An Argument I Can’t Win

There’s an argument I’ve been having with someone for quite a while now. It’s been going on for about seven years. About once a month, it comes up again, and I keep going round in circles, trying to win this unwinnable argument. Why is it unwinnable? Because the other person has no idea I’m still arguing with him.

I had a horrible class in my last year at university. I had a bad feeling when I signed up for the course, but I thought I was being a scaredy-cat, and did it anyway. This course required submitting a portfolio ahead of time, to see if the professor accepted me for Creative Writing II. When I saw the comments, I had a bad feeling about it. But I wanted to take another creative writing course so badly that I again blamed it on being afraid of a challenge.

Taking that course was a mistake. The professor and I did not see eye to eye on anything. The stories he used as examples were dark and disturbing. He hated everything I wrote. I tried to voice my opinions and was mocked relentlessly. By the end of the course I felt so browbeaten that I completely stopped trying. Almost everything I wrote was garbage.

For my final story, I totally sold out, and wrote a very disturbing story. Or, it would have been disturbing if it had any life to it. It was based on a character from a TV show I used to watch. He wasn’t a main character, just showed up a few times, and stuck with me. The TV character was a killer for hire, who prided himself on his work because anyone can just kill someone. It takes a real artist to have the victim have a heart attack at his daughter’s wedding, or choke on a hot dog in front of a stadium full of witnesses. Creepy, right? So, giving up entirely on my writing voice and preferences, I took that character and made him a ‘sympathetic’ villain, who only does suicides. Don’t want your family to know you gave up? Call this guy. Want your spouse to get your life insurance money? Call this guy.

It was a horrible story. And it was horribly written. I had no interest in writing it,and it showed. It was a story about a compassionate serial killer, and yet, somehow, it was boring. I hate that I caved in and wrote that story. I hate that I was so bullied that I traded in my morals and my taste for a story that wasn’t even memorable. I hate that I got an A on that story, and in that class. I have no idea how I got those marks.

Every month or so, for whatever reason, this comes to mind. I remember the time I got laughed at for my interpretation of a story because he cut off my explanation halfway through, and it really needed the second half to make sense. I remember the first few stories where I took creative risks and got crushed. I remember that terrible story that was lifeless and weird, and wish I had stuck to my guns. I remember that professor telling me I’d never accomplish my life goals, and still get angry that he said that. I’m still arguing with him in my head.

I tell him that my interpretations were valid, and list the reasons. I tell him that I had potential that he crushed. I tell him that I did not deserve that A, because by the end of that course, my stories were void of any emotion. I tell him that I’m writing decent stuff now, and that it’s despite of his influence. I tell him that what I like it just as acceptable as what he likes, because different people are allowed to like different things. I tell him I will accomplish my life goals. The thing is, he doesn’t know, or care, that I’m still having this argument.

I play out a scene in my head where I run into him at some kind of school reunion or something, he asks how things are, and I have a triumphant moment where I tell him I’ve overcome his negativity and done well for myself, even though his course almost derailed my will to write.

That’s stupid. For one thing, he doesn’t remember me. Why would he? For another thing, I don’t even remember the man’s name. I remember his favourite candy, and how he likes his sandwiches. He made sure to tell us that. But unless he literally walked up and introduced himself by those two things, I’d be like, “Oh, nice to meet you, Mr. ???” and not even realize I was talking to the professor I’m still arguing with in my head.

I don’t know why I’m still having this argument. I don’t know if it’s because I’m still trying to convince myself he was wrong about me, or if maybe it’s because I feel stupid for taking that course when I should have known better. Every month or so I have this argument with an imaginary version of this professor that I can’t actually contact, an argument that I can’t win because he’s not really here listening to any of this, and every time it comes up I tell myself that I need to move on. I’ve found better sources of teaching. I’ve found my inspiration again. One person’s opinion (especially those of a stranger whose opinions I don’t hold in high regard) should not influence me this much.

That course was a bad call on my part. I learned very little, and it took a long time for me to recover. But I did I learn two things from that course. 1. Don’t sell out to get someone else to like your writing. It’ll cripple your ability to write well. It’ll also kill your self-respect. 2. I need to listen to the little voice that read his comments on my portolio and told me to run as fast as possible in the other direction. I thought I needed another writing course to succeed. I thought I needed a challenge to grow. Really I needed thoughtful criticism that was useful, and I needed space to practice different styles without getting shot down every time I tried something new. I should have listened to that little voice, but I wanted so badly to be good enough to pass that course. Instead, I passed the course, but lost everything that made me good enough to get in.

