Author Archives: ellen

It’s College Application Essay Writing Time. Fear NOT…

This week I started meeting with students to help them with their college application essays. It’s so interesting to see their different approaches to the essay. There seem to be two reasons that students are intimidated by this part of the process.

The first one is that they fear they don’t have anything to write about. That is never true.  You cannot live for 17 or 18 years and not have stories to tell. The real problem is that most students think they don’t have anything “good enough” to write about. Also not true. This essay is very simply a story that captures who you are and how you’ve grown into the person you are.

So if you get stumped here, fear not. Think about those moments in your life that have mattered to you. When did you learn something about yourself that you hadn’t yet realized? Slow down and let those memories simmer. There is power there. Embrace it and then grab a pencil.

If your memories don’t help you, start thinking about the objects in your room that are meaningful to you. What do they symbolize? Why are they important? Why do you keep them? And then get writing.

The other reason students dread the essay is because they have something they very much want to write about but they fear other people will not want them to write it (parents, this is usually you).

I cannot say this strongly enough. If you feel compelled to write about something, you must write exactly about that thing. Remember, you do not have to submit that essay but you really should explore the idea of it. All other topics are likely to fall much more flatly on the page until you’ve written what you want to write.

This is where parents get nervous. What if family secrets are revealed? What if parents look like the bad guys? Here is where I caution everyone to just relax. Remember that these essays are not being submitted to the Washington Post. They will only be read by a handful of people. Quite honestly, if the admissions panelists remember your essay then you have done a very, very good job. Most of the essays they read are sadly quite forgettable.

Also, when students write these essays, they are rarely about what parents fear they will be about. They focus on the student’s journey and reactions. They are quite often amazing.

I once had a student who wanted to write about her relationship with her brother. Her parents said she could not write it because her brother faced unique challenges that were hard on the family. I never spoke to her parents so I don’t know what their specific hesitation was but I encouraged the student to write two essays. The one her parents wanted her to write and the one she wanted to write. (And then I encouraged her to share both essays with her parents before deciding which one to submit.)

Guess which one was better?

The first one was about her experience of giving speeches and it read like a list. Basically–I gave this speech, I gave that speech. I learned I can give a great speech.

The second was about playing a game with her brother. It captured a specific moment when her brother had a reaction that was hard to handle. The essay wasn’t about her brother but about her. There was absolutely no judgment in the essay at all–not about her brother, not about her parents, and not about herself. It highlighted a moment of clarity, a time when she was able to see her brother and herself in new ways. It was a beautiful story and I remember it all this time later–even after reading hundreds and hundreds of other essays. It is one of the few that sticks out in my memory.

The bottom line is that you cannot edit a blank page. So get busy writing. The magic of writing happens in revision anyway. You have at your disposal trash cans, erasers, and delete buttons. You alone have control over what you send out into the world. So just write, revise, and decide later what to do with it.

 

Fall for the Book at George Mason University

George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia is at it again. The annual Fall for the Book festival will be held October 11th through October 14th. Most of the events will take place on George Mason’s main campus but check out the 2017 schedule for the full line up (except where noted, events are free and open to the public – yes that means you! and yes, really free).

This is a reader’s wonderland. The headliners are:
Jennine Capó Crucet
Lev Grossman
Mohsin Hamid
Colson Whitehead

And yes, generally you can actually meet them after their presentation. And there are tons more of awesomesauce writers. The entire list is here and they cover all categories of writing. SOME of those are fiction, poetry, children’s books, non-fiction, story-telling, sports, graphic novels, publishing, history/biography, politics/current affairs, literary criticism, memoir/creative non-fiction, and MORE!

Right now you are probably thinking, holy moly, I should go to some of those events. Yes, yes you should! See you there!

And just so you don’t have to scroll all the way back up, here is the schedule again. 🙂 And if you are feeling generous, here is a link to donate to the festival.

College Essay Writing Tips Series

Since so many students are stressing about their college essays, I’ve decided to write a series of College Essay Writing Tips. The links to each post can be found below:College Essay Writing Tips - the full list

Tip # 1 Helpful Revision Techniques

Tip # 2 We Are All Beginners at Some Point

Tip # 3 The Writing Process

I will update this page as new posts are published.

