He began work on this essay controlled by the formula: the structure he’d concocted to guide his writing, bound, he was sure, to guarantee success. First, he thought, he’d pen a brisk and clever opening (to exhibit his dry humor); then dialogue, sensory embellishment, and intense recreation of a moment (to draw in his reader); then a retrospective exploration of the situation, his role in it, and the meaning of his actions (to demonstrate the depth of his perception); and finally, a powerful, all-encompassing close. Clean, self-contained, and utterly devoid of anything that could possibly blemish his idealization of himself. If obeyed completely, his formula would leave his admission officer awed and ready to stamp his application on the spot: admitted!
Admission was, of course, crucial. With but a few hundred words, he believed he would write his future into being. Done “correctly,” he would be assured of many fine collegiate options. But done “incorrectly,” colleges would deny him. Classes, careers, relationships, triumphs he could have had would disappear from possibility—forever.
He therefore fixed his mind to his task with a line of Fitzhugh Dodson’s: “Without goals, and plans to reach them, you are like a ship that has set sail with no destination.” Admission was his goal, and to accomplish it he would sail with his formula to success!
But matters were not so simple.
First, he needed a topic on which to write. He had ideas—but would his own thoughts be sufficient? Fearful that some whiff of staleness or irregularity would infect his work, he searched for inspiration externally. Before each of his many attempts at drafting, he would read an opinion (or two or three) from the New York Times or Wall Street Journal or some other established publication. He’d beg his brain to absorb the spark that had landed that article at the lead of the day’s discussion so that he could wring it back into his work. Then he’d open up a word document, look to his formula, and write.
Or try to.
Many a sharp start did he begin, but all these proved mere exteriors—façades unsupported by a core, a belief grounded in experience and ideology. Stalled, he would rise from his chair. Make tea. Persist futilely for another bit. And then return to the internet—to the New Yorker, perhaps, and then to less renowned outlets: Wikipedia, Facebook, Google at large (for the query “college admission essay,” 1,310,000 results in 0.14 seconds). He would recall the chorus of advice sung by well-meaning friends and relatives and teachers and counselors: “Don’t use humor.” “Don’t tell, show.” “Don’t be too broad.” “Don’t be too narrow.” “Don’t strictly look backward.” “Don’t strictly look forward.” And on and on. And he would consider his own requirement: Make it perfect in every way.
His writing failed every time.
But enough of this drudgery!
In this essay, I have failed my formula. My formula has failed me.
I do not know that everyone will love my writing, but I do know that insistence on perfection (whatever “perfection” is) smothers creativity just when I need it most. For if nothing else, writing this has reminded me that the process of writing is, above all, the process of discovery.
Realistically, that process unfolds something like this: I begin with a notion. The notion is not clean or isolated or even entirely visible, and I might not be conscious of how it compels me to write. Rather, the notion struggles to rise out of a mass of impressions and instincts and ideas, all clashing in quiet cognitive cacophony. Into this darkness I delve, to seize strands of my notion—fragments of memory, fragments of thought—so as to pull them into the light of my consciousness, where they become fragments of sentences. I define and support and connect these fragments, etching, word by word, note by note, abstract ideas into hints of a tangible melody.
All the while, I must take care not to let elusive tone strands slip silently away, evading my consciousness and my writing. True, when examined amidst the near-constant frenzy of work, socialization, and media, these scattered bits seem insignificant—buzzes that only dull my point. But surrounded by silence, these strands weave themselves into my music, coloring its chords so that they resonate with depth and charge and light.
With persistence, then, I develop fragments into sentences and sentences into paragraphs; and with patience, I cut and add and trim and tweak, until at last I have a work—a symphony, to be appreciated, and, perhaps, to be understood.
I’ll admit that I struggle with elusive overtones. Their incorporation cannot be forced any more than can creativity, but as a compulsive analyst, I hesitate to relinquish control of creation. Should not I be able to delineate my thoughts into a neat, logical sequence? If I cannot command my notion, do I really know it? Is it really mine?
Yet I know from experience that when surrounded by others’ ideas, my mind is like a sponge: It is its surroundings. To write in a sea of friends and media is to repeat others’ wisdom, and needless to say, this hardly provokes discovery. Only when given the solace of space can I probe, test, and discern others’ doctrines; and only when given the freedom of obscurity can I mold thoughts that are truly my own.
As I look to launch myself into a wider and wilder world, I therefore pause to acknowledge something I have re-cognized in writing this essay. It is not something I knew was searching for, but reflecting on it, I realize that it represents no less than the discovery of my self.
I have found that progress is more important to writing than process; that exploration is more important to learning than discovery; and, in slight opposition to Dodson, that direction is more important to understanding than destination. To be satisfied with progress requires steady trust in the abilities I have accrued through seventeen years of existence and effort, and having completed this work, I can definitively say:
I have found value in my own experiences. I have found value in my ideas and instincts. I have found confidence in my ability to discover and write a truth that at once grounds me and spurs me to grow. I have found an abiding trust in my future—collegiate and otherwise. I have found my voice.
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