That was seven years ago. Since then I’ve completed a manuscript that’s in the editing process. I’ve started a fantasy novel that has potential. I’ve started a blog. I’ve won a poetry contest. I’m writing, and it’s not all awful. Some of it is. It’s a learning process. But I’m at my best when I can let go of my endless argument and just focus on the characters and plots in front of me.

I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to fully let go of this argument. It’s not like I seek it out. For whatever reason, there seems to be a snooze button in my head that keeps it popping up every now and again. But maybe I don’t need to win it. Maybe I can someday accept that a clever response or a well-crafted complaint are not as good as just succeeding where I can, learning from my failures, and trying again. There will always be people who just don’t like me. I can’t argue them into liking me. Especially when they’re not even in my life anymore.

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Are We Crazy? (Yes)

Quite a while back now, a new girl at work (who has since moved on to other things) asked me if it was just her, or if there were some people at work who were a little bipolar. Not in a clinical sense, of course, but in the sense that some days they were your best friend, and other days it was worrying to be left alone with them. After two seconds of thought, I told her that was pretty much the case.

I think it’s probably the same everywhere, but I think it might be more prominent in customer service jobs. After all, it doesn’t matter what kind of day we’re having, when the customers walk in,we have to shove that aside, smile, and try to make their day better. So, yes, you do get conversations like, “If you ever say that to me again I’m gonna rip your – Good morning! What can we get for you today? Have a wonderful day! – head right off!”

Even without customers directly cutting off a gripe mid-sentence, it can get intense. When we run out of stock, or when there’s a misunderstanding of some sort during a rush, there is bound to be friction. Most of us who have been there a while have learned the trick to getting along: When the shift is over, so is the drama. It doesn’t matter what happened; when it’s home time, we’re done.

I think most of us get along most of the time, and I find it’s important to remember that when things get rough. Yes, I just got my head bitten off, but yesterday that same person helped me take out the cart-full of garbage. Yes, I just got blamed for something, but last week that person came to help me when I got super busy.

I find it also helps to keep a list of good things about people in my head. That way, when there is friction, I have concrete examples to think on to remember why I’m not going to hold a grudge. It was just one thing, one day. It’s normally not like that.

I think I remember hearing in one of my psych classes that in order for a relationship to be viewed as positive, there need to be five positive interactions for every one negative interaction. So keeping a list of good things while trying to forget the bad things is a good way to tip the balance in the right direction.

Another thing I find helpful is to try to extend more grace when the day is going terribly. If it’s hot, and we’re out of stock until the truck comes, I try to recognize ahead of time that there will be spats, and that they don’t mean anything. If we’re melting into goo while getting yelled at for not having something, yes, my coworkers might get snappy. That’s just the heat and the situation talking. It’s not personal. Reversely, when I’m melting into goo while getting yelled at, I try to remember that whatever I’m upset about it probably not that big a deal. It’s the heat and the situation talking. That way I’m less likely to snap at others.

The most important thing, I think, is to remember that we’re all human, and we are going to make mistakes. We will all, at some point, be tired, cranky, hungry, hot, and frustrated. If I want to work in a positive environment, I have to make the best of it. I need to try to be nice anyway, and I need to apologize promptly when I mess up. When others snap, I need to take a deep breath, let it go, and hope the moment passes quickly. Sometimes I fail at this, and have a cranky day. Then I try to be extra nice the next day to get things back on track. I’m sure this makes me look as bipolar as anyone else. But honestly, I’d rather work with someone who is nice some days than someone who is mean every day. So let’s be bipolar. It could be worse.

Writing Technique

I watched a DVD series that was all about how to write great sentences. It was great. The professor talked all about modifying phrases, punctuation, where to put the independent clause in the sentence…. I know it sounds as boring as dirt, but it was wonderful. You see, in school we went over how to structure a story, how to write different genres, and different forms of poetry, but I get very, very stuck on how to put individual words together to say something interesting.