Best of luck with your essay and keep writing!

College Essay Writing Tip #3 – the Writing Process

There aren’t too many people who would dare argue that writing isn’t (very) hard. Success in writing usually comes as much from persistence as it does from talent. Just like the Little Engine that Could, the writers who never give up are the ones who are the most successful.

Persistence can trump Talent, and often does

Persistence can trump Talent, and often does

The same is true for college essays. Because the task seems so daunting, it is easy to want to throw in the pencil. But those who stick with it, generally end up with an essay they are proud of.

Most writers – especially new writers – tackle all of the steps of the writing process at once. They try to brainstorm, draft, and revise all at the same time. How many times have you written a sentence and gone back and rewritten it several times in an early draft?  It’s hard to get out of the first paragraph when you do that. It’s hard to finish anything that way.

Breaking the process down into steps makes it far less overwhelming.

Consider tackling your essay in six stages. I know that sounds like a lot – but you have to remember this is an investment in your future. It’s worth the time you will be putting in.

Here are the steps:

Stage One
Brainstorm – what do you want to write about?

Stage Two
Start writing. Get the story down without correcting mistakes or rewriting anything. Write without interrupting the flow of your thoughts. If you must, you can underline words/sentences that you know you want to revisit. But no backspacing. No erasing. Just move forward and write like a Madman. (For more info on that, read this wonderful essay by Betty Flowers.)

In the writing session, don’t worry about cliches or repeating yourself. Don’t worry about the sequence of your story. Don’t worry about the “so what” of your story. Just Write.

Now let your essay sit for at least 24 hours without doing anything to it. Take a day off.

Stage Three – Read Your Essay Out Loud, then…
Look at the structure of your story. Think about your essay as if it were a fairy tale.

Does your essay include these important story elements:
Once Upon a Time – you are probably writing about some sort of change. So this part of the essay highlights how things were before the change happened so the reader can understand the impact of the change. (In Cinderella, this would be that Cinderella lived happily with her mother and father.)

Until – this is what happened that caused the change. (In Cinderella this would be her father married her wicked stepmother who wouldn’t let her do anything but clean. She wouldn’t even let Cinderella go to the ball.)

But then – this is a twist, usually an unexpected twist. You might have more than one of these. (In Cinderella, this would be Cinderella’s fairy godmother appears, Cinderella meets the prince but loses her slipper, the prince finds the slipper, and then the prince finds Cinderella.)

And Now – this is the final result. This is the “so what” of your essay. This is where the theme comes to life. The story is a set of plot points. The theme is why those plot points matter. (In Cinderella, this would be Cinderella marries the prince and no longer has to live with the stepmother.)

You’ll notice these are all plot points that lead to the “so what” that it’s better to be kind. Love wins. If you are a good person, goodness will ultimately find you. The “so what” is the reader’s take away from the story.

As you revisit the structure of your essay you can make small changes to other things along the way but don’t get distracted from the mission. Make sure your essay covers the Once Upon a Time, Until, But then, and the And Then. This makes it a complete story.

Because this is such a short piece, it will probably work best if you tell the story in chronological order.

Stage Four – Read Your Essay Out Loud, then…
Now look at each paragraph. Is each one necessary? Does each paragraph advance the story? Is each paragraph presenting new details rather than repeating information that has already been shared? Is each paragraph in its logical place in the story – does what happened first, come first?

Is each sentence doing the same things – advancing the story, not repeating details, coming in the right place in the story/paragraph?

Now look at the words – are you using strong verbs so that you don’t need as many adverbs? Is each word necessary? Don’t be afraid to cut out anything that is not absolutely necessary.

You will keep the reader’s interest when she wants to know what happens next. So make sure your story is moving forward. Each paragraph, each sentence, and each word should be working to do just that – advance the story.

Then finally, does the end of your essay make it clear what the “so what” of your story is? If you have done a good job with your plot, the “so what” should be clear. It emerges out of the story. You shouldn’t have to force it to be there.

