Limits: An Essay

Note: Unlike my last essay, this one actually pertains to a particular person in one of my classes. Said person doesn’t read my blog, however, so I feel safe posting it here. And no, it’s not a rant or a gossip piece.

As you sit beside me and our assignments are handed out with grades written on the top, I notice you look for the grade that adorns the top of mine. I know that you are comparing your ability with mine, and I wish you would stop. You do not understand who you are comparing yourself to when you view the high A’s on my papers and the lower grades on your own. You do not understand the way I am aided by my genetics, and I do not know how to communicate with you without sounding conceited.

The truth is just the truth, right? Or, at least, that’s what we all think it should be. But it’s really not that simple. The truth is sketched in shades of grey, and there are in-between tones of every shade. So, I can tell you that I was born into a family where my mother, before she destroyed herself through alcoholism, was invited into Mensa without taking the tests as well as offered full-ride scholarships to several universities. I can tell you that my father, despite his inability to connect emotionally with his children, is a brilliant mechanic capable of manipulating cars in ways shop mechanics never consider, and I can tell you that it was recommended he skip a grade in school. I can tell you that the same was recommended for me, that the principal of my elementary school wanted to skip me from fourth to sixth grade, but my parents refused.

If I tell you all of this, is it simply the truth to you? Or is it bragging? Is it me telling me that I’m smarter than you? I suppose it can be taken that way. But it hurts me to sit beside you and watch you compare your grades with mine when you don’t understand who you are comparing yourself to. When you compare your grades to mine, I struggle to figure out what to feel. Should I feel flattered or should I feel saddened? I cannot answer this question, and it bothers me.

I think about the way it could make you feel – always seeing yourself coming up second best, and I hate knowing that it could depress your already fragile self-esteem. But then I wonder if seeing me succeed where you struggle will spurn you onwards, kick you into a higher gear, and help you find the motivation you need. Am I in danger of crushing you, or am I pushing you to find the limits of what you can do?

I Am Not Fragile: An Essay

Warning: The writing that follows this warning deals with abuse, and it is directed to a general audience (so don’t take it personally). I don’t normally believe in warnings, but this is a heavy topic, so a warning is warranted.

I was abused, and I acknowledge that, but when you look at me with pity, you take away my voice. You silence my suffering with your sympathy. You turn me into a victim before I get a chance to speak. You label me, but you don’t listen to me. I can tell you of the nightmares I faced, of the horrors that haunted me when I was a child, but still, you will look at me, and say, “That must have been rough.” Like that’s enough to assuage every hurt I ever endured, like that’s enough to diminish the pain that still haunts me from the days when I was too young to take matters into my own hands.

But you do more damage with your words than you realize. You never ask the questions I wish I could hear. “Why didn’t anyone do something?” That would be a good question to ask, but you never ask it. Perhaps you can’t face the reality where people see abuse and do nothing. Perhaps inaction is something you can’t stomach, so you phase it out of existence by just barely acknowledging the horror that I had to go through. Yes, what I went through was rough, but it was more than rough – it was a waking nightmare.

Do you know what that’s like? To wake up into a life so horrible that you dream about being kidnapped just for a chance to escape? To dream of someone, anyone, coming to take you away from the horrors of your life? What would you say if I told you that I used to dream of being kidnapped by murderers who I would then agree to kill for in exchange for just an iota of kindness? Would that diminish your sympathy towards me? Would it make you squeamish to realize that the longing for an escape can induce violence in a child at a young age?

Or would you ignore it, the way you manage to ignore the entire reality of the abuse when you say, “That must have been rough.” It is a false sympathy you offer me, and it is pity that I do not need nor want. Yes, it was rough, but those words do not endear me to you. Rather, they embitter me and enrage me, reminding me of a past that I would rather not relive. Rough does not begin to cover the horrors of my childhood, and I do not know if you would appreciate it if I told you the truth of what I had to face.

But I endure your false sympathy because it is the same false sympathy that everyone offers to those who have been abused. Perhaps this is because those who have never been abused cannot possibly understand the terror that abuse inflicts, the sheer abject horror of a childhood lived in warfare. Because that is what abuse really is – psychological warfare against a child who cannot defend themselves. Perhaps the very idea of such cruelty melts your mind away from the imaginings of it, and so you shed your fear of facing the truth of such hard reality by offering false sympathy.

Here is the truth from the abused: we do not need your pity, nor do we want it. Like others who have faced similar situations that have thrust them into the terrors of abuse, be it physical or emotional, I speak thus: I have survived horrors that you can never imagine, and I do not need your pity for my ability to survive. I do not need to know that I had a rough life from the lips of others who have not walked in my shoes – I already know how rough a life I lived. Do not offer me false sympathy, and pity is the form false sympathy takes.

