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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.ย  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.

 

Yale Writers’ Conference (part 1)…..

When I decided that I actually am a “for-real” writer, I ordered The New Yorker because in order to be a “for-real” writer one must read The New Yorker. Right? R.I.G.H.T.

Flipping through the pages kind of felt like my 8-year-old-self wearing my mother’s high heeled shoes, mink stole, droopy pearl earrings, and possibly my grandmother’s satin opera gloves. But then I saw it–an ad for the Yale Writers’ Conference. I might have even giggled. It certainly sounded marvelous but I hesitated, thinking “Yale? Who are you kidding?”

Ultimately I thought, “Why not!”

I showed the ad to my husband. When he didn’t laugh, I took it as a sign that the universe was pushing my newly established writer-self out of the nest to test out my pencil wings.

So, I applied with the beginnings of my novel in progress “The Alligator Purse.” While I waited for a response, I reminded myself to breathe. And then I waited and waited, for what seemed like a really long time. Forever really. (That might have been a by-product of the watched in-box never boils syndrome. Maybe. Okay, probably.)

When the email came inviting me to attend, I was beside myself–proud, disbelieving, believing, and more than a little nervous. I mean, it’s Yale. What were they thinking letting me in but thank you Jesus, they let me in!

So if you have any of that self-doubt, erase it now. Right now. The Yale Writers’ Conference is so welcoming. They accept 140 people each year. So that’s 140 chances for them to say yes to you. And please know that you do not have to be an established rock star writer to attend. You do have to submit a quality writing sample that is polished and then re-polished. And then polished five more times. But, there is plenty of room for those who are early in their writing career. Please understand that this doesn’t mean there isn’t talent at the conference – there is and a lot of it! People who invest in their writing generally take honing their craft very seriously. (Remember I said to polish your submission! And then polish it again. And then one five more times.)

Terence Hawkins (with his trusted sidekick Victoria Rinkerman who is nothing short of amazing herself) is the man behind the magic that is the Yale Writers’ Conference. He is a writer himself and is eager to help all of us succeed.

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Here are a few things that are good to know:

The less expensive option is to stay in the dorms. The un-air conditioned dorms. When I was in college, I lived at home so I actually loved staying in the dorms. But they aren’t fancy and if you are used to your own bathroom and A/C, you should know that the dorms do not equal the Ritz Carlton. You should also know, however, that most people stay in the dorms and that it is fun to be there. (So it’s really a positive masquerading as a negative.)

The dorms are gorgeous (from the outside ๐Ÿ˜‰ ).

2013_June_15_yale writers workshop_ellenweeren_255And they really aren’t terrible on the inside…

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Session I is ten days. That’s a long time to be away from work and family (possibly another positive masquerading. I guess that depends on your job and family. ๐Ÿ˜‰ ). Session II is shorter if you really like your family and/or your job.

The rest is all up side.

Did I mention the conference is at Yale? Yes, “the” Yale that you’ve heard so much about. It’s magical to walk the streets of New Haven in the spring.

For ten days, you will talk and learn about writing with some very talented/committed/enthusiastic writers and instructors. You won’t wash any dishes or drive a car. If you pack enough clothes, you won’t have to do laundry. Someone will cook breakfast and lunch for you buffet-style. (Dinner is not included but New Haven has tons of fabulous places to eat.) You might not even watch tv. It’s heavenly. You’ll meet in large sessions to hear amazing guest speakers and you’ll meet in groups of ten to workshop each others writing. You’ll even get to attend one master class workshop with a guest speaker of your choosing (This is why it’s smart to apply early. The earlier you get accepted, the more choices you have.)

You will eat, sleep, and breathe writing for ten days. Ahhhhh.

In effort not to keep you reading this post for hours on end, I’m consolidating my experiences from two years into one post. (I’ve been to Yale for the past two years and the only reason I’m not applying this year is that my son is graduating from high school around the same time as the conference.) That means I won’t be able to tell you every fabulous thing about the conference, but here is some of what I learned…

From Richard Selzer (Mortal Lessons)

  • Don’t be timid: you can say in writing things you would never say aloud.
  • And don’t be afraid to tell lies: they give writing a vivid complexion.

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From Kevin Wilson (The Family Fang)

  • Writing is a muscle you have to exercise and you have to change up your routine to keep it all moving.
  • When building a story, instead of starting with a tree and adding ornaments to it, start with an ornament and build a tree to support it.
  • You might be the worst writer in the world, but if you write, at least you’ll have evidence to attest to that fact.

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From Deborah Treisman (Fiction Editor, The New Yorker)
She was asked “what makes a story stand out.” She answered that you just know it when you see it. She looks at the story’s ambition–what it’s trying to do–and figures out if it’s doing it.

2013_June_12_yale writers workshop_ellenweeren_135From Z. Z. Packer (Drinking Coffee Elsewhere)

  • Give the reader an image to start with. Then you can put that image into action: you can create symbolism with the image.
  • The readers want to see a journey with obstacles that add up to something. What the character wants will give them motivation–look at the “lack” behind that want. What will the want satisfy?
  • If you want to read a terrific article by Z. Z. Packer on writing short stories, click here.

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From Joe McGinniss (who sadly lost his battle with cancer this past year)

  • Especially in non-fiction, you are going to make people angry.
  • However, the worst thing is no reaction at all.

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From Tom Perotta (Nine Inches)
Get the story going before you give backstory.

2013_June_14_yale writers workshop_ellenweeren_209From Susan Orlean (Orchid Thief, Rin Tin Tin)

  • People can be made to care about things that seem ordinary.
  • Ultimately we end up writing to ourselves.

2013_June_18_yale writers workshop_ellenweeren_754From Sybil Baker (Into this World)

  • Short stories are almost always based on desire and characters are often responsible for their own problems.
  • Raise the stakes for your character on her original desire, rather than adding in new desires.
  • Dialogue is more interesting when characters are disagreeing or at least not agreeing.

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From Chuck Klosterman (I Wear the Black Hat)

  • You want the reader to be engaged with the text, themselves, and the world.
  • The first chapter makes an assertion that gets carried through the book. It’s important for the reader to get to know who she’s going to spend the next 250 pages with.

Yale Writers Conf 2014-Jun 10, 2014-12From Rob Spillman (Tin House)

  • When he reads a submission, he wants to forget he’s an editor and remember that he’s a reader.
  • The writer should establish authority in the first 300 words. Writers can do that through language, forward momentum in the story, stakes for the characters, and story questions.

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From Colum McCann (TransAtlantic)

  • Write what you want to know. You do not have to write what you already know.
  • There’s no true distinction between fiction or non-fiction: it’s all story-telling.
  • Beginnings are hard because they can go in so many directions, but the ending should be the one thing that has to happen.
  • Life is deeper than Google: you might have to go to the library.
  • It’s all shit, until it isn’t.

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From Clarence Page (Chicago Tribune, McLaughlin Group)

  • Be courageous and be persistent.
  • Some stories will work: some won’t. So what.
  • There is someone out there waiting for your story.

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From Rick Moody (The Four Fingers of Death: A Novel)

  • Rethink abstraction: it’s better to be fully grounded in things and scenes and people.
  • Use all five senses–remember smell is most closely linked to memory.
  • Read all of your work out loud, to someone else and your mistakes will be more obvious.

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Okay, I don’t know about you but I’m tired. So, I’ll be back later with more. (You can read Part 2 here.) Come back soon for Yale Part II. And you missed the other workshops I’ve written about, you can read those

Tin House Winter Workshop

Woodbridge Writers Retreat