Stage Five – Read Your Essay Out Loud, then…
Here you will get down to the nitty gritty. Make sure the sentence-level mechanics are working: grammar, complete sentences, correct punctuation, strong word choices, etc.

Stage Six
Ask someone you trust to read your essay. The first blog post in this series lists questions you should ask them when they are finished. Click here to read that post.

Good luck and happy writing!

P.S. For the full list of college essay writing tips, click here.

 

 

College Essay Writing Tip #2 – Remember We Are All Beginners at Some Point

pen and paperThis might be the most important tip that I will share with you because it speaks to confidence. Believing you can write a great essay is the very first step to writing a great essay. Measured confidence can take you pretty far because you won’t be afraid to fail. You’ll just dust yourself off and sharpen your pencil again.

The beauty of the college essay is that it remains hidden until you decide to release it into the world. If you hate what you’ve written, you don’t have to submit it. It’s that simple. So go for it!

You must remember that writing is like anything else. Baseball players don’t show up at The World Series final game without practicing (a ton). Pianist don’t show up at Carnegie Hall without practicing (a ton). Teachers don’t show up to the classroom – Doctors don’t show up for surgery – Magicians don’t show up to the stage – Preachers don’t show up to the pulpit without a ton of preparation.

When you sit down to write your essay, remember that you are very likely a beginner. This means that it might be challenging in ways you didn’t expect. Just keep writing and revising. You will get there!

Here is what Ira Glass has to say about being a beginner…

So trust your writerly instincts and get busy creating that first draft!

P.S. For the full list of college essay writing tips, click here.

College Essay Writing Tip #1 – Helpful Revision Techniques

For the next few blog posts, I’ll be writing about the dreaded college application essay. Most students not only dread it, but actually fear it.

That’s because a blank piece of paper is scary. college essay writing tips monster under the bed

No, really. It’s worse than monsters under the bed even. How do you transform nothing into the most amazing story ever (and in 500 words or less)?

Not everyone can afford to hire an essay tutor, so here are some things to think about.

Write two drafts before you show it to anyone. The first draft will never be your best work. Magical writing happens in revision.

Read your essay out loud. Trust me. This is an amazing (and very inexpensive) way to find inconsistencies, over-used words, and grammatical errors.

Have some one else read your essay. After they read it, ask them these questions:

  • Where in the essay did you stop or slow down reading?
  • Did you stop because you liked what you read and you wanted to read it again?
  • Or, did you stop because you were confused?
  • What do you remember most about my essay?
  • What did you like the least about my essay?
  • After reading this, what is one word you would use to describe me? (This will speak to the theme of your essay. Here you can see if what you were trying to get across is actually what the reader took away from your essay.)
  • Are there any questions that my essay made you wonder about but didn’t answer?
  • Did I fully address the question(s) in the prompt?

These questions will help you see the strengths and weaknesses in your essay. It’s important to remember that this is not a time to explain to the reader why things were or were not the way they seemed. It’s a time to reflect on what the reader’s take-away was and if that was your intention. Remember that you will not have the opportunity to “explain” any aspect of your essay to the review committee. It will have to stand on its own.

Then revise, revise, revise.

Happy Writing (and revising!)

P.S. For the full list of college essay writing tips, click here.

 

The hero’s journey spelled out…

heroineThere are only some many stories in the world. I think the most popular count is 7. Two of those are leaving home and coming home–the hero’s journey.

It’s obvious what the hero’s journey is as an overall story idea where the main character goes on a quest or possibly runs away from a quest. But somewhere (and I cannot remember where, sorry smart person who said it first) I heard it spelled out. Lightbulb Moment.

Here’s breakdown–you can think of it as a map for the hero’s journey:

  • Main character gets called to journey (if you like the fairy tale model of storytelling, this is where Once Upon a Time is no longer the way it is. Something has changed and the hero must find it/decide to fix it/etc.)
  • The MC goes through trials
  • The MC faces her teachers
  • The MC faces the battle
  • The MC loses her fear (and lives happily ever after – or not)

This makes me think of almost every Disney animated movie but especially Kung Fu Panda.

Happy Writing!

The Art of the Story Writing Workshop with Tom Jenks in San Francisco…..

