My college application essay probably sucked. I cringe at what teenage Britt included on one sheet of dot matrix. No doubt I dragged my gymnastic and typing accomplishments into an argument for personal betterment. (And what prestigious university isn’t recruiting self absorbed, inter-office-memo-drafting cart-wheelers?) No doubt the essay was very serious and heroically boring. But at the blue eye-shadowed age of 17, nothing had happened yet. Anything worth recounting in five sassy paragraphs was far off in my mammogrammed future amongst Asians, so I probably typed the usual drivel that drives admissions staff to an early and generous pour of single malt. Recently, a lovely and accomplished high school senior asked me to take a crack at her college essay. And because it wasn’t me who needed to impress some faraway grownup with a red pen, I transformed into a charming, competitive-swimming diabetic fluent in French. Je suis tres amusant avec une pompe de insulin sous ma lingerie! It was super fun.
Sometimes this is how the best writing happens: ignore any assumptions about the audience, and write for the sheer joy of it. Jenny Polk, an old friend with thousands of Twitter followers, wrote to me, “I would never have the guts to say f**k in my posts!” Presumably, that’s because her mother-in-law is a follower. I think potty mouth has all but lost its shock value, and the f-bomb sometimes provides the perfect staccato for an angry sentence. I wouldn’t recommend incorporating it into the Harvard essay, but for a silly blog, no one cares a fig. And as soon as I start worrying about how my own mother-in-law is going to react to scatological word choices, any written missives about moon cakes (vile) or Chinese food preparation (arduous) or energy work (hilarious but effective) will suffer for authenticity. And after two years posting sassy paragraphs peppered with baser adjectives and exclamations, I’ve received nary a complaint… but quite a few editing gigs.
I’ve been doing rewrites for family and friends, scientists and students for a quarter century. Even though I’m certain my own admissions essay was met with groaning, future literary endeavors (inspired by the inimitable Professor Kuyk) landed me a paid job in the college Writing Center. Training to become a Writing Associate involved one semester at a roundtable with other faculty-endorsed “writers” writing about writing. This was before anyone used the word “meta.” Professor Beverly Wall was an enthusiast for something called “desktop publishing” and encouraged us to “post” our papers on a school-sponsored “intranet.” In effect, we were all contributing to a classroom blog, although that word hadn’t been invented yet, either. In the early ‘90s, we found this tedious: we wanted to discuss our work, not type criticisms with a blinking cursor. Also, there was no “like” button.
It’s impossible to imagine a gaggle of college kids loath to type opinions onto a shared server, since this form of communication now eclipses all others. But those were ancient times when writers feared more than welcomed an audience with the ability to disparage your five paragraphs with one calamitous (or anonymous) comment. Modern writers are cursed and blessed with ubiquitous readers. Everyone loves to be “liked,” but your most and least favorite Facebook status updaters are testimony to the influence of audience on the tone and quality of a sentence. As I wondered if an adolescence of misspelled texting and like-clicking critique is ruining the written word, I read that Tufts University is now accepting video submissions in place of the compulsory essay… and that article used the word “interestingly,” so you be the judge.
A handful of my old Writing Center relationships have endured and their work still gives me goose bumps: Nancy’s guffaw-inducing comedic rhythm and word choice, Julia’s pretty handwriting reflecting her outer beauty and inner complexity, Tony’s brilliantly fashioned