Instead, treat me like an equal. An adult, like yourself, who has gone through life in a different way than you, but whose opinions and beliefs are just as valid. Do not color me in through glasses that soften my actions because I came into adulthood as a fully battle-hardened warrior. Do not treat me like I am fragile, likely to snap at the least provocation, simply because you have been trusted with the knowledge that I have gone through the trauma of abuse. Do not treat me like I am unstable simply because I grew up under the shadow of terror. I am not a child any longer, and I do not need to be coddled.

Be kind to me, but no kinder than you are to any other. I am not looking for special treatment. I am not a victim any longer, and if you extend kindnesses to me that you do not extend to others, you are cementing my role as a victim forever into your mind and mine. Do not treat me like a victim, or as a survivor, but as a person. That is all I have ever wanted, and all I have ever needed – to be seen as a real, flesh and blood person. To be seen as human.

When you victimize me, you make me less than human. You take my adult self and try to turn me back into the child that I used to be, the one that cowered under the covers at night in fear. I survived that already; I do not need to go through it again. I have no desire to relive those years, and yet, when I speak of what I went through, I always get the same response: “That must have been rough.” Yes, thank you, for pointing out the obvious. I do not need to hear that, over and over, because you will never understand exactly how rough it was, the childhood I survived, and that makes a farce out of the words you think you say in sympathy for my plight.

But the words you speak aren’t sympathetic; they are insulting. Why do you never think to ask why I wasn’t removed from such a terrible situation? Why don’t you ever ask why no one did anything to stop it? Why don’t you ask how I managed to survive? Do you think I am so fragile that these questions will break me? Do you think that, having survived horrors that you will never understand, that I will snap so easily under the weight of a question?

There is a difference between a sudden traumatic experience, like rape, and a sustained traumatic life full of psychological and physical abuse. For someone exposed to trauma once, your fear of asking probing questions is appropriate. Someone who has gone through a singular trauma is much more likely to break than someone like me, someone who has a history of traumatic experiences. My childhood was nothing but a chain of traumas, and if I was going to break, I would have broken already. Do not presume to treat me like I am fragile. I will not break, and I do not deserve to be treated like a victim.

Views on Grammar

I was looking for grammar videos or parodies earlier, but I ended up finding a couple of different videos instead. These are meant to be watched in the order I am posting them because the first represents the way I actually think about grammar (a.k.a. I agree with Stephen Fry) and the second is just for fun.

The reason I say this second one is just for fun…well, there’s a couple reasons. First, I don’t think anyone should make fun of someone else’s spelling. Some of us have a natural knack for spelling and some of us don’t – not everyone is good at memorizing the order of letters in every word. I do advocate the use of spellcheck, however. The second reason is that a lot of the grammatical issues encountered on the internet can partially be blamed on a failing education system. If grammar is never taught properly, it can never be used properly.

The Noble Arts

Writing is very much a noble art. To write well, there must be dedication to learning the mechanics of grammar. Without grammar, there is no structure for your stories to stand upon. You may have the most beautiful story in the world floating around in your head, but if you try to write it down without understanding the mechanics of grammar, you will never make that story come alive.

I overheard someone say once that “Writing is 50% mechanics, 50% raw talent.” I take offense to that statement because no one is born with a talent for writing. A person may have a talent for language, but writing skills must be developed. A more appropriate made-up statistic would be “Writing is 75% mechanics, 25% motivation.” Heck, I would even stretch it to 90% mechanics and 10% motivation. But talent? Talent isn’t necessary.

Grammar is mechanical which means it’s mathematical. It’s logical. There are rules to follow, formulas that describe the ways sentences can fit together the way equations describe the ways numbers fit together. Learn the rules of grammar, embed them into your psyche so deeply that you know them as well as you know yourself, and you will be a strong writer.

By strong writer, however, I don’t meant that you’re going to suddenly start publishing tons of books. That’s unrealistic. Books take a lot of time, a lot of emotional investment, and a lot of motivation. I have started novels that have dwindled down to nothing after I’ve written the first 30 pages because I lost my taste for the story. That’s normal. Not all the stories we write are meant to be finished.

Someone may view that sentence and ask, “Why write if you don’t intend to finish what you start?” Because finishing isn’t the end goal of writing. The goal of writing is to learn something about yourself and your style of writing. If you finish a project, that’s an accomplishment worth celebrating. In a way, however, your failures matter more than your successes.

If you start to write a romance story and then lose motivation to finish it by page 20, then maybe romance isn’t the correct genre for you to write. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad writer – it just means it’s the wrong story. If you start to write a story in first person and lose motivation by page three, then you’ve just learned that you shouldn’t write in first person. Our failures tell us our strengths and our weaknesses. Our successes are just us showing off, and that’s perfectly okay – when we succeed, we have every right to be proud of our accomplishments.