I have not attended this workshop yet – but I will soon because I just got accepted yesterday. Yea! It promises to be amazing! Check it out…

One of my very sweet, and possibly delusional friends, mentioned that if I ever get famous enough for Mr. Jenks to admit  claim he’s worked with me, my name would appear below Kurt Vonnegut. That would not be awful! 😉

The Art of the Story with TOM JENKS

The class will meet every day for four days, with a morning workshop and an afternoon seminar focused on craft. For the seminar, there will be reading assignments and study of works by well-known writers. Each participant will have one manuscript workshopped in class and a second manuscript reviewed for an individual conference with Tom. We will study storytelling and the formal elements of fiction, including voice, point of view, characterization, imagery, plot, and theme. Attention will also be given to scene building, sentence making, and the dramatic movement of descriptive writing.

Enrollment is limited to twelve participants. (Acceptance into the class will be based on evaluation of a submitted manuscript.)

Class Dates:
San Francisco           January 15—18, 2015
San Francisco           January 29—February 1, 2015
San Francisco           February 26—March 1, 2015

Application deadline:

November 15, 2014

To apply or to receive more information:

  • Please send an email to Workshops.
  • The classes often fill quickly, well before the application deadlines, so if you’re interested in a class, we encourage you to contact us promptly.

WRITERS EDITED AND PUBLISHED BY TOM JENKS INCLUDE:

Rick Bass
Richard Bausch
Ann Beattie
T. Coraghessen Boyle
Janet Burroway
Robert Olen Butler
Michael Chabon
Frank Conroy
Don DeLillo
E. L. Doctorow
Andre Dubus
Stuart Dybek
Jennifer Egan
Gail Godwin
Donald Hall
Ron Hansen
Charles Johnson
Min Jin Lee
Bernard Malamud
Anthony Marra
Peter Matthiessen
Jill McCorkle
Arthur Miller
Susan Minot
Lorrie Moore
Alice Munro
Maud Newton
Joyce Carol Oates
Jayne Anne Phillips
Annie Proulx
Kirstin Valdez Quade
Philip Roth
James Salter
Scott Spencer
Robert Stone
John Updike
Kurt Vonnegut
John Edgar Wideman
Tom Wolfe
Tobias Wolff
Richard Yates
Alexi Zentner

If you enjoyed this post, you can read about other workshops here.

Why readings are important…

Over the past few posts, I’ve been chronicling my experiences at various writers conferences and workshops. You can check out the entire lineup here.

Many workshops offer the chance for participants to read their work aloud to a sympathetic and engaged group of readers. They will even clap loudly for you at the end, no matter how eloquently (or not) you were able to share your words.

I first realized that doing a reading was a possibility for me at the Yale Writers’ Conference a year and a half ago. Our workshop leader made the announcement as if she were adding broccoli to the lunch menu, “Oh, and by the way, you’ll all have a chance to do a reading. I suggest you try it. It’ll be good for you.”

That caught me completely off-guard. As you might have read here, insecurity ushered in my application for the Yale workshop. I mean, it’s Yale, right. And, as if submitting my novice work to be read and critiqued by others wasn’t brave enough, I was being encouraged to read it aloud. Where was that little tidbit in the application materials?

Honestly, the only reason I did it was so that, one day, when someone asks me if I have ever done a reading, I can answer, “Why yes actually, my first-ever reading was at Yale.” Hopefully, I won’t have to clarify, “Yes, the one in New Haven.”

So here’s what I learned about readings.

  • Readings are not in my wheelhouse. When I read in front of others, I sound like a hoarse frog that’s fallen off its very comfortable lily pad smack into very cold, murky water. Which is super weird because I’m quite comfortable speaking off the cuff in front of people.
  • Readings are an amazing experience. Ultimately, you’ll be glad you did it. Pinky swear.
  • Practice a few million times before you actually stand up to read.
  • Attend the readings of the other writers in the group and support them the way they supported you–clapping when they are done, not pointing out they sounded like a cold/wet frog, etc.
  • Respect the time limit. You will look like a disrespectful amateur if you don’t.
  • You must respect the time limit. (Nope, that’s not a typo. I meant to write it twice. 😉 It’s really important.)
  • Stop at a point that leaves the audience wanting to know more. This is especially true if you are selling books afterward.
  • Remember to breathe. If fact, if these were truly in order, time limit would be number one and this would be number two. Take breaths. Frequently.
  • Be familiar enough with your work that you can look up at the audience every now and then. It will make everyone more engaged. (If you’re like me, it might also make you more nervous when you look up and remember there are for real people in the audience. Just remember to breathe.)
  • And have someone take your picture.

