Desperately Seeking, Part II

Seniors,

You’ve done what I suggested from the previous post and brainstormed a list of topic that you might find use for the common application question. Shared them with mom and dad, but your list feels dead. Nothing is inspiring you to write. You’re also nervous because as I said in a previous post, you’ve got to showcase something unique about yourself: no soccer or band camp stories, no deceased relatives, and no family trips to Myrtle Beach. Oh, and by the way, no essays about how you’re not going to write a college essay.

Before committing to a first draft of the essay, something else for you to try that would make for getting to a good topic.

One of the most famous writing workshop exercises comes from editor Gordon Lish, who asked his writers to write about a secret, should it be known would change your life. Amy Hempel, our great American short story writer has said that this exercise lead to her much anthologized “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried.” This story should be required reading for every English major or future English major. It is perhaps the finest short story of the contemporary era. However, I’m off topic.

The point of Lish’s exercise is to dig into meaty topics and consider something small and personal about yourself that can be the focal point for the essay’s narrative to spin on.

Now, were not looking for deep, dark and evil secrets. Abuse, drug abuse, criminality are the kinds of college essay errors similar to writing about deceased relatives. But, let me share examples of topics of two of my students who struggled until I used the Lish prompt with them.

The first student said, “Sherlock Holmes. My dad has had me reading Sherlock Holmes stories since middle school.” The rest poured out of him, writing about what he learned about life from read about the famous sleuth. This student is now at Union. The essay topic was great because it was about reading, reading something that very few people do these days (and wasn’t about those stupid movie adaptation with Downey and Law), and showed something unique about the student.

The second student said, so quietly that I didn’t hear her at first, “Knitting.” She had never shared her love for knitting in the evenings after homework and while watching the TV. Knitting became an extended metaphor of her way of coping with stress and problem solving. She’s now a junior at SUNY Fredonia.

Who thinks that something small like Sherlock Holmes or knitting would be a topic, but there it is. The small and particular about you is what is really important. It’s not the big Himalayan pilgrimages you’ve taken, it’s that everyday thing that nobody knows.

And, if you haven’t read “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried,” then that’s your homework.

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