Sometimes people ask me to help their kids with their college application essays under the assumption that I actually have any expertise. I’m happy to help, but first feel compelled to issue the disclaimer that my sum total writing training has been comprised of wantonly publishing often-ill-considered personal stories in my local paper.
In fact, I explain, I was turned down as an English/creative writing major on the basis that my writing was way too low-brow for the literary standards to which the institution aspired.
In spite of it, I’ve had some literary successes over the years and at one point was tempted to send them to the head of the English Department at my alma mater. But then I realized that this would only have vindicated her position. (“Thank GOD we didn’t let that woman be an English major here!”)
Fortunately for me, I had a mother who instilled in me a love of writing from an early age. The rules were pretty simple, she said: Write from heart, write what you know, show rather than tell. Sadly, she lamented, most people have had the joy of writing sucked out of them.
My mother intentionally never critiqued what I wrote but would buy the stories and poems she liked best for a nickel. Looking at the folder of her purchases that I found after her death, I couldn’t decide whether this was to gently reinforce better writing, or simply to get the stuff out of circulation. For example:
When I wake up
By Inga (age 9)
The morning dawns bright and soggy
And the sound of the flushing toilet
Wakes me from dreamland
I hear the sound of soft clodhoppers lumbering down the stairs.
I then hear a strange sound like an elephant being wounded by a hunter.
It is only my mother blowing her nose.It may be coincidental, but her frequent suggestion to “write what you know” wasn’t as much emphasized after that.
When my son, Henri, was eight, his teacher had the students do short daily writing assignments. Diorama-challenged, I hoped I could at least impart my mother’s lesson that writing should be fun, but Henri was unconvinced — definitely his father’s child in this regard. (I think I wrote every one of my writing-averse ex’s professional journal articles. At one point, my then-husband said to me, “I really should give you a credit in the foot notes.” I said, “How about ‘I would like to thank my wife for writing this paper in its entirety.’”)
Anyway, one day Henri had to write a story about what you’d say to your younger sibling if he wanted to go to the park alone. Bad assignment for my house; they’d be only too happy to get rid of the sibling.
Anyway, Henri predictably wrote, “Little brother, it is not safe to go to the park, etc. etc.”
“Henri,” I said, “would you talk like that? Particularly to a brother? No way! You’d say, ‘Forget it, butthead! There’s weirdoes in the park. You wanna end up on a milk carton?’ ”
Henri brightened. This had possibilities. I don’t recall the final product but I do recall the inscription on top: “Excellent – rare flash of brilliance!”
Like writing what you know, writing from the heart has liabilities. My kids tended to write thank you notes waaaay too much from the heart. We worked on Writing From the Heart – But Correcting For Tact.
Of course, in college essays, showing rather than telling is one of the hardest concepts to master. I was recently helping a friend’s son with his essay about what he learned from foreign travel in the Far East which he described, typically, as “one of the most amazing experiences of my life.” (Yawn.)
As luck would have it, my former co-worker, Dave, had recently been in Indonesia and had had a close encounter of the scary kind with a Komodo dragon.
Now Dave could have just said it was “scary” (telling). But what he wrote, I said to my teen-age essay writer, was:
Of course I couldn’t help but think of how they are dangerous, not because they attack viciously enough to kill you, but rather because their mouths are such a foul breeding ground of intractable diseases that if they ever did bite you, the wound would fester agonizingly until your entire body rotted and slid off your skeleton in great wet chunks.”
That, I said, is showing.
OK, so neither of my sons is as much a fan of writing as I am, but when motivated, both have a good time with it, often at my expense. But then, looking back at “Waking Up by Inga, Age 9,” I guess that’s the family tradition.
* Look for La Jolla resident Inga’s lighthearted looks at life every other week in The La Jolla Light. Reach her at email@example.com