You Asked It

Just Wondering

LIFE’S QUESTIONS, answered by normal people.

I always try to be a good person, and by that I mean I try not to judge people and make fun of them. Despite this, I often find myself judging others, even if I don’t say it out loud, and putting people down that aren’t like me, or laughing with others who put people down. I know from experience how hurtful it can be to be on the other end of that kind of behavir. How can I get past this? —Jen

I think being judgmental is hard-wired into the human brain. How else can you explain the popularity of gossip? Having judgey thoughts is human—the good thing is that you can recognize that they can be harmful, and that you want to loosen their hold on your brain.

First of all, you can work on not joining in on the put-downs. You might not feel strong enough to stand up for a maligned person to a group of your friends, but you can at least take a small stand of your own by not laughing or adding your own comments. Maybe some of your other friends are also uncomfortable—they will notice your abstinence and feel safer admitting that they don’t think it’s funny either. And even if you do kind of agree with your friends’ judgments, you still know that they are hurtful and not worth airing. So don’t add fuel to their fire. Also, if your friends are really into putting other people down, it may be time to find new friends. Don’t fall into the Mean Girl trap.

But of course you also want to change the way you think. That’s a bit harder. I think the best way to start changing your mindset is to put yourself in other people’s shoes, as corny as that sounds/is. No one ever does anything because they are trying to make a bad decision or look stupid or whatever. Everyone acts the way they do for a reason.

So, let’s take an example. I don’t drink. I never have. I used to be really judgmental of kids in my high school who were known hard-partiers. But eventually I realized that those kids had their own reasons to drink, and that those reasons were probably just as valid as my reasons for abstaining. Maybe alcohol was a release from some stress in their lives that I had no idea about. Or maybe it was just a harmless bit of fun. Maybe they felt totally safe and normal about drinking, because their parents have let them have wine with dinner since they were 12, and it’s never had a bad effect on them. The point is, alcohol does not have the same meaning for everyone else that it does for me—or you, necessarily. And that goes with almost anything else people do.

Sometimes people do things that are just plain stupid, but instead of feeling judgmental, try to empathize. Imagine how difficult life would be if you didn’t have the capacity—for whatever reason—to recognize when things are going to go badly. Some people are like that with regard to relationships, and they always end up with someone bad for them. If you’re tired of watching that person cry after every breakup, imagine being in that many bad break-ups. That would suck!

This isn’t to say that it’s impossible to make a bad decision, or that all decisions are neutral. Sure, some choices are objectively better than others, but the point is that people make all their choices for reasons that make sense to them. You’re only judging what you see, which is just a small part of any person’s life.

I don’t mean to sound sanctimonious, like I’m beyond all that judgment bullshit. I still judge people sometimes, and sometimes they deserve it. (I feel no shame in judging hateful people, or people who hurt other people.) Like I said, it’s human nature. But when you find yourself thinking badly about someone, stop and think about if they really deserve it. If they’ve done something bad to someone else, maybe a little judgment is warranted (although it’s still probably best to judge silently). But if they’re only hurting themselves, or just annoying you, let it go. It’s not worth your energy. Concentrate on the stuff you love; that’s what’s going to make life good in the long run. —Rachael

I’m a junior in high school, and I guess now is the time for me to be seriously looking at colleges. Although I look forward to college, it is still kind of scary to think about, and I have a lot of questions. What’s it really like? What does it take to get into college? What is art school like? Is college really stressful? What do they look for? Answers to these questions or stories and experiences would be lovely :) Thanks!

Colleges want your good grades, obviously—grades show that you can succeed in the school grind. But they truly look for what you’re interested in outside of school. Extracurriculars are your chance to show that you’re actually an interesting human being and worth being interested in.

Specifically, colleges want to see things that you stick with. They look for commitment and self-direction. Every kid forever will crow about their month at the soup kitchen and their time on freshman basketball and their one semester of debate or whatever, but that’s not as impressive as, say, the public-art project that you made, or how you organized a SlutWalk in your town, or your two years of doing stand-up comedy at clubs and open mics. My advisors in high school told us that well-rounded applicants are easy to come by, but people who committed to one thing and had something to show for it were rare. If there are one or two areas you’re totally interested in, delve into them and find a way to express your commitment. That will get you a lot farther than having the jack of all trades, master of none sort of résumé.

Once you’re in college, TAKE ADVANTAGE OF IT. You’re likely paying for your education, so make the most of your (or your parents’) money! Take the hell out of any class that would be really hard to find anywhere else. For instance, a place where you can practice letterpress at any hour of the day? That’s a hard find in the Real World. So that’s why I’m taking letterpress at school this semester!