Since Yale, I have read three other times. Once more at Yale, once at the Kenyon Review Workshop, and once at the One Story Workshop. I know. I know. I’m practically a frog professional.

Here is Yale. The first time.

2013_June_11_yale writers workshop_ellenweeren_99And the second time at Yale.

Yale Writers Conf 2014-Jun 09, 2014-10I much prefer the podium.

And here is One Story…see how I am getting more comfortable? Practice makes comfort.

one story workshop-224At One Story, I read a very personal piece–a poem about a friend’s suicide. Even though I wrote it about 3 years ago, I had not read it aloud before. This is a really important thing to consider. I knew this audience provided a safe, accepting place for me to read this very private poem and I wanted to share it. But, I broke down and cried half-way through. Someone in the audience reminded me to breathe and my fellow writers were extremely supportive, waiting for me to catch my breath. I wiped my eyes, sucked in a deep breath, and made it through the piece. But it was hard. Brave and hard. I have wondered if I should have read something else. I’ll never know if it was the right choice. I do know that everyone was gracious after and I hope maybe my words touched someone in the audience. A few people cried right along with me. I will forever be grateful for that.

So, if you get a chance to do a reading, do it! And if you participate in a writing group, consider making reading aloud part of the meeting. Each writer can just read a few pages–it doesn’t have to be the whole piece. Words have a different echo when they are thrown out to grab oxygen than when they are simply lying flat on the page. Reading them aloud will make you a better writer. Pinky swear!

It’s also important to attend readings of authors you admire. It’s a chance to thank them for the many hours they spend toiling away on a story that has touched you. And it’s often a chance to meet them and get them to sign your book. Squee! It really is important to become a part of the larger writing universe. We can’t spend all of our time at our lily pads in our own little corner of the pond. Reading and attending readings is a great way to accomplish that.

Yale Writers’ Conference (part 2)…..

If you were here yesterday, you’ve already seen Part I. But if not, you can click here to read it first.

Yesterday was about the speakers and the workshops, but today is about the other stuff–the friends you will make and the fun you will have.

I’ve met some amazing writers through Yale and I’m thrilled to say that many of them have also become friends. They inspire me, encourage me, and make me laugh.

2013_June_18_yale writers workshop_ellenweeren_748 2013_June_12_yale writers workshop_ellenweeren_159 Yale Writers Conf 2014-Jun 15, 2014-15Yale Writers Conf 2014-Jun 09, 2014-36I don’t have pictures of everyone I keep in contact with but these are my girls! They are talented, kind, and super fun to be around. In fact, making writer friends is probably the biggest benefit I can see in attending writers conferences. I’d say I make at least one new friend at every writer event I go to. No one in my house really cares too much about reading or writing (I know, I have failed them all miserably), so having friends who share the same passion is amazing.

I mentioned yesterday that dinner is not included in the tuition for the Yale conference. That gives you a chance to get out and explore New Haven. There are tons of restaurants–Chinese, Indian, Burger Joints, Pubs, Mexican. Here are some of my favorite places:

Tomatillo – think Chipotle but better. It’s super casual and not too expensive. No alcohol is served there.

2013_June_09_yale writers workshop_ellenweeren_22 2013_June_09_yale writers workshop_ellenweeren_23And then there is Oaxaca Mexican Restaurant. They have yummy guacamole and the margaritas aren’t so bad either.

2013_June_15_yale writers workshop_ellenweeren_572 2013_June_15_yale writers workshop_ellenweeren_571 2013_June_15_yale writers workshop_ellenweeren_570 2013_June_15_yale writers workshop_ellenweeren_569Then there is the Indian Vegetarian Restaurant Thali Too. Their dahl is dahlish!

