend, ex: if someone was being mean or if my friend felt left out. But if my friend just didn't like party overall, I would understand that it's not everyone's thing, and let them know that it's okay if it's not theirs.

Connected - If I didn't attend the party but was very familiar with the host or the activity, I might give relevant information, like "It took me a while to get good at that game," but other than that, I wouldn't try to convince my friend that they liked the party.

Not Connected - If I had no connection to the party, I would still ask my friend why they didn't like it, but I wouldn't try to convince them that they did like it.


Unless I was hosting the party, I wouldn't have any reason to try to convince my friend that they had fun when they didn't. It's wrong to deny someone else's experience anyway, but I can understand where it's coming from if someone feels a personal responsibility for the other person's happiness.  What I don't understand is why you would deny someone else's conviction when the party wasn't your responsibility - why guests feel like hosts, why people who had no connection to the party have a stake in it.

It makes me wonder if some people really feel responsible for their friends' happiness, even when it's out of their control.  Maybe some people feel like the party host when they're not, which makes them hate to admit that someone didn't have fun.

Extreme Comparisons

Most of us are familiar with unfair comparisons, when a person says something like, "I'd rather [something really traumatic and horrible] than [something much less bad]!" I came across a website with lots of of posts like this, and the common response is, "That's a really horrible thing to say to anyone who has actually been through that traumatic experience!"  I agree, but I also think I understand what's behind them.

People don't always listen or accept what we have to say. You might tell someone that you had a really horrible experience and they tell you that it couldn't have been that bad. Making a comparison is actually a good way of communicating with someone who won't accept what you say about your situation. Ex: "I hate college as much as you hated middle school," or "How would you feel if you couldn't [most important thing to the person]? That's how I feel now because I can't [most important thing to you]." This isn't completely accurate because you can't really know who has stronger feelings about things, but it gets people's attention. It gets people to stop and realize, "Wow, that would really suck."

I understand that people can go too far with these comparisons, but we never know how far they've been pushed already, how many times they've tried to express themselves in another way. Not to mention that we also use unfair comparisons to invalidate people, like telling someone that what they're going through isn't that bad because something else is worse. With responses like this, I'm surprised that more people don't use extreme comparisons to get their point across. I understand why people are upset by extreme comparisons - I would be really upset if I had been through something traumatic and someone used it as a comparison point. But I also think that this wouldn't even be an issue if people would just acknowledge that yes, if your friend says it was that bad, it was that bad. If you argue about someone's own convictions, don't expect them not to fight back.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Writing to Be Read

The most important thing I've learned from keeping this blog is how to edit.  Writing for other people sort of requires you to write well, but writing for yourself can be more about preserving your writing as it is. When I was younger, I liked to make up stories and poems, but didn't have any interest in writing them out.  My dad insisted on writing down all of my poems.  Sometimes I would change a few words of a poem if I was giving it to someone, but my dad would never let me change the originals.  We had an unwritten rule that every poem in that binder would stay preserved so we could remember what I wrote at each age.

When I began writing in journals in middle school, I never wanted to alter anything I had written, including fiction and poetry. The only time I ever corrected something in a previous journal was if something was illegible or unclear, to the point that someday I might not know what I meant to say. When I read over my senior autobiography/scrapbook during the summer, I really wanted to fix it since the writing wasn't my best. But at the same time, I didn't want to touch it because technically, I wasn't in high school anymore, and I didn't want to alter my record of how I felt when I was in high school.

I am grateful for all my preserved records, but all those years of writing just for myself didn't give me any practice editing. The first time I really learned to edit was in fiction writing class, where I transformed some stories to the point of not touching the original documents.  But in terms of my non-fiction writing, I'm learning to edit on this blog.   I used to keep an online journal, which contained some private entries.  My main reason for moving to a blog was to be able to share my writing without giving access to those more personal journal entries. But now that I'm writing for other people, I care more about how I sound. On the internet, any post could be the one that readers stumble upon first. I'm always editing past posts. I no longer care about preserving my state of mind on some random day - I care about sounding good right now.  This blog has taught me how to write to be read.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

4 Tips for Validating Language

Language is very important in validating people.  Here are some tips for using validating language when someone confides in you with a problem.

1. Repeat their own words - or similar words - back to them.  Focus on the adjectives they use to describe the situation and how they feel.  If you friend says something was annoying, use words that mean "annoying." If your friend says something was horrible, use words that mean "horrible." Choose your words based on your friend's words, not on the objective situation.

2. "Sucks" is a great word because it is versatile.  You can say, "That sucks," when something is inconvenient or when something is very upsetting.  It's a great word to use when you're communicating with someone online and can't tell how much of an issue it is to them.

3.  When in doubt, use stronger words.  It's much easier for a friend to say, "Actually, it's not that bad," if you overestimate the severity of the issue than it is to say, "Actually, it's much worse than you think," if you underestimate.

4.  When typing, do not repeat phrases in quotations. Here's an example I've seen:
You said that you have too much going on.
You said that you have "too much" going on.

The first sentence simply confirms what the person said, but the second sentence says, "You claim that you have too much going on, but you actually don't." Quotations are very invalidating.  Avoid putting the other person's words into quotations, even if you think they're using words or phrases incorrectly.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Bias Toward Liking Things

Here's a word problem: Some of Kate's classmates are going on a hike, and Kate is deciding whether or not she should go with them.  Assume these facts are true:

1. Kate only wants to go on the hike if it will be fun.  She does not have any ulterior motives, such as making new friends.
2. Kate went on a similar hike last week and hated it.
Should Kate go on this hike or not?

Now, my first question would be, why did Kate hate the hike last week? Was it raining?  Did she forget bug repellent? Did she fall and get hurt? Was she not feeling well?  What we all want to know is, did something bad happen last week that wouldn't necessarily happen again? 

Now, what would happen if we change the scenario so that Kate went on a similar hike last week and loved it? Chances are, we would all tell her that she should go on the one this week, without questioning any further.  But why aren't we questioning further? If there were so many non-recurring events that could have happened in the first scenario, why wouldn't the same be true now?  What if Kate only had fun on the first hike because of the perfect weather?  Because her best friend was there?  Because she was in a good mood that day?  

When Kate hated the previous hike, we're quick to search for other explanations that don't involve Kate hating hiking, but when Kate loved the previous hike we accept it and don't consider that her enjoyment could have been contingent on factors that won't exist on every hike.  We have a natural bias for pushing people to do things that we perceive as positive than to really consider what the person will or won't like.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Validation

When it comes to problems, it's not the objective situation that matters - it's how the person who's in the situation feels.  Any problem is legitimate if it's hurting someone. The next time someone tries to tell you that a problem isn't real or that you're imaging things, here's a good analogy:

Do you sneeze when you get close to a kitten or a dandelion field? Do you avoid foods that don't agree with you?  When you have an allergic reaction, your immune system treats an innocuous substance as though it is harmful.  The symptoms you experience are your body's way of trying to fight off the substance, the same way your immune system would fight off a cold.  There is nothing harmful in these substances, but that doesn't make the symptoms any better for people who are allergic.