Say I had an idea for a story where a daring hero saves a damsel in distress from a house fire. There, I have some kind of primitive outline. How do I write sentence after sentence to make it a story?

First, I need to forget what I learned in school. Some of my teachers went on a crusade against what they called ‘run-on’ sentences. First I was taught that those were sentences where many independent clauses were joined together with conjunctions. That’s true enough. Then they expanded this to include all sentences that were longer than they cared for. That is not right. A properly constructed sentence that is long is not a ‘run-on’. It’s simply long.

I am finding that longer sentences can be very helpful for story flow. In trying to keep sentences short and to the point, I get really bad sentences. For example:

Molly backed up against the window. The flames were coming closer. Molly screamed, hoping someone would come save her. She wished she’d run for the fire extinguisher sooner. Now she was stuck, with no where to go. Molly looked out the window. She was terrified of heights. Molly was frozen between a wall of flames, and a two-story drop outside the window. Wait, was that movement outside? Could it be a hero was coming to save her?

You see? The short sentence approach is too broken up. The sentences are simply, easy to follow, but it has no flow. There is a break between each thought, instead of allowing the story to continue in the fast pace it needs. Let’s do a re-write with some properly-constructed, longer sentences.

Backed against the window, flames growing closer, Molly was stuck with no where to go. Molly screamed, terrified of the flames, terrified of the two-story drop out the window, unable to reach the fire extinguisher she’d dismissed earlier as ‘too heavy’. Out of the corner of her eye, Molly thought she saw movement outside. Could a hero be coming to save her?

Instead of ten sentences, I used four. I think it allows for faster and better story flow. I linked some phrases, removed unnecessary punctuation, and made it better. Short sentences have their uses. They can be epic when used correctly. Using only short sentences, however, gets really old, really fast.

How about even fewer sentences? Let’s try it.

Molly screamed as she backed up against the window, watching in horror as the flames grew closer, too scared to risk the two-story drop behind her, too scared to rush for the heavy fire extinguisher ahead of her on the far wall. Out of the corner of her eye, Molly thought she saw movement, causing hope to rise against the desperation as her adrenaline-fueled mind conjured up a hero in the night.

That’s two sentences. That is much better than the initial attempt. Longer sentences are fun, as long as they are not run-ons. How would it look as a paragraph of poorly written sentences?

Molly screamed and she backed up against the wall and she was terrified of the flames that were growing closer but she was too scared to risk the two-story drop and she was equally scared to risk rushing for the heavy fire extinguisher. As she  looked again over her shoulder, she thought she saw movement and some hope ignited because she hoped it was a rescue and she was desperate for a hero.

That version is just as broken up and clunky as the first version. The conjunctions break up the ideas as much as the punctuation did, with the added frustration of a lack of proper structure for the reader to follow. There is no chance to take a breath, because instead of phrases joined by commas, allowing for a natural pause for breath, there is a lack of punctuation, which means the reader has to keep going and going and going….

I think a lot of my problems as a writer have stemmed from my attempts to shorten sentences to avoid run-ons. Learning to write proper, longer sentences has been very helpful for me.

 

Tips for Parenting Toddlers

I’ve had a kid for almost two years now, so clearly at this point I’m an expert and know everything. Here are some amazing, foolproof tips I’ve picked up to make life easy!

  1. It’s tempting to put your screaming kid down for a nap when he’s snapped your last nerve. This is a terrible way to parent. He’ll just fuss more until he wears himself down enough to nap, and you’ll be screaming into a pillow at the screaming coming from the baby’s room. Instead, put him down for a nap when he’s snapped your second-to-last nerve. That way your last nerve is there for you when he doesn’t want to stay in the crib, throws the stuffed bear at you, and screams for 20 minutes before passing out.
  2. You don’t want to encourage picking eating. You don’t want to have to cook two meals every night when your toddlers wants crackers and peanut butter, but you’ve made spaghetti. Here’s my never-fail solution: just serve peanut butter crackers for dinner in the first place. If you make chicken nuggets, hot dogs and grilled cheese for everybody, every night, your toddler will always eat what the family is eating!
  3. TV is a good way for kids to learn horrible things: inappropriate language, promiscuity, violence. I know it’s hard watching kid shows all the time. I don’t want to see another show about a child and their talking pets, either. I also don’t want my kid overhearing anything age inappropriate from my sitcom/drama/superhero movie. This one’s easy. Watch kid shows all day, and when the kid goes to bed, watch what you want with subtitles on, and the volume turned way down low. That way, nothing bad can be overheard! It’s so relaxing to settle down on the couch after a long day and read a good TV show.
  4. Dessert. Snacks. There are so many unhealthy things kids love: pudding, cookies, cake. I don’t want my toddler having that much sugar, but I still want sweets as a treat. There are two good solutions for this one. The first is to bake at home. Find recipes, or modify recipes, to make low sugar, whole wheat, reduced calorie oatmeal raisin cookies, and carrot walnut cake, and sneak in those vegetables and fiber! Or, the second option: keep the treats hidden and eat dessert after your toddler goes to bed. They don’t need to know you have fudge taped to the back of your china cabinet. Until they’re asleep, just go snuggle your toddler. As much trouble as they are, they are also very sweet.