The irony of this is that there are tons of people out there who feel there are failed writers or that they are just terrible writers in general. This is far from true. There are no failed writers – there are just writers who have given up on improving their art. They have stalled themselves out due to whatever circumstances they have found themselves in, but they are still writers.

I remember the very first piece of advice I got from an author that I met when I was nine or ten. At that point in my life, I was determined to become a writer, and no one was going to get in my way. But the advice she gave was, “Write what you know, not what you feel.” In that moment, I resented her. I enjoyed her books, but I hated that piece of advice because I had no intention of ever writing what I knew about. I had no intention of sharing my broken home life with anyone, and I intended to use writing as a way to survive the alcoholic home I grew up in.

Over the years, I became more aware of the world, and now I can look at that piece of advice and be a little more rational. “Writing what you know” doesn’t mean that you can only write about the things in life that you have personally experienced – it also means that you can write about imaginary experiences that are based on knowledge you have attained through research or various other avenues during your life. As a child, I didn’t understand that. As an adult, I agree.

However, I still take offense to the “not what you feel” part of her comment because the best writing is the most passionate writing. People are drawn to passion. Think about the people you like the most. Aren’t the people you tend to enjoy being around the ones who aren’t afraid to own who they are and be themselves? Aren’t they the people who can stand up and proudly claim to love something that society tends to dislike – math, for example? We are drawn to passion. Write passionately, and people will be drawn to your writing.

Someone told me today that she found it interesting and admirable that I was pursuing a degree in math when I have such a strong writing background, as there is a tendency to assume that if one person is strong in writing, then they are weak in math and vice versa. I don’t know if there has been any statistical research done on this, but I don’t think that’s a true statement. Personally, I believe that the people who are good at math are the ones most likely to be good at English and vice versa. But there is a societal view that says you can’t be good at both, only one or the other, and it’s detrimental.

If someone is good at writing and math, that person is forced to choose one or the other or be viewed as a weirdo. As children, this matters a lot. No child wants to be good at both English and Math for fear of being labeled a complete nerd. As an adult, us nerds tend to own our identities because we’ve come to terms with our nerd-selves, but as children? In a lot of schools, it’s social suicide.

As someone who tutors both Algebra and English, I have seen that the people who grasp mathematical concepts the most quickly are those with an excellent language sense. The ones who struggle with math struggle with concepts. And no one likes overly complex word problems. Not mathematicians and not writers.

What I have seen, however, is that there is the same lack of confidence in a person’s approach towards math as there is in a person’s approach toward writing. People are afraid of getting it wrong. No one wants to answer a math question the wrong way because grading systems tend to be punitive, and people are afraid of writing because grading is so subjective. Some teachers take off points for stylistic choices rather than sticking to grammatical problems for point deductions, and that causes an incredible amount of confusion.

In some ways, I think the division between math and English lovers is the grading system. With math, there are concrete reasons as to why you’re getting the problem wrong. If you struggle with fractions (like many people do), then it is simply a matter of failing to understand the process and apply it correctly. But if you don’t understand the process and never learn to apply the process correctly, then you may end up being one of those people that hate math. Instead of thinking that maybe the way it’s being taught is an issue, you think, “I’m bad at math,” and so you give up on it. This turns you into an “English person.”

On the other hand, English teachers usually grade essays. There are a lot more rules to follow in a much larger space, so writing can be seen as more difficult. In a basic essay, there are five paragraphs, and each paragraph has to follow a certain format. In each paragraph, each sentence must be grammatically correct. There must be bridges from one sentence to the next and from one paragraph to the next. There must be supporting evidence and commentary. There must be documented research. Grammar mechanics may be glossed over, or a teacher may assume students have learned basic grammatical rules in a previous class. Without a good grasp of basic grammatical structure, you will become overwhelmed by all the rules that have to be followed, and you get bad grades on every paper you turn in.  You might think, “I’m bad at English,” and so you give up on it. This turns you into a “Math” person.

And I can relate to this because I used to be like this. In high school, I preferred English to Math because I could make A’s in English. My Math grades were B’s and C’s. I used to think I was terrible at math because I was so much better at English. Then I started playing video games. For those of you who know anything about hardcore pc gaming, you know that when you get to a certain level, metagaming (a.k.a. Theorycrafting) comes in. Theorycrafting is math. It is math used to determine the best method of play for certain classes in a game.

When I started getting into hardcore gaming, I realized that I needed math. Here was a place that was applicable to the real world, a place where I would actually use what I had learned. But when I started getting into Theorycrafting, what I realized was how much math I had forgotten. I learned how much I didn’t know, so I had to reteach myself a lot of math before I could do any serious Theorycrafting. I felt a bit overwhelmed because I thought I was bad at math.