2013_June_15_yale writers workshop_ellenweeren_315The Atticus Bookstore has yummy tomato soup and great salads and sandwiches.

2013_June_15_yale writers workshop_ellenweeren_420One of the places I enjoyed most was Mory’s. It’s a private club but they invite the writers from the conference to come anytime during their time in New Haven. The side patio is lovely.

2013_June_15_yale writers workshop_ellenweeren_321 2013_June_12_yale writers workshop_ellenweeren_160 2013_June_12_yale writers workshop_ellenweeren_157Ordinary has the most fabulous grilled cheese sandwich, but be patient, you might have to wait a while for it. 😉 I also loved the beet salad at the Heirloom Restaurant in The Study Hotel.

For the world’s most famous hamburger, go here. There is very little room to sit down, so plan on “to go”. Just fyi, they don’t offer many condiment options. Well, you can have ketchup, onions, or I think tomato. But nothing else. Think Soup Natzi. And learn from my mistake–do not, I repeat, do not ask for mayo. And, dear God, whatever you do, do not ask for french fries. It’s chips or nothing. Personally, I don’t get it. The meat was rawish and the burger is served on bread rather than a proper bun.  But, like, I said, the line was out the door.

Yale Writers Conf 2014-Jun 10, 2014-2 Yale Writers Conf 2014-Jun 10, 2014-4

Yale holds their conference in June. Both years that I attended New Haven was also hosting the Arts and Ideas festival at the same time. Bonus!2013_June_15_yale writers workshop_ellenweeren_240New Haven is full of amazing libraries and museums. You could easily spend ten days just sightseeing. There is the Peabody Museum of Natural History.

 The Sterling Memorial Library:

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The Bass Library:2013_June_09_yale writers workshop_ellenweeren_3

Yale University Art Gallery: 2013_June_15_yale writers workshop_ellenweeren_337 2013_June_15_yale writers workshop_ellenweeren_361 2013_June_15_yale writers workshop_ellenweeren_389 2013_June_15_yale writers workshop_ellenweeren_396

The Center for British Art:2013_June_15_yale writers workshop_ellenweeren_421

2013_June_15_yale writers workshop_ellenweeren_447 2013_June_15_yale writers workshop_ellenweeren_458

The Beinecke Rare Book Library where you can see the Gutenberg Bible:

 

2013_June_15_yale writers workshop_ellenweeren_493 2013_June_15_yale writers workshop_ellenweeren_494 2013_June_15_yale writers workshop_ellenweeren_498 2013_June_15_yale writers workshop_ellenweeren_499 2013_June_15_yale writers workshop_ellenweeren_500 Some of the other fun things you will see around town:

Skull and Bones.

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It is an “ivy” league school after all. 2013_June_09_yale writers workshop_ellenweeren_8 2013_June_09_yale writers workshop_ellenweeren_9

Yummy kettle corn2013_June_09_yale writers workshop_ellenweeren_12 2013_June_09_yale writers workshop_ellenweeren_24 2013_June_09_yale writers workshop_ellenweeren_29 2013_June_10_yale writers workshop_ellenweeren_55 2013_June_10_yale writers workshop_ellenweeren_56 2013_June_10_yale writers workshop_ellenweeren_57 2013_June_10_yale writers workshop_ellenweeren_60

Some people say rubbing his foot will bring you good luck. Other people say that rubbing his foot will make you look like a dork. 2013_June_12_yale writers workshop_ellenweeren_129 2013_June_15_yale writers workshop_ellenweeren_224 2013_June_15_yale writers workshop_ellenweeren_235 2013_June_15_yale writers workshop_ellenweeren_237 2013_June_15_yale writers workshop_ellenweeren_242 2013_June_15_yale writers workshop_ellenweeren_246 2013_June_15_yale writers workshop_ellenweeren_257 2013_June_15_yale writers workshop_ellenweeren_291 2013_June_15_yale writers workshop_ellenweeren_293 2013_June_15_yale writers workshop_ellenweeren_317 2013_June_15_yale writers workshop_ellenweeren_326So, why are you still here? Log off and go get your submission ready! 😉