I Blame my Mother

A friend of mine was letting me talk her ear off about a story I’m working on. I have bits of it scattered around at the moment: scenes in a small notebook I carry in my purse, scenes in an old elementary school work book I found and started using, scenes in dozens of files on my computer, and scenes just about everywhere. Also, many alternate versions live in my head. I’m constantly comparing and editing, trying to perfect things I’ve already written. I add characters, change timelines, and generally fuss with it, trying to make it better.

My friend asked how I keep track of all this. I told her it was just practice. For all the practice, I blame my mother. We went on lots, and lots, and lots, and just so, so many long car trips. We would visit family and friends every school break, and that meant an eight hour car trip. We visited grandparents frequently on weekends, and that was an hour and a half car trip. Sometimes it felt like we were always in the car. We’d go to the library ahead of time and stock up on road trip books, and mom would bring books to read to us to keep us three kids from going bonkers in the back seat. When we ran out of books, and mom’s voice ran out of steam from shouting stories back to us, she would say, “Make up a story in your head.”

I made up so many stories in my head. Most of them will never see the light of day. Often when I start to put words on paper, I realize the story doesn’t really work. It kept me amused for a car trip, or a wait in a doctor’s office, or while on hold, but it will never be a finished, written work. But it makes good practice.

My current novel I’m attempting has two timelines, three main perspective characters, several locations, and I keep adding new things, new places, and new people. And I can’t settle on chronology, so I keep moving both timelines around to see what works best. How do I keep track of it? I’ve been doing this for years. Some day, when I actually get something published, I’ll have to add a thank you for my mother, because when I was little, bored, and stuck in a car, she told me to make up a story in my head. And I did.

Loving Correction

My husband and I were talking about correction in the church the other day. I cannot trace the conversation back to the origin point. I’m not sure how we got on this topic. It was an interesting conversation, though, as we both agreed that things don’t always work as they should.

The Bible calls us to correct our fellow church members, but not to judge others. Some churches get a bad reputation for hating on others, and some have refused to correct anyone, so much so that they don’t really seem to hold any values of their own anymore. It’s a hard line to walk, to correct but not judge.

I think one point that gets missed a lot is the part about correcting someone to help them. The Bible says, “My brothers, if any among you strays from the truth, and someone turns him back, let him know that whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save his life from death and cover a multitude of sins.” (James 5:19-20, HCSB. Thanks again, biblegateway.com!) Why do we correct? To save someone from the consequences of their wrong actions.

I grab my toddler’s hand and pull him back to the sidewalk to keep him from getting hit by a car. I tell him not to put his fingers into electrical sockets so he doesn’t die. That is loving correction. If I stood there and said, “You’re really stupid. You should be smart like me and not get hurt. I’m better than you at self-preservation. You suck at this,” that would just be being judgmental. And, also, terrible parenting. And I’d have to go to emerg, because he wouldn’t understand, and would get hurt. But that’s my job, right? Step in before he gets hurt, explain in words he can grasp (Mommy says no. Dangerous. Ouch.) and then help him find a better way to do whatever it is he’s trying to do.

What if I said this instead? “Oh hon, that’s probably not a great plan. I mean, if you really want to, then I guess you can play in traffic. I just think that for me, that’s not my preference. No offense, right? I’m just gonna walk on the sidewalk and hope you’ll be fine.” We’d also have a trip to emerg. Also, terrible parenting. He needs to be corrected for his own good, not because I have nothing better to do than pick on him, but because I love him and want him to be safe.