Then I started raiding with Van, and we became fast friends. While he didn’t teach me Theorycrafting himself, I saw the way he applied it, and I was in awe. Here was a guy who played the game so seriously that he had calculated every spell he was going to cast during a boss fight. And the numbers he pulled were astonishing. Then I learned he was a math major, and I told him about my problems with math. He encouraged me to give it another chance, explaining to me that most of what he learned he had to teach himself because most of his math teachers were bad. Until that point, I never even considered that my failure to learn wasn’t entirely my responsibility – my teachers were also responsible.

A lot of people fall into this trap – I see it all the time at my college. Students think that they shouldn’t bother teachers with questions, that they should be able to figure everything out on their own. But education isn’t meant to be one-sided. Teachers are meant to help guide us to an understanding of the subject, not feed us all the answers or yell at us if we have trouble grasping concepts.

And it is concepts that we must grasp if we wish to do anything well in life, whether it is writing or mathematics. We need to learn how to apply concrete methods to abstract thinking, and writing and math are both abstract processes. Mathematicians use equations to evaluate abstract ideas like the compression of space and the expansion of the universe, while writers use the mechanics of grammar to explore the beauty and the horror of the world we all live in.

Writing and mathematics are not separate beasts with one being more abstract than the other. Both are tools used to explore the world around us. Each of the tools give us different results and different knowledge, but the combination of writing and math gives us a better understanding of the universe around us. So, like writing, math, too, is a noble art.

Writing Quote

“A book is made from a tree. It is an assemblage of flat, flexible parts (still called ‘leaves’) imprinted with dark pigmented squiggles. One glance at it and you hear the voice of another person, perhaps someone dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, the author is speaking, clearly and silently, inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people, citizens of distant epochs, who never knew one another. Books break the shackles of time – proof that humans can work magic.” –Carl Sagan

Nanowrimo 2015 Update

Since this is (primarily) a writing blog, it seems logical to announce that I have an official Co-ML for the Boone region for this upcoming Nanowrimo in November. For those of you who aren’t familiar with Nanowrimo, it’s a writing contest and an acronym. The acronym is National Novel Writing Month and comes from the first two letters in the first two words, the first three in the third word, and the first two in the last word. The challenge is to write 50,000 words in 30 days. The prize is the joy of accomplishing what seems impossible.

I’m pretty psyched to have a Co-ML this year because I am fairly busy with school. We’ve already picked a theme (and no, I’m not sharing! It’s supposed to be a surprise). We’ve also already figured out locations, so most of our work is done. Except for the writing itself, of course.

Last year, I tried to do some in-person workshops to help people prepare for Nano, but I didn’t have many people show up. Time may have been an issue, but I think location was the real problem. I haven’t talked to Su about whether she wants to do any workshops this year or not, but it’s a possibility. If we decide against doing in-person workshops, I may design some internet-based workshops to help people out. It’s pretty easy to use a Nano-flavored workshop and adopt it as a general writing workshop, so that’s helpful.

Another Nano note- I design calendars. I actually have a different blog dedicated to the calendars I’ve designed for Nanowrimo and I take requests. I love designing calendars, and they don’t have to be Nano-themed, if anyone is interested in one.

If you are interested in a Nanowrimo calendar, I need the following information: The word count you’re aiming for (standard 50k or higher), what resolution or paper size (depending on if you want it for a desktop background or printed), a general thematic idea, and as much detail as you want to provide to make it easier to create. I also need to know if you’d prefer a perpetual calendar (one that can be reused each Nanowrimo) or one specifically for Nanowrimo 2015.

If you are interested in a calendar that is not Nanowrimo themed, I need to know what month you want it for and a general thematic idea, along with a general thematic idea and all the detail you wish to provide. I also need to know what resolution or paper size and whether you want a calendar that you can use just for one month in one year (like just September 2015, for example) or a semi-perpetual month calendar that has the dates of the month (1 – 30 for September) but no days.

I am also considering branching out into designing covers this year for anyone who might be interested in that when the time comes. If you are interested in any of these or have a request for me, you can either leave me a message here or you can email me at with the subject line: Calendar.

Go Big or Go Home (Music Video)

While it’s pretty obvious this song is about getting plastered, I like to think of it as more of an analogy for life in general. Kind of a “pursue your dreams, don’t wait ’til tomorrow,’ sorta thing. Granted, seeing this song in that view does require ignoring the lines that are very obviously about getting wasted, but hey – we (and by we, I mean humanity at large) are great at rationalizing. Plus, it’s a catchy song. What’s not to love?