I like to view college as like a crazy, overstuffed room of a hoarder grandmother, full of trinkets and treasures new and old, and there’s so much to partake of that it’s overstimulating, and I just want to grab everything and bring it back to my house, and then someone comes and tells me, “Grab anything you want, but you have only five minutes, and it has to fit in this little knapsack!” This, you see, is a metaphor, where five minutes represents your four years, and the knapsack represents your mental capacity. GRAB ALL OF THE SHINY THINGS. QUICK. Because you are paying like a bajillion dollars to be in this place, so you better grab the coolest, most interesting, and most crucial things. COLLEGE IS A SERVICE THAT YOU ARE PAYING FOR. Make it work for you!

When you’re an undergrad, you’re still forming like a little baby in the world, and art school is the best place EVER with the widest and most readily available set of resources to form your little baby brain. This is the time for you to become the cool and interesting and intelligent person you always hoped you’d be, because there are a million and a half opportunities around you. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by how many amazing books are in the library, how many amazing famous and smart people are lecturing, how many film screenings and club meetings and art openings are happening all of the time. I panic when I think about all of the things I’m missing out on that my school has to offer because, well, I have only four short years here…and a life to attend to. But try to take advantage of everything you can. I’m in my second year, and I have an idea of who I want to be by the time I graduate, so I’m putting myself on a path to build the skills and knowledge that I imagine that woman to have in abundance by 2014. I am using college to make my dream version of me to happen. I think that’s what undergrad is best for. Assemble your dream self, the one who is confident in her abilities and ready to do super great things. That’s the goal! —Dylan

I have wanted to be a writer since I was eight years old. I write short stories and poems, but I’ve never written anything longer than eight or nine pages. This year, one of my New Year’s resolutions is to write a short novel. The problem is that lately I’ve had total writer’s block. I’m completely uninspired and I just don’t know what to write. I feel like I should write way more than I do, so when I don’t write, I feel really bad. How can I get out of this slump? Could this be the universe telling me I shouldn’t be a writer? Please help! Sincerely, A Storyless Writer

Dear Storyless Writer,

This is definitely NOT the universe telling you that you shouldn’t be a writer. This is you putting way too much pressure on yourself to create, and when that happens, the urge to create shrivels. Trust me, I know. Like you, I wanted to be a writer from a very early age, and I started with short stories and poems. Even now, with three novels under my belt, I’ve fallen into my fair share of slumps—and a lot of them come when I’m putting too much pressure on myself to write more, write faster, or write in a way that doesn’t come naturally to me. THIS HAPPENS TO EVERY WRITER. Hopefully knowing that will reduce your burden a little bit. Reduce it a little more by telling yourself that there is no right or wrong way to write a novel, and no particular schedule or timeframe that you have to adhere to.

Now that you’ve put those doubts to the side to the best of your ability, let’s get that inspiration going. Use any free time you have to become inspired. I’d suggest looking over your favorite pieces that you’ve already written. Think about characters or themes that you’ve explored that you would be excited to do more with. If that doesn’t do it for you—or even if it does—start looking around you and listening for stories. Reread your favorite books or pick up a new one that sounds interesting. Music is a big muse for me, so I like to make playlists that fit the theme of the story I’m trying to write. If I’m totally lost, I just put iTunes on shuffle and see what ideas the songs that pop up give me. If you can bring your computer or a radio into the bathroom (and hook it up somewhere safe so you don’t electrocute yourself!) and listen to music while you take a shower or a bath, that’s a great way to clear your mind, relax, and get inspired.

When I’m really blocked, my favorite trick is to put my iPod on and go for a walk. I bring a notebook, because sometimes a certain lyric or something I see will spark an idea. One time, I was walking past a hospital and an old beat-up car pulled out of the parking lot. The car stalled when the driver was trying to turn, and the girl in the passenger’s seat just got out, slammed her door, and walked away. My mind reeled with questions. Why were they at the hospital? Was the guy driving her boyfriend? Was she mad because his car was always breaking down at inopportune moments, or was it something else? The world is crawling with stories. You just need to let your imagination transform them. You can also scour the internet for news stories that you could give a sci-fi or fantasy twist. Or look at the pictures on Tumblr OR ROOKIE that range from the very real to the very surreal and ethereal—you’ll see stories there. None of this is a waste of time as long as you’re letting yourself be open to story possibilities.