That’s loving correction. That’s what correction should be in the church. Not a haughty, “Well, you’re going to hell for that, but I know better,” and not a wishy-washy, “I think that’s a bad idea, but that’s my opinion.” We need to be loving enough to intervene when a friend is about to do something stupid or dangerous. We also need to be brave enough to say it, even if it’s unpleasant.

I think another important part is the relationship. I correct my toddler because I care about him, and he listens to me (as much as a toddler does) because he knows that for two years I’ve been keeping him safe, keeping him fed, comforting him, and hugging him when he need reassurance. I think of being judgmental as being standoffish. We stand at a distance so we’re not associated with those trouble makers over there, and loudly criticize from across the room.

I think loving correction is going up to a friend and saying, “I think you’re making a mistake. This is why. Can we talk about this before you get hurt?” It means being close by to offer a helping hand.

I think the difference between judgmental correction and loving correction is a mix of motivation and implementation. It’s hard to be judgmental when you’re standing there, giving someone a hug, and saying you’ll help them through their struggle. It’s hard to be loving when you denounce someone you don’t care about, just to prove how much better than them you are.

 

 

More Than You Can Handle

A few weeks ago, I was stressing out about some situations in my life that seemed to be more than I could manage. I was anxious, frustrated, and seemed to be out of options. A well-meaning friend said to me, “Don’t worry. God won’t give you more than you can handle.” I didn’t take it well. I blurted out that I didn’t believe that. As far as I’m aware, the only time God said He wouldn’t give us more than we could handle was in regards to temptation. In 1 Corinthians 10:13, the Bible does say, “And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear.” (NIV)

That’s a good thing. I’m glad that verse is included. But it doesn’t make me believe that God won’t give me circumstances and problems beyond what I can bear. It’s not that I think God forgets how much we are capable of dealing with, and accidentally overloads us. I just see examples all over the Bible where people were in over their heads. Often, these times are followed by miracles, or God’s perfect timing, or an unexpected way out. Still, it’s not that God sent these people as much as they could bear, but that He send more than they could bear to show them He was still God, still there, still helping. God could end every trouble before it begins, but then we’d wonder why we never see Him work.

The first example that comes to mind of a person in over their head is Moses. Even before he got stuck at the red sea and needed a miracle, even before he got stuck with a stubborn Pharaoh and needed miraculous signs, even before he got to Egypt and needed to convince the Hebrews that God had called them to move out, Moses hit a snag that he couldn’t overcome. When God appeared to Moses and told him to go tell Pharaoh to let His people go, Moses didn’t want to go. Even when God said that He would back Moses up with miracles, that He would convince the people and the king, and even though God performed two miracles for Moses on the spot (three, if you count appearing as a burning bush) Moses refused the job.

Moses wasn’t a good public speaker. That was a problem when much of the job God wanted him to do was to go tell people things. God asked him who made tongues, and who made ears? Who makes people able to speak and hear? God, obviously. Moses still resisted. That’s right; he’s got a command from God Himself, miracles happening left and right, with the promise of many more to come, and Moses can’t get past the public speaking. Not gonna lie, that’d get me, too. “I have to go talk to people? Can’t you send someone else to do this? Can’t I do this by email?”

Moses felt in over his head. He told God there was just no way he could manage. God provided. He didn’t make Moses miraculously eloquent. God didn’t give Moses speech lessons for a month before sending him. God did sent help. God told Aaron to go meet Moses, and they teamed up. God talked to Moses, then Moses to Aaron, then Aaron to everyone else.

Great, one problem down. Now just to perform miracles, lead people through a sea, and set up a nation. How hard can that be? Pretty hard. Moses had more than one break down on the way. He was in over his head. God had given him more than he could handle. But God was with Moses, and it was not more than God could handle. God sent the miracles. God parted the sea. God gave Moses the laws for founding a nation.

So yes, I contest the saying that God never gives us more than we can handle. That happens. But, God doesn’t let the load crush us, as long as we let Him work in our lives to provide for us, to further His glory, and to strengthen and encourage our faith.

 

 

This story can be found in Exodus, starting at chapter 3.  https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Exodus+3&version=HCSB