Different things bother different people. The next time you're about to tell someone that what they're going through isn't a real problem, that they should be okay with it because other people can handle it, try repeating the same thing to someone who would die from eating a peanut butter sandwich.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Learning to Trust Again

The summer after senior year of high school, I had a fling with a boy I had a crush on, and was disappointed to learn that he didn't like me the same way.  At the time I was very upset and talked about what happened with everyone - family, friends, acquaintances, a former teacher - anyone who would listen.  While what happened is no big deal to me now, it was a significant experience - it marked the last time that I would feel free to share a story like that with everyone I knew, the last time that I would trust everyone with something that really hurt me without testing their trust first on something smaller. It was the last time I remember not worrying at all about invalidation.

When someone indicates to me that something is of a certain importance, I try my best to accept that importance at face value, even if the same thing wouldn't be a problem if it were happening to me.  But when I was in college, I did NOT get that kind of treatment in return from most people. College was just one invalidation after the next for me.  Every single problem I had (and there were a lot of them) came with two problems - the problem itself, and the fact that most people didn't take me seriously. People who didn't even hurt me directly made it clear that they didn't take my issues seriously based on the way they talked about other students.

I've been out of college for two years now, only stayed in touch with my true friends, and only made friends with people who seem understanding.  Yet my mind still processes conflict the same way it did for four years - every time I have a problem, I assume that no one will take me seriously. And I know that's not true - I know that I'm only friends with people I can trust.  But after four years of this being very true, my subconscious hasn't figured it out.

My high school fling happened over 6 years ago, and it is honestly the last time I remember discussing a problem freely without the fear of not being taken seriously.  I had always assumed that most people could be trusted.  Maybe I'm more cautious now that I've met so many people I can't trust. But I'm trying so hard to get back to that summer of telling all, of trusting all.  Because I do trust you. I just need to let my subconscious know.

Truth vs. Honesty

Let's assume that the following facts are true:
  1. You love video games more than any other activity. You play them every day after school and with your friends on the weekends. 
  2. Once in a while, you ride your bike down the street to get an ice cream cone.
  3. When your friend has her annual pool party, you like to go in the pool.
Now let's say that you're applying to college and when asked to list your hobbies, you list biking and swimming but not video games.  Technically you are telling the truth, but are you really presenting yourself in an honest way? You can say that it doesn't make a difference, and there are cases when that's true. But it matters when all your friends are swimming laps at the pool and you'd rather be playing Marco Polo. It matters when you have no one to play video games with because all your friends are out riding their bikes. It matters when your peers look down on you for what you enjoy the most.  

While it may seem innocuous to fudge the truth a little in order to get something that you want, you run the risk of ending up in a situation that you won't be happy with. A simple "yes" when someone asks if you want to play intramural sports or study abroad when you don't really plan to can have more impact than you realize, because you're classifying yourself as a certain type of person that isn't really you. Even if we want to be honest, most of us have a natural tendency to say what we think the other person wants to hear, to give the answers that will get us where we think we want to be. 

I don't worry anymore about making a good impression - I worry about making an honest one.  When I applied to college, I said everything I could about myself that I thought schools would like, and ended up miserable.  When I started dating my boyfriend, I shared everything that I thought someone might have a problem with to make sure he really liked me, and we fell in love.  Total honesty may seem daunting, but it can be the light that guides you to where you  truly want to be.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Suicide and Seeking Other Permanent Solutions

Trigger Warning:  Suicidal thoughts. If you are feeling suicidal right now, here is a validating website: Suicide: Read This First.

My senior year of college, I had a dorm room directly under the piano in the common room.  Every single time someone played the piano, I had to get up and find someplace else to go.  (I could only ask them to stop after 11:00 pm).  When I told a school counselor, she asked if I could move the piano to a different spot. So I asked my RA if we could move the piano above the bathroom instead, and in no time the problem was solved. I wished I had thought of this solution earlier, but when I told other people about the problem, they acted as if it was no big deal and that nothing could be done to fix it. When you're surrounded by people telling you that you just have to live with something that you're not okay with, it can be hard to see the way out. When I was on vacation with my friend's family last summer, my friend's sister said that a blinking light on the air conditioner was bothering her at night. I began looking for something to cover the light, but no one else even acknowledged what my friend's sister had said. Everyone else expected her to just live with it when there was a very clear and simple solution.

While most people will agree that "Suicide is never the answer," so many people respond to problems with "Get over it," "Live with it," "Toughen up," "Stick it out," or "It's only going to get worse later on." If someone is thinking about killing themself, then they are saying in the plainest way possible that "living with it" is not an option. And if someone is not okay with the way things are now, then why on earth would they want to continue living if things are going to get even worse?

How about, "Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem." This is a true statement, but answer this question:
Your dorm is so loud that you can never do anything in your room, and this is a very, very big problem for you. You would rather:
a.  Deal with this on a case-by-case basis, searching the campus for a new quiet hideout each day, only to  have to move each time it becomes loud.
b.  Live in a quieter dorm.
We want permanent solutions to problems, including problems that are temporary.  Sure, you'll only be in that dorm for a year, but why would you want to be miserable for that long?  Not all problems are temporary in the first place, but even if they are, the "permanent solution to a temporary problem" expression implies that you would only want a temporary solution, not a permanent one.

So how do we fix these reactions?  Validation.  If someone is suicidal, you should let the person know that you believe there are other solutions and that you will help them reach those solutions. But validation comes in long before a person gets to that point.  It comes in when someone talks about doing something that would solve a problem or make them feel better - quitting school, quitting a job, getting a divorce, etc. and you're supportive of whatever works for them.  It comes in when you take someone's problem seriously and try to help. Because most of the time, people try to be validated before considering suicide. I recently read that students who are "at-risk" for school shootings are not just loners - they're students who have made failed attempts at connecting with other people, students who have tried talking to people who wouldn't listen. A person doesn't become suicidal overnight - it's a culmination of failed attempts at getting people to understand. It matters every time you support someone in fixing a problem.  Even small ones - even just pushing the piano across the floor or hanging a dishtowel over a blinking light make a difference.  These acts tell the other person, "I'm listening, I'm taking your problem seriously, and I'm trying to help you find a solution." And if that person is ever in a bigger crisis, they can trust you to do the same thing.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Goal Setting Tips for Different Personalities

I recently read two articles on Psychology Today that show why the recommended methods for accomplishing goals do not take personality differences into account. The first article: Introverts, Extroverts, and Habit Change shows how goal-setting tips aimed at extroverts. The second article: Do You Hate to Hear "No," "Don't," or "Stop?"  is about people who are demand-resistance - who don't want to feel like they have to do things or that they can't do things. People like me.  Here are a few common examples of goal-setting tips:

Suggestion: If you have a goal to exercise regularly, you should get a workout buddy.
Reasons this doesn't work for everyone:
  1. Just as some people aren't always in the mood to exercise, some people aren't always in the mood to socialize.  For some of us, having to get together with a friend would be a reason to exercise less, because we're not always in a social mood.
  2. Not everyone is okay with another person pushing them to do something.  If a friend kept pressuring me to exercise when I didn't want to, we wouldn't stay friends very long.
Suggestion: If you have a goal to read more books, you should join a book club. 
Reasons this doesn't work for everyone:
  1. Reading is an innately solitary activity, and many of us like it because of that. A book club makes reading into a social activity, which is totally different.
  2. Reading is innately pressure-free; in a book club, you have to read what other people tell you to read on their schedule.
I'm not sure there are any goal-setting tips that work for everyone - what works varies based on the individual. The introversion article above gives goal-setting suggestions that work better for introverts. Here is my list of tips for other demand-resistant people:
  1. Understand that a goal can be anything. It doesn't have to be to get better grades or get a particular job. Your goal can be to save enough money to go on spring break, to not miss a single episode of your favorite TV show, or to spend more time having fun. Choose a goal that's what you really want, not what you're told to want.
  2. Write down your goal and why you want to accomplish it.  The "why" helps ensure that it's something you personally want to do.
  3. Understand the reason for your goal: if you want to practice singing every day to get a part in the school musical, and you do get a part, you may want to redirect your efforts to practicing for the musical instead of practicing general singing every day. 
  4. If you want to tell other people about your goal, choose those people wisely.  Don't share with anyone who will tell you what to do, who will put you down if you change your mind, or whom you would feel uncomfortable around if you don't accomplish your goal. 
  5. If you want to do something daily, fit it where it fits.  If you like to read when you wake up in the morning, maybe that's a good time to also write in your journal. If you like to play outside after dinner, maybe that's a good time to also practice for your baseball team tryout.  Work your goal into your schedule rather than working your schedule around your goal.
  6. Decide where this goal is on your priority list. Make sure you treat your goal as important as it is to you, but don't let it prevent you from doing things that matter more to you.
  7. Don't expose yourself to sources of information that make you feel pressured to do things a different way. Some people find it helpful to read about or talk to others who have accomplished similar goals, but if these sources make you feel pressured, don't use them.
  8. Try to make the day-to-day work on your goal more fun or appealing.
  9. Use implicit rewards rather than external rewards. An implicit reward is giving a great performance in the play because you practiced hard. An external reward is saying that if you practice every day for the week, you'll do something fun on the weekend. You could just as easily have fun on the weekend without practicing, and you don't want your goal standing in the way of something that you could normally have. The best goals are rewards in and of themselves when you accomplish them.
These tips may seem odd to the non-demand-resistant, but this is how I have accomplished all of my personal goals. The most advertised solution may not work best for everyone, but when you combine your goal with a little self-knowledge, you'll discover what works for you.

Monday, September 10, 2012

What the Timing of Your Updates Reveals

An example; not my stats
A few years ago, I used a Facebook application that gave statistics on when you posted status updates by months of the year, days of week, and time of day. It jumped out at me that most of my posts were during the worst times of the year.  I already knew that I posted less frequently during summer vacation, but my statistics revealed that even during the school year, my posts were heavily centered around finals, midterms, and times of year that just plain sucked.  This factor alone is not necessarily a bad thing - if posting makes you feel better, then it's logical that you would post more when you're not feeling well.  But the other factor that stood out was that I posted more updates when I had less time. When I had time to do things I wanted, I didn't spend time on Facebook - it was a place I went when I didn't have time to do anything else.

Glancing at my blog archive, I can see that there isn't really a pattern based on whether I was feeling good or bad, and that I post more when I have more free time, not less.  Some of the long gaps between posts are for school, but others are for when I was more involved in other things. I had long suspected that posting on Facebook made me feel worse rather than better, and the timing differences alone reveal that I enjoy writing on my blog and that I don't really enjoy posting on Facebook.  If you're questioning whether something you're doing is a good or bad thing for you because it kind of feels like both, look at the timing of when you do it.  Ask yourself: do I do this activity when I actually have time for it, or do I do it when I'm trying to avoid doing something else? You may have your answer.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Why We Put Ourselves Down

It's become common to put ourselves down in order to put others up. Instead of simply saying, "You're a great tuba player!" we say, "I could never do that."  Sometimes people will even go on further about how they aren't musically or theatrically or athletically inclined. And while they mean to say, "Your talent is a big deal - it's not something that everyone can do," it is a little strange. For one thing, this isn't necessary - you can easily compliment someone without putting yourself down. I always wonder if people actually feel bad about themselves when they say this. Most of us have the capacity to do a lot of different things, but we've chosen the things we want to do.

Perhaps when a friend does something cool that we aren't doing ourselves, we need to justify why we aren't doing the same thing.  This happens a lot with activities:  If I don't want to do something, I'll usually say that I'm not interested, but many people will say that they're horrible at the activity in question.  Of course, every person who claims that they would suck an activity would probably not suck after doing it for a year. Everyone had to start somewhere.  So is it just more socially acceptable than to say that you would suck at something than to say that you're not interested?  Or do we feel like our friends who do cool things are looking at us and thinking, "How come you don't do anything this cool?"

Maybe some of these self put-downs stem from actual jealousy or feelings of inferiority. But what's interesting about jealousy is that, like the put-downs, saying "I'm so jealous!" has become another way of saying, "I'm so happy for you!"  Not that it's this way all the time - I'm sure people express jealousy as a compliment so that they don't express it in a negative way.  But I have often said, "I'm so jealous," when I didn't feel that way at all. It stopped for me when my college classmates would talk about their cool study abroad programs - I would be about to say, "I'm so jealous," when I realized I couldn't say that when I didn't even apply to study abroad myself. I'm sure a lot of people are jealous and really do want to jump into their friends' suitcases, but I wonder if being jealous has just become a compliment, the same as saying "I could never do that."

The point here is, we don't have to put ourselves down to put other people up, or say we're jealous to let people know that we're happy for them.  Speaking that way could actually start to make us feel bad about ourselves.  Because in truth, your tuba-playing friend isn't looking down on you wondering why you don't excel at the tuba - they're probably thinking that you're a great listener or that you always make them laugh or anything else that makes you you.

Accepting Compliments

Most of us have been taught to say "Thank you" when someone compliments us, but we all have times when we don't really want to accept a compliment.  Maybe someone compliments you on the new haircut that you hate.  Maybe someone praises you for working hard on something that you'd rather not be doing.  But when you just don't think that what you did was worthy of praise, you run the risk of hurting the feelings of the person who complimented you, because what they're complimenting you on might be a very big deal for them to accomplish, even if it's not for you.

When I began writing my first novel, I often brushed off my friends' compliments, saying that I should be much further along than I was.  But while I was consumed in what I was doing, I had forgotten what it meant to everyone else.  I may have been on page 100 at the beginning of the week and on page 104 by the end. So I'd be thinking, "I only wrote 4 pages this week," while everyone else was thinking, "I can't believe you wrote 104 pages!"  Looking back on it, I shouldn't have brushed off the compliments as if writing a book is no big deal.  Especially since I know what's it's like on the other side.

When my college classmates first mentioned getting As on tests and paper, I said, "Congratulations!" or "That's awesome!" But instead of saying thank you, people looked at me strangely, like I had just congratulated them for tying their shoelaces.  It made me feel really bad. Getting an A at the college level was a big deal for me, and my classmates' reactions told me that getting an A was nothing to celebrate - it was just the norm.

So now I try to accept compliments even if something was no sweat or wasn't my best work. Accepting a compliment doesn't mean that you have to be happy with less than your best - it means you appreciate that the person is happy for you and understand that what you did might be a very big deal to them.

Monday, September 3, 2012

False Positive Writing

Have you ever written about something that was very upsetting, and then found yourself feeling upset when you read it again? That's the explanation I've given for deleting my online journal, my old Facebook account, and other things I've written. But the truth is, my most unsettling journal entries are not the ones that are depressing, but the ones that are positive and hopeful, thinking that something would turn out okay when it wasn't okay at all.

It hurts more to see that I thought things would get better when they didn't. I also feel like those positive things give other people the power to refute what I say.  I once said that I would never let anyone read my 8th grade scrapbook (an autobiography project for English class) not because it was private, but because I told everyone that I didn't like my K-8 school, and everything I wrote in the scrapbook is positive. It had to be positive since we had to let everyone in school to read our projects, and I was always afraid that someone who read all the nice memories in my scrapbook would think that I was lying about all the bad things I had said. It's the same way when I find positive entries written about college - I'm afraid someone could use them to deny my convictions.  It makes me wish I had proof, that I had written exactly what was going on in college while it was happening.  I love to have a record of what really happened, but I hate having so many positive entries that turned out not to be true.

For the 8th grade project, all of the happy memories I wrote about were completely true - I just didn't include all of the not-so-happy memories. But all the positive journal entries about college weren't about true  events - they were hopeful, looking towards the future and thinking, I'm gonna like it here. They include a lot of misinterpretations and it's harder for other people to see that.  It's like the difference between someone describing something bad that has already happened to them vs. someone who is on their merry way when you, the reader, know that something bad is about to happen. The second scenario just feels worse.

Writing What You Like

You've probably heard the expression, "It's not what you say, it's how you say it."  This is very true in writing, not just in terms of the way you word something, but in terms of how much thought you put into it. I once told a close friend of mine, who is also a writer, that I wasn't sure if I should use a particular idea for a poem because it might sound silly.  My friend told me that it would only sound silly if I treated it like something silly - if I didn't put a lot of thought and effort into it.  This is advice had made me feel much more confident.  Don't worry about your idea or topic not being good enough.  It's not "better" to get inspiration from one source over another - it's what you do with that inspiration that counts.  If you put a lot of thought into a story or topic, it will show, and that's what makes it good.  It's the thought that counts, more than the idea.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

I Have Synesthesia

When we talked about synesthesia in psychology class, I got to answer questions about my experience.  (You can read about synesthesia here).  Here are the answers to my FAQs:

What is synesthesia like?
I have grapheme-color synesthesia, which means that I see each letter, number, and punctuation mark in a certain color.  For example, every time I see the letter A, it's red. I always see the colors of letters individually - full words don't take on colors of their own.  Each person with synesthesia sees different colors.

I also see days of the week as colors and can picture a week in my mind. The week looks like a strip of a calendar - a rectangle made out of squares, and each square is a different color. When I think about what day of the week it is, I picture where we are standing on that calendar in my mind. I picture a year as all the months attached together in a circle, and picture standing on whatever months it is. I associate the months with colors also, but I don't always see those colors when I picture the year - the year is just light and dark, with the warmer months being lighter and the colder months being darker.  It looks like the shades of light and dark that you see when you close your eyes. I also picture all the years of my life lined up like the days of the week.  These are colored based on the color of my age or grade in school.

When did you know you had synesthesia?
Ever since I was old enough to recognize numbers and letters, I knew that they were colored in my mind. The colors were most prevalent to me when I was first learning the alphabet and numbers, because the colors were part of how I recognized letters and numbers.  I didn't think I was different because I assumed everyone else saw things the same way. I was 21 when I first read about synesthesia.

I have always liked bright colors, and most letters are soft shades that I would not have chosen. I can remember trying to re-assign colors I liked to the letters, but I could never make myself see them differently. But I still assumed that I had voluntarily assigned colors to the letters when I was too young to remember, and I couldn't undo it because I had gotten used to the letters as they were. It never crossed my mind that it wasn't my choice.

Isn't that distracting when you read?
It's less distracting to me than it probably sounds. It doesn't look like each letter is a  differenfoncolor.  If I'm reading something in black print, I still see it in black print - the black is dominant and the colors I see are recessive. For me, the colors are just a property of the letters, that same as the structure of the letters. Once you learn to read well, you start to recognize whole words instead of reading each letter. You still see the shape of the letters as you're reading, but it doesn't distract you from focusing on the content. Colors are the same way - they don't jump out at me any more than the shape of the letters would jump out to anyone else.

What if the writing is colored? What about highlighters?
I can still see the colors if the writing is all one color.  Same goes for highlighters. The only time that I can't see the colors is if each letter of a word is a different color, like on a party banner.  And I can still read even if I can't see the colors. That said, I never used highlighters, gel pens, or colored note cards for schoolwork because I found them distracting. Not because I can't read the information, but because I'd rather look at the colors. Imagine if you printed your class notes in black ink over a light-colored picture that's really interesting to you. You'd still be able to read you notes, but you might prefer to look at the picture. That's how I am with colors, and I'm not sure whether it's even synesthesia-related or not. I still use gel pens and colored fonts - just not for things that I'll have to study or concentrate on.

Does synesthesia help you at all?
I don't know whether synesthesia helped me learn letters, numbers, days, and months when I was younger. It could have, but I don't have any way of knowing.

Compared to my peers, I have a clearer memory of the sequence of events in my life. I always know in what grade or year events took place, without having to stop and think. The way I see the years of my life lined up may help me to organize my memories. For example: my family and I took a particular beach vacation when I was in fourth grade. The number 4 is yellow and sand is yellow, so I think of fourth grade as yellow and the beach vacation fits right in, almost like it's color-coded. I was 11 in sixth grade, when I was in my first play, Oz (the Broadway version of The Wizard of Oz).  The number 11 is green, and I think of Oz as green because of the Emerald City.  If the play had been in fourth grade, I could have considered Oz to be yellow, like the yellow-brick road.  I also could have colored sixth grade purple since 6 is purple.  But 11 and the Emerald City just matched.  I don't know if this was a conscious choice or not.

These are the main questions I get asked about synesthesia, and I'm happy to answer more. I'm not an expert on synesthesia itself, but I can answer questions about my experience.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Subjective Reality Is Real

Imagine that a new clothing store just opened in town. Your friend goes to check it out, but comes back disappointed that "Everything in the store is pink." Another friend, who loves pink, hears this news and rushes out to go shopping, only to return and say, "What are you talking about? There's nothing pink in that store!" So what's the truth? Which one of your friends is right?

Answer: They're both right; they are each describing their own subjective reality. Yes, there is an actual count of pink items at the store, but what we perceive at first glance is a subjective reality, or reality as it relates to us. So let's say that 40 percent of the clothing items at the store are pink.  Someone who hates pink might feel that pink has taken over the store, but someone who loves pink might feel like they don't have enough options.  Neither person is wrong - they're just perceiving the store as it relates to them.

I started noticing this type of difference a lot when I went to college.  A lot of my classmates said that we didn't have enough intellectual conversations or discussions about important topics, but I had a hard time bringing up the personal things I wanted to talk about because everyone always seemed to be talking about some bigger issue. I was bored through so many conversations about the economy.  I had a hard time finding people who just wanted to talk about fun and personal things. When people brought up this issue, I always wanted to ask, "Who are you hanging out with?"

My classmates said that no one liked to go to discussion groups, when everyone around me was going to discussion groups all the time and pressuring me to do the same. My classmates also said that most students didn't like to participate in class, when in most of my classes, I was the only student - or one of a few - who didn't participate. Some of my classmates said that students at my college were very attached to home and their parents, when I was often the only person in a group who was unwilling to go someplace other than home during vacations, who still felt homesick in my final year. The list goes on and on, and I would get really frustrated, thinking, "Are we on the same campus? Where are these people?  Because I'd really like to meet them!"