If you still feel stuck, try free writing. You can do this in a notebook or on a computer, whatever makes you more comfortable. Or if you always do it one way and it’s not working, switch. When you free-write, don’t worry about your writing being perfect. Don’t worry about even telling a story yet. Just describe a setting or a character, or talk with yourself or your character about what you want to write. It’s called free writing because you are writing freely, jotting down whatever comes to mind—but if you need a prompt, try the Yeah Write! Tumblr.

Eventually something will take hold: a line or a scene. Don’t worry if it’s the first part of your story or the last or something in the middle—just write it. Remember, you can always rearrange or rewrite later to improve it. Let yourself enjoy what you’re doing, and eventually you’ll be hooked and writing a novel you’re excited about. You may get stuck again (and I always do!), but now you’ll have some tricks to work with to get you back on track.

Happy writing!

Love, Stephanie ♦


  • queserasera February 14th, 2012 11:48 PM

    Thanks for the second question’s answer Dylan! I’m currently a high school junior as well, and I’m so looking forward to college and all the fun classes i’m hoping to take!

  • fullmetalguitar February 15th, 2012 12:07 AM

    My biggest advice to soon to be college students is that you should DEFINITELY take the classes out of your comfort zone that sound super interesting (for me it was Neuroscience and Japanese!) but also be very aware of your school’s pass/fail policy. By that I mean if you know you’re not great at languages but you’re dying to try Ancient Greek, or something similar, take it pass/fail. Trust me. You’ll be able to relax a bit in it and have fun, and you won’t have that low grade staring you in the face if you realize halfway through that you still do suck at whatever subject it is. And usually you can’t pass/fail the important stuff for your major or minor, so you might as well use it for the crazy stuff. Also you can audit! Which means you take it but not really for any credit or grade at all, but you still get to do everything.

    (Seriously, I can’t be the only one who didn’t know about these things until I was actually in college??)

    (Also my school is Kenyon and it’s super fun you should all go there okay)

  • joenjwang February 15th, 2012 12:09 AM

    I found the non-profit organization “NANOWRIMO” to be a great motivator in writing novels. The key is to just blaze through it. A lot of times writers can’t get past the several thousand words because they are overthinking everything, going back and editing. Sometimes you just have to let it goo. After its FINISHED you can edit! I really really recommend checking NaNoWriMo out (National Novel Writing Month). They have tons of tips and a helpful community.

  • andrea February 15th, 2012 12:10 AM

    writer blocking is normal, it happens to me too, good luck!

  • taste test February 15th, 2012 12:13 AM

    A Storyless Writer:

    try NaNoWriMo. seriously. if I had never done it, I would be like you- before it, I couldn’t make myself stick with one story for more than 10 pages. NaNo forces you to stick with what you are doing even if you don’t want to. I know that sounds miserable, but it helps so much. the other good thing about NaNo is that what you write during it doesn’t have to be good. it is just a way to make yourself put words onto paper regularly and assure yourself you can fix them later. learning to have that attitude means you can just write without worrying about if you’re Doing It Right, which is a fabulous thing. you don’t even need a predetermined plot to do it- you can just start writing stuff and trust that a plot will emerge from the stuff as you go along, which can actually be really fun, even though the result is usually a total mess.

    so yeah, NaNoWriMo is good and you should try it because it could help you. and all Stephanie’s suggestions are awesome too, obviously.

  • hillary February 15th, 2012 1:01 AM

    I know Stephanie was talking about not setting limits and timeframes and stuff that might stress you out, but definitely try NaNoWriMo! I did last year and it was honestly one of the best, funnest things I’ve ever done and it made me feel so awesome and proud of myself :) Plus, the great thing about it is that you don’t have to do it in November, can do it any time! EVEN RIGHT NOW!

  • Yasemin February 15th, 2012 1:11 AM

    I’m not a writer, but it’s always inspiring to go out in nature if you have the chance, and just watch things. Listen to the things going on around you and pay attention to every detail. Think of all the ways you can describe the things you are seeing, and this can help you practice with imagery in writing, and may spark some ideas as well.

    Also, I recommend Truman Capote’s short stories. He is an amazing writer who inspires me to write, even though I usually hate to.

  • Susann February 15th, 2012 1:20 AM

    Your answers are always really helpful and for some reason, fit perfectly to what I’m going through. Thanks!

  • Filia-Zissy February 15th, 2012 9:27 AM

    Thanks for the tips for writers, I think they will be very useful for me. I’m a bit uninspired, not just about writing but with my life (that sounds dramatic, but it’s rather boring).