Studies have shown that when asked to estimate the distance to a point, students wearing backpacks estimate longer distances than students without backpacks.  Why?  Because most of us perceive distance based on the effort it will take us to get there, and it takes more effort to walk when you carry a backpack. Of course there is an actual measurement of the distance, but the fact that the distance is shorter for some people and longer for others - that's reality too!  Think of how we measure distance in minutes instead of miles. There isn't one reality - there are lots of realities.  Everyone has their own.

ALL of our issues are real, even when they contradict each other, because what's too much pink for one person is not enough for someone else.  And it doesn't matter how many pink items are actually in that new clothing store.  Even if 100 people thought the store was all pink and only one person thought that it didn't have any pink, that one person is still right, because it wasn't pink enough for them.  And  until you've been to that store, you shouldn't base your own judgement on the fact that it was too pink for 100 people - you should base it on how much you like pink.  Because it could be that those 100 people don't like pink as much as you do.  Subjective reality is reality, and everyone's reality is real.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

12 Tips for Keeping a Journal


Lots of people I know have tried to keep a journal.  Back when I used to write in my journals consistently, my friends often asked, "How can you do that?"  Here is a list of tips for keeping journals, online journals, and personal blogs:
  1. Decide if you like keeping a journal.   Notice how you feel when you write an entry:  Do you actually enjoy the process, or does it feel like something that you have to do?  If you like to look back on what you've done but don't enjoy the writing process, consider a different way to record memories, such as taking pictures.
  2. Don't feel that you have to write every day.  You can set a goal of how often you'd like to update, or you can just write when you have something to say.  If you do set a goal, don't let setbacks inhibit you from continuing.  If you miss a month of writing, don't feel obligated to write backdated entries unless you really want to. Feel free to continue forward.
  3. Pick the journal type that works best for you. A paper journal feels cozier, is more private, and lets you paste things in.  An online journal makes it easier to share with friends, edit past entries, and  link to other posts or articles.  If you like to type but don't want your journal on the internet, consider keeping a journal on a computer file.  
  4. Keep a list in your journal of things that you would like to write about, which you can refer to when you want to write. 
  5. If you're using your journal to keep a record of your life, stick to the highlights that you care about. Don't feel obligated to write details that don't interest you.  
  6. A journal can be anything you want it be.  It doesn't have to be a record of your life in the literal sense. Although I've written a lot of journals, I've never just written about what I've done. The remaining tips are suggestions for things you can write in a journal besides (or in addition to) what you did in a given week.
  7. Record your personal goals in your journal.  Not only will this help you to achieve your goals, but it lets you remember what was important to you at a certain time of your life.
  8. Make lists.  Lists are easier to update because you don't have to describe everything in detail.  I kept lists of funny and touching moments that happened with my friends and in plays.  
  9. Write things that you would normally write elsewhere.  I record party guest lists and shopping lists in my journals.  I would have otherwise thrown these lists away, but recording them automatically creates records of fun events. 
  10. If your journal is private, you can keep track of your daydreams. 
 11. Write about anything that interests you. You can look back and see what you were passionate about at a certain time. If you have an online journal, you may connect with other people who share your interests.
12. Don't feel that you have to stick to writing.  You can draw, make Venn diagrams, glue or post pictures, etc. You can decorate or use colored pens.  Whether public or private, make the space feel like your own.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Getting Personal with Psychology

I love psychology, but I always found the college major a bit strange. Psychology is one of the most down-to earth, relevant-to-real-life subjects, but in the classroom, the subject often felt theoretical and removed.  Sometimes we talked about study strategies based on cognition and memory. But when we learned about more personal things like depression or parental neglect, we were always talking about "other people," as if nothing applied to any of us.  I've talked to several classmates who've experienced the things we discuss in psych class and are aware of that "other people" mentality.

I've always noticed that English, art, and music teachers have a reputation for being easy to talk to about personal issues. This is just a stereotype, but I wonder why psychology doesn't have that same warm-and-fuzzy reputation.  I think about all the personal things we shared in fiction and poetry-writing classes - when students said their work was true, when students shared true stories to determine whether something sounded realistic.  We never thought twice about whether sharing was "appropriate." I had always imagined that psych majors would have a deep connection because of all the personal topics we discuss, but there was something less welcoming in the way that we didn't speak personally about topics that were personal by nature.

To some extent, I understand why psych feel theoretical in the classroom. I like psychology, but I am not a people person; I never wanted to be a therapist, social worker, or anything where I'd work closely with people. And when you think about it, the people who teach psychology are probably the same way - they find it fascinating, but don't necessarily want to be counselors or psychiatrists or other go-to people.

I did have one psych class that was different. In my sex and gender seminar, we talked a lot about personal experiences.  For our project, my partners and I covered the school with questionnaire flyers about college suicide. Our plan was to organize a discuss group, but there were issues about having a real safe zone and not being required to report what people said. I wish we could have had the discussion group also, but I was so glad that we had actually used psychology to help people.  I think all psychology classes should have an applicable component, whether it's an interactive project or even just a class discussion about how these issues affect us personally.  Because regardless of how a class is taught, psychology is just not hypothetical.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Different Priorities

When I was in middle school, almost everyone played basketball. Each year, I was one of only two or three girls not on the girls' basketball team.  My classmates often pushed me to join the team, noting that I did play basketball at recess.  But while I didn't hate basketball, the idea of practicing once a week after school and having Saturday games didn't interest me. I had assumed that my classmates loved basketball and I didn't, which is why I was surprised that most of my former classmates didn't try out for the team in high school.  Kids who had lead roles in middle school didn't audition for high school plays. I was one of the few students who continued what I did in middle school (which was theatre).

A high school friend once invited me to her demo party (a salesperson shows you a bunch of products to buy).  When another friend asked me if I was going and I said that I wasn't interested in that type of party, her response was, "It's better than sitting at home doing nothing." At first I was offended by this comment - why did she assume that I have nothing to do besides go to this party?  I got this type of reaction a lot when I didn't go to various events.  But then I thought back to my middle school basketball team, and it all made sense.

The reason that I continued doing theatre in high school while most of my classmates didn't try to continue basketball was that we all signed up for our activities for different reasons.  I loved to come home after school and play with my toys or play outside by myself.  I loved going to playgrounds or doing things with my parents on the weekends.  I would only give up that time for something that I loved even more, and for me, that thing was theatre. Basketball was okay to play at recess, but I didn't like it more than what I would be doing with my time if I didn't have basketball practice. But not everyone has the kind of home life where they love going straight home after school.  Not everyone has fun by themself.  Basketball was one of the few activities offered at our school, and for most of my classmates, playing basketball after school with their friends was more fun than whatever they would be doing otherwise.  Doing what we like, or what we like better, is different for each of us.


Thursday, August 16, 2012

Blog Picture?

I have been debating for a while about posting a real picture of myself on this blog instead of the icon I've been using, but I keep thinking I'm better off without it.

Reasons I should use a real picture:
  • Most friends I've asked prefer a real photos and bio section of the blog author.  It makes the blog feel more personal or makes the reader feel more like they know who the author is.  I may get more readers by having a real photo.
  • A real photo makes the main page look more interesting. People like pictures, and I don't post any other pictures.
Reason I wasn't using a real picture before:
  • I don't want the reader's opinion of this blog to be impacted by my appearance or anything else they can infer from the photo. These things aren't relevant to what I write about.
  • I don't like the picture not matching the post, like if I'm smiling in the picture but I write about something depressing.
  • I don't like people taking information that I didn't mean to give them.  With words, I feel in control of what I share, but with a picture, I don't know what I'm revealing or what assumptions people are making.
Please let me know what you think.  Do you like to see a real photo of blog authors?  Does it matter to you?

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Fat Does Not Mean Lazy

You're probably familiar with the stereotype that fat people are lazy.  You might even believe so yourself.  Here is an explanation of why this assumption is not true:

First of all, most people assume that someone who is fat is not eating right or exercising, which is not necessarily true. But more importantly - even if we know for a fact that someone is not currently eating well or exercising enough, that doesn't mean that they are lazy. Why? Because the opposite of "lazy" is "hard-working," and last I checked, "hard-working" is not synonymous with "being thin," or even "keeping your body at a healthy weight." While it does take hard work to lose weight, the term "hard-working" is much more all-inclusive. The stereotype that fat people are lazy probably goes back to the days when humans were hunters, gatherers, and farmers - the days when all work involved physical labor. But nowadays, most jobs don't involve being physically active. Nowadays, there are a million ways that you can be hard-working and successful while being sedentary. You could be a good student, a great parent, or excel in a job that doesn't involve physical labor. You could write a book, paint a masterpiece, design websites, create video games, design a clothing line, write a comic strip, start a band, record an album, invent a product, run a business, or help people in need - all without being physically active.

Finally, since most jobs don't involve physical activity, people have to exercise in their spare time. Eating healthier food involves preparing more food from scratch, which is also time-consuming.  Someone who doesn't exercise or eat well might be very busy with school, work, and/or parenting responsibilities and not have the time to take care of their body.  People may also be busy with personal goals or other things that they love to do, and if their free time is limited, those things take priority over exercising or cooking.  People have different priorities. It's really disappointing to think that a fat person could achieve all of their life goals while a thin person does nothing, but we as a society would call the fat person lazy simply because losing weight was not on their to-do list.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

"You Looked Better Online"

Summer party
A lot of my friends have met someone online and discovered that they were different in real life than they presented themself on Facebook or other social-networking sites. While I have never met someone first online, I find it strange not that people look better in their online pictures, but that we expect a person's pictures to accurately represent them in real life.

Before digital cameras and cell phones, we took photos more sparingly.  Unless you had a newborn baby, were traveling the world, or loved photography, most of the events in your photos - vacations, parties, graduations - covered a very small portion of your life. We all know this, and yet when we look at someone else’s profile, we assume that the pictures we see represent everything. It never occurs to us that maybe they’re only smiling because they’re on a beach vacation, that the picture has nothing to do with their everyday life.

No matter what you're doing, or how much fun you're having, the main factors that will determine how you look online are:
1. Whether or not you own a digital camera or camera phone.
2. Whether or not you like to take a lot of pictures.
3. Whether or not you hang out with anyone who takes a lot of pictures.

Not everyone has a digital camera, so posting photos online may not be an option.  Even if you have a camera, not everyone likes to take pictures of everything. Having a camera phone allows you to take casual pictures, such as your lunch, when you wouldn't normally have a camera with you. It's not really about who ate a better lunch - it's about who has the gadgets.

If you don't take pictures of every single thing you do, the pictures that do get posted may not accurately represent you.  On Facebook, for example, your friends can upload pictures of you and tag you, so that the photos show up on your profile even though you didn't take them yourself.  This can create a skewed version of your life depending on which events your picture-taking friends attended. Example: I always looked happy in my Facebook pictures even when I wasn't having any fun in real life. The only time I usually take pictures is when I'm on vacation, and my friend who takes the most pictures didn't go to college with me.  My Facebook pictures consisted mostly of vacation pictures and pictures of fun times that I shared with this friend. The reason I looked happier was simple: almost all of my photos were taken during school vacations.

Even if you are having fun in real life, some events just lend themselves to more photo-snapping than others. You can take as many pictures as you want during sports games, but none during plays and performances.  People usually take more pictures at drinking parties than at any other kind.  And while social events are captured, no one takes pictures of themselves having fun alone.

Finally, many of us forget that no one takes pictures at funerals. Even if people are working or studying in the picture, everyone is usually in a good mood. Lots of people write that they're feeling bad online, but very few will take a picture that shows how they feel. With no makeup, no touch-ups, and no fancy camera angles, we all look better on online, whether we want to or not. 

We know these things, yet it’s easy to start comparing ourselves to others who appear happier just because they have more pictures.  I once wrote a quiz to see how committed a person was to theatre, and asked a question about whether the person had a display of their show memorabilia.  After discussing this with my mom, we agreed that the answer to that question has less to do with a person's commitment to theatre and more to do with whether they like to keep their special things on display.  I think the same is true when it comes to photos - having a lot of fun photos posted online has less to do with how happy someone is and more to do with whether that person has a camera and likes to post pictures.

**Edit: This post really only refers to sites like Facebook and Myspace. The same issues don't apply on other types of sites and forums.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

The Essence of Truth

Telling a true story can be more complicated than it sounds. I first realized this when my 8th grade English class made scrapbooks/autobiographies.  We had to write a page or two about each school year, from pre-K through 8th grade, but there were a few catches:
We were expected to leave our scrapbooks on display for a week so that anyone in the school could read them. This meant that:
  • We couldn't write anything bad about anyone, because they might read it.
  • We couldn't write anything that bad about school in general, because the principal would read it.
  • We couldn't write anything that we didn't want the entire school to know about.
  • Additionally, we had to focus on school, even if events outside of school were more important to us.
At the time that I wrote my autobiography, I thought it was honest. I was proud of myself for being open and not sugar-coating anything. But reading it a few years later, I couldn't believe how inaccurate it sounded. I didn't include some of the most significant things that happened during those years. It wasn't sugar coated - it was like I just picked all the marshmallows out of the Lucky Charms. I selected positive stories that I could write about truthfully, given the constraints of the assignment, but when you put those pieces together, it doesn't tell the true story of what happened.

In my college fiction writing class, I wrote one story that was based on my freshman year. When I discussed this story in my final portfolio, I said, "Most of the character and plot details are fictional, but the gist of the story is true."  None of the actual events or conversations took place in real life exactly as they did in the story, but when you put all the pieces together, it was very representative of what actually happened - more so than my 8th grade project which only included true facts.

When it comes to creative writing, it's not always important how much of the story is based on truth, and if you are presenting something as a true story, you can always explain changes to the reader. But the difference between being true in fact vs. true in essence applies to many situations. When you're trying to make a good impression on someone it's easy to paste a bunch of true stories together to create a picture that may not be accurate, and to tell yourself that you are being honest. But being true in essence is important in presenting yourself honestly because it helps you to figure out whether or not you'll really be happy in that job or at that school or being friends with that person.

Follow-up post: Truth vs. Honesty

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Introvert-Extrovert Quiz

This is a quiz to take if you would like to learn whether you are introverted or extroverted:

http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/quiet-the-power-introverts/201103/quiz-are-you-introvert-or-extrovert-and-why-it-matters

I don't know how dead-on this quiz is; the situations are more specific than most intro/extroversion quizzes I've taken. But I must say, I like this quiz because it focuses on the qualities that introverts have, as opposed to the qualities that they don't have.

I have 14 out of 20 introvert qualities. How introverted/extroverted are you?