  • Cerise February 15th, 2012 10:07 AM

    Storyless Writer,

    I’m a writer, too, and sometimes I feel exactly the way you do. A year and a half ago, I was on the verge of giving up, too. I kept comparing myself to other writers, and it was frustrating that everything seemed to come so easily to them. I mean, it was hard for me to write, and I thought that must mean I was terrible.

    But that simply isn’t true. Stephanie’s right. Even if we don’t see it right away–or ever–every writer struggles, even the ones who write those stunningly magnificent best-sellers.

    NaNoWriMo is good, definitely. I’d recommend that, too. I would also say that it helps to find a group of fellow writers just to talk to. They don’t have to be published or anything, they just need to understand what it’s like to be stuck. Relating to other people really helps, and having a group means you have people you can commiserate with and be encouraged by.

    I would also recommend reading Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. It’s a book about writing, and it’s hilarious and thoughtful and encouraging. She really captures what it feels like to be frustrated, and she knows a few things to help with that, too. Reading it has made me feel a lot better on days when I felt like giving up on myself and my stories.

    Finally, I would look here:

    It’s an “old” (circa 2008/2009) collection of essay posts on writing by author Laini Taylor. These were the posts that made me remember why I loved writing, the posts that helped me stick with it. They’re funny, thoughtful, and totally worth reading.

  • amyflorence14 February 15th, 2012 4:14 PM

    Storyless writer – I too, am going to recommend NaNoWriMo! Am currently spending hours at my desk every night, re-writing the novel (or zero-draft, as I like to refer to it!) I wrote during November a couple of years back!

  • MissKnowItAll February 15th, 2012 4:45 PM

    The last bit of advice is just what I needed. I’ve been writing poems since 3rd grade and have even been published in several anthologies. Last year, I wanted to venture into short stories and found it quite difficult to stick with one story for such a long period of time.

  • KatD February 15th, 2012 6:38 PM

    To the girl who worried about being judgmental I would add some advice. It’s natural, it’s good you’re aware of it and here’s a great way to learn to step into another’s shoes: take a cultural anthropology class. I was lucky and this class was available in my high school, but you might have to wait until college. A good class can really show you how to step back from your preconceived notions and learn to view the world through another culture’s (or another person’s) eyes.

  • brynntheredonethat February 15th, 2012 10:39 PM

    I love everything except the judging people for being hateful thing. So many times, hateful people are just victims of circumstance. Of course that’s no excuse, but maybe all they need is to NOT be judged, to be shown decency. Maybe the reason they’re hateful is because they’ve never been shown how to be anything else. Just an observation! :)

  • admiralpantzlady February 16th, 2012 11:24 PM

    I second Cerise’s recommendation of Lamott’s “Bird by Bird.” It’s fantastic– really helpful, inspiring, and hilarious. I try to read it a few times a year.

    Also, if you’re like me and have trouble thinking of plots for stories, try adapting and updating classic stories, like fairy tales or Greek myths or Shakespeare or Bible stories or whatever. Your finished product doesn’t even have to be an explicit adaptation, and maybe no one will even be able to tell you started out with one of these stories as a framework (after all, there are no new story lines). I’ve found that it’s really helpful to start with a familiar plot and then reimagine it by asking myself questions like “What if this were set in 2012?” “What if the hero were a girl instead of a guy?” “What if the talking animals were policemen and the fairy godmother were a plumber?” …You get the idea.

  • geriballmeow February 17th, 2012 11:19 AM

    I think it should also be emphasized that college isn’t for everybody. These days it seems like you have to go to university no matter what, and if you don’t then you’re a loser or something. And more and more people feel obligated to go into further education when it really just makes them unhappy. I know plenty of people who never went to university because they knew they weren’t the academic types, and they went straight into something they loved like carpentry or being a wine sommelier. I know these require some sort of course or qualification but considering how debt-ridden you can be for four years at a university, it can be very wise to skip that and just do an apprenticeship in the thing you love. Not hating on universities or anything, just saying you don’t HAVE to go to do the thing you love.

  • J February 17th, 2012 5:52 PM

    Something that really bugs me about the college application process is the competitiveness. Everyone is focused on being BETTER than everyone else, which makes sense, I know, because colleges can’t accept everybody, but…. People always tell you to do certain things because they will make you unique, but if everyone is doing them, you aren’t unique anymore, are you? So everything is based on your ability to change direction quickly once something becomes normal. I don’t think education should be competitive like this, anyway; I hate the idea that, if I get into a college, it means someone else hasn’t. It’s annoying that a lot of people always have to lose. I realize that competition can be good, and healthy, but not when your future is dependent on it. We have no choice but to compete, though; it’s our future or theirs, so…. Do doubts like these just have to be ignored?