Saturday, August 4, 2012

The Truth about Friendly Rejection Letters

You may be familiar with friendly rejection letters - those form letters that say you didn't get the job, get into college, or whatever else you may have applied for, in the nicest possible way, with no indication of why you weren't accepted.  I'm all in favor of not hurting people's feelings or giving unwanted criticism, but a recent experience taught me that the lack of information in rejection letters does more than save the your feelings - it saves the person who rejected you from needing a legitimate reason.

Every year at my college, we had an event with workshops on various topics, including issues that affected students on campus.  When the club organizing this event asked for topic suggestions, I suggested a discussion on personality differences and the pressure to be a certain kind of person.  I mentioned that in my four years at college, there had never been a formal discussion about this topic (not just at this event, but in general).  I knew my idea may not be chosen since a lot of students submitted ideas, but I hoped it would at least have priority over topics that had been discussed before.  But after my idea got rejected, most topics that did make that cut had been discussed many times before.

When I got a friendly email from the club that they were so sorry they couldn't use my topic, I was disappointed, but not just for the obvious reason. I thought that submitting my idea was a win-win situation:  If my idea got picked, great! But if it didn't, I would have the rejection email as proof that my issue wasn't being taken seriously. I could print copies of that email and show them to everyone who didn't believe me. I could post those copies around the school to prove my point. But with an overly friendly email, anyone who read our correspondence would just think there was't enough room for my topic.

Regardless of why my idea was rejected, I learned that friendly form letters allow room for discrimination, because no one has to tell you why you weren't accepted.  Not that it would be pleasant to receive a letter that you weren't accepted because of your sex, race, sexual orientation, or a number of other factors, but if you had that letter in your hands, you could expose it to the public.  You could start a boycott against them or prevent other people from applying.  But you can't do anything with a friendly rejection letter, even if you suspect that you were unfairly rejected.  Maybe it would be better if our letters actually explained in a nice way why the applicant wasn't accepted.  Then it'll be harder to reject someone without a legitimate reason.  Then if you think your rejection wasn't right, you can fight back with the proof in your hands.

Giving Back Control

If I'm speaking to a doctor, counselor, or other professional, I would be seeking professional advice.  And even if I just wanted someone to talk to, I would understand if the person gave their expert advice.  But I'm to talking to family, friends, and other people who aren't professional advice-givers, what makes me trust someone is hesitation:  Questioning further to make sure they understand.  Offering advice as a question, uncertain that the suggestion is right.

I've talked with people who "knew" what was right for me and people who were more hesitant.  I've found that everyone I can trust, everyone who really means it when they say "Do what's right for you," has at least a trace of hesitance.  It's a trait that I'm actually trying to exhibit more when talking to friends about problems.

When discussing a friend's problem, hesitance isn't about a lack of confidence - it lets your friend know that they are in control.  A common root of most problems is the lack of control over your own life, so telling someone what to do can make them feel worse.  When you question your friend further, you're making sure you understand the problem and letting your friend know you're taking them seriously.  Offering advice as a question such as "Have you thought about..." shows that you understand how serious or complicated the issue is and that there may not be a solution that fixes everything.  It also shows that you aren't judging your friend, and that if that suggestion doesn't work, you'll keep coming up with ideas.  It lets your friend know that you want to help but you are not going to impose anything on them.  You're giving them back the control that they may have lost.

I have heard lots of people say, "Do what's right for you," and then not accept people when they actually do it.  If you are going say this, make sure that you really will support the person in taking your advice.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

An Extrovert's Nightmare

Imagine that it's your freshman year of college and you're just waking up in your single dorm room. It's 9:00 a.m. and dead silent.  No one plays music here, or talks too loud, and even if they did, your walls are soundproof.  You've made some close friends in your dorm and have had some fun times together, but you wish you saw more of them.  Everyone on campus lives with their doors closed and spends a lot of time doing their own thing.  They socialize with you when they want to, but it just isn't enough for you.  You leave your door open hoping someone will come in and talk to you, but everyone either ignores you or stares at you like you're weird. Why would anyone come to college and leave their door wide open? You're missing out on the experience of being alone!

You review your housing application for next year, in which you practically beg for a roommate, but you know the chances are slim.  Your school was designed for people who are okay living alone.  While it's a known fact that there are many others like you who would love to have a roommate, there are nowhere near enough double rooms to accommodate all of you, and your chances of getting a triple or quad are close to zero.  It would be so much fun to live in a quad, but every time you find three friends who are interested, they always find a "better deal" with two double rooms instead.  You are probably the only student on campus who would rather live in a suite with more roommates than in a regular room with fewer. 

You head to class, where you're always bored out of your mind.  You think back to elementary school, when you could answer questions and go to the blackboard and work in groups.  But every class at your college is a lecture with no participation, because that's what learning is about.  You feel so trapped at your desk that you begin to hate even the subjects you once loved.

Lunch time rolls around. You take a seat with a few of your closest friends and share personal stories.  You love your friends, but sometimes the intense one-on-one conversations tire you out. Sometimes it just gets boring.  Sometimes you wish people liked to hang out with larger groups.

You do your homework, then head to ultimate Frisbee practice, band rehearsal, and a student council meeting.  Your friends can't believe that you do so many things. Almost everyone you know has only one or two things that they're focused on, and plenty of students don't do any activities.  You like being busy, but whenever you mention how much you do, you get the same comments: "How can you do all that?" "Aren't you spreading yourself too thin?" "You really should think about quitting something!"  If someone mentions a campus event and you express interest in going, it's always, "You're gonna do that too???" A day doesn't go by that you don't get pressured to quit an activity, not go to an event, or to put personal time at the top of your list.

You catch your friends at dinner to see what's up for the weekend, which is often a disappointment to you.  It's no use saying that you want to go to bigger events and meet more people, because they just call you monophobic - someone who is afraid of being alone.  Everyone calls you monophobic when you discuss these feelings. You explain that you're not afraid of being alone - you just don't enjoy it, but no one understands.  Everyone just tells you to try again, to get out of your comfort zone and really try to have fun by yourself. And every time you tell them that you had no fun at all, they say you weren't trying hard enough.

You may never have experienced a day like this, in college or otherwise, but plenty of people live the reverse of this every day.  This is what a typical day would be like if introverts ruled our culture, the same way that extroverts do now.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

How to Cut and Edit

Cutting is probably the hardest part of editing. A first draft is quantity over quality, but all the preceding drafts are quality over quantity, which means that editing may involve cutting some of what you've written.  If this task makes you think, "Hey, I worked really hard on this! I like it. No way am I cutting it!" here's how I've gotten through it:

The first story that I wrote for my college fiction writing class was much longer than what we were supposed to hand in. When I told my friend that I might have to cut a subplot, she advised me to keep a copy of the original story because I might want it for myself. Her advice taught me that this was only one story - if there wasn't room for all the subplots in this version, I could always use my original story another time.

I always polished the stories I brought to fiction writing class as if they were final drafts, which made it difficult to revise them. Sometimes revising meant barely touching the original documents. But whenever I was hesitant to slash what I had worked hard on, I remembered my friend's advice. My material was never gone forever. I could still keep my original drafts.

When I finished my first novel, I knew that I would need to edit if I wanted it to be a finished product. Using what I had learned from class, I slashed 50 pages from my first draft. It sounds hard, but here's what made it easier: First, I set my goal length higher than it needed to be so that I could cut pages without worrying about the book being too short (looking back, I should have set it even higher). Second, I saved a copy of the original that would stay as it was, while I edited a second copy. Second, I made a document entitled "cutting board," which was a temporary storage for pieces of the story that I cut but thought I might include somewhere else. Lots of sentences and paragraphs never left the cutting board, but knowing they would be  saved somewhere made me more willing to cut them in the first place.

The point here is, it's okay to be attached to your writing, and it's okay to hold onto things just for yourself. When you have a hard time cutting, imagine that your story is a castle of Legos. When you build anything with Legos, you normally knock it down when you're done and then rebuild something new from the pieces.  A story may sound better without all of the pieces you used, but keep in mind that you own those pieces.  Whether you build the bricks yourself or steal them from a house you've always admired, they are yours.  Whether or not you use every piece in one story, the pieces are yours to keep forever, until you build something new.

Fiction Writing: The First Draft

My fiction writing professor told us that the number one rule of writing a first draft is to just write it. Whether you outline beforehand is up to you, but focus on telling the story and don't worry about how it sounds (you will edit after you're done). It's hardest to go from nothing to something; it's much easier to edit once you have something written.  If you get stuck on a detail like how to say something or which word to choose, fill something in temporarily and move on. I often use brackets when I can't figure something out, such as [name of city] or [description of room] and fill in the gaps later.  It's very hard to get through a first draft if you're trying to edit as you go.

That said, sometimes there are details that you need to iron out before proceeding. I've taken this first-draft advice to the extreme - I once had a 7-year-old jump out a second floor window without getting hurt and travel 20 miles in a few hours.  I've overlooked a lot of "technicalities" and figured I'd edit them later, only to realize that the foundation of the story was unrealistic, that there was no easy way out without changing the rest of the story.  It's one thing to do this with short stories, but when you're writing a novel, you don't want to be on page 200 and realize that your story has no basis in reality.

To avoid this problem when I wrote my book, I assessed the importance of everything that was questionable. I would ask, if I had to change this part of the story, what else would be affected?  If I could change that part of the story and still continue forward, it was a detail to deal with in the second draft, but if the foundation of the story depended on it, I would research whether or not it was realistic and figure out alternatives.

Here are two examples:
1. In my novel, a group of kids at a summer camp were doing things that wouldn't be allowed.  I had to figure out how the characters got away with it during the first draft because the entire book centered around these activities.
2. The story originally took place the summer before senior year of high school, but the characters progressed, they acted more like it was the summer before junior year. I thought about what would change if I made them a year younger and realized that the differences wouldn't affect the plot, so this decision could wait until the second draft.  But if it had been the other way around - if the characters were acting their age but I wanted to make them younger for the plot, then that would be something to decide earlier because the characters would have to change.

Finally, if you're working on a novel and decide to change something that has already happened, it's better to change it going forward and then go back when you're done.  My mom gave me this advice when I changed the plot 60 pages in, and it really helped because it's much easier (e.i. less discouraging) to go back and fix things when you've completed a story than when you've just started.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Writing a Novel: It's Hardest the First Time

I wouldn't say that I know how to write a novel just because I've written one. That's something I'm still trying to figure out. But after editing my first book for the fifth time, I've realized a lot about what worked well and what I should do differently in the future.

One of the newest things about writing a novel was just working on such a long-term project. It took me a year and a half to finish the book. Before that, the longest I had ever spent on a project was a few weeks. I have daydreamed and played around with the same idea for years, but in terms of actually working on something, I had never focused on one project that long before. One of the hardest parts was just figuring out a schedule and how to get the book done. Giving myself personal deadlines (even though I missed every single one) was probably the best choice I made. With all of the unfinished projects I have accumulated, I was really worried that my first novel might turn out the same way. I gave myself unrealistic deadlines because I was worried about not finishing. Looking back now, there was never question of not finishing my novel because having a deadline was what set my novel apart from everything else that I have tried to write. My unfinished projects never had deadlines - they were stories that I had fun working on when I had the chance, that I figured I would eventually finish, but that I never set a goal of finishing. Unrealistic or not, having deadlines made me take my novel more seriously than any other project and helped me finish within a reasonable amount of time.

That said, the reason that I missed every single deadline I set for myself was that I didn't take my writing pace into account. I want to finish by the end of summer vacation, before graduation, by the one-year anniversary of when I started - dates that meant something to me, but had nothing to do with when I could logically finish the book. One of the reasons that I didn't take my writing pace into account was that I didn't want to accept how much slower my writing pace was than what I thought it should be. I had yet to realize the major difference between writing a short story and a novel.

I spend a lot of time daydreaming and playing around with story ideas before I write anything down. When I wrote 20-page short stories for fiction writing class, I usually had the entire story mapped out in my mind already, including dialogue. I remember one time in particular, I had spent so much time ruminating about a particular story that when I sat down to write it, I felt like I was just typing the story from memory. All those times I had written 10-15 pages in one day, I was really just editing an unwritten first draft.

The trouble with writing a novel is that it is very difficult to get a grip on the whole story. It seemed like no matter how much planning and character development I did, I couldn't get the entire story completely straight, let alone walk around with 250 pages of dialogue in my head. I got frustrated when I couldn't keep up what I thought was my normal writing pace.  But this time, I had to actually decide what would happen next as I was writing rather than copying the first draft in my head.

I can daydream about something for years without ever writing it down, but once I begin outlining on paper, I get really anxious to start writing the book for real. I think the best thing for me to do would be to write and outline at the same time. For my last book, I had the first 20 pages or so mapped out pretty clearly (which made me in a hurry to write them down), but then I hit a wall and proceeded without really knowing where I was going. But planning doesn't have to end just because you've already started. Maybe what would work the best would be to write out the parts that I do have planned, and then plan out the rest. Some writers write scenes separately and then paste them into the right order in the end. Perhaps that would be something to try.

For my next book, I also want to keep a running outline as I go along, meaning that I will keep a list of events and scenes that matches what I have actually written (which is usually different from my original outline). When I was editing my last book, I had a very hard time keeping track of the order of events, and just remembering every single thing that happened. I could remember individual scenes clearly, but I couldn't give a detailed summary of everything that happened in the correct order. I couldn't tell you what happened in chapter nine because I didn't remember where I had put the chapter breaks. This made it difficult to change the order of events when I needed to. It was also challenging to make sure all the details were consistent. In a short story, it's much easier to add or remove a detail or subplot. But when I added or removed something from the novel, it was hard to find every single sentence that would change as a result of the addition or deletion. Looking back on it, I think that keeping a running outline would make editing much easier.

It's been a while since I've discussed my writing process on this blog, but when I learned that writing a book is the second most popular goal on 43 Things, I figured it might be a topic of interest. If you would like to write a book, my best advice is to start. Start outlining or start writing, and figure out a reasonable schedule and deadline. But most importantly, don't be afraid, and don't stop writing if you feel like the story isn't working.  It's hardest to go from nothing to something, but once you get something on that page, you can edit. You can make it better.

Like with most things, the first time you write a novel is probably the hardest. One of the greatest obstacles you may face when trying to write that first book is the question, "Can I actually do this?" And answering yes to that question is essential for writing. If you sign up for the school musical even though you aren't a good singer, you know that the show will go on - that whether you're scared or not, whether you're good or not, you will have to perform. But if you decide in the middle of writing your book that you can't do it, then there won't be a book. Writing requires you to believe in yourself and to know that you can write. Every bestselling author had to start with a first book. Your book may not be brilliant. You may not have the entire process figured out by the time you're done. But you will know that you can write a novel. And from then on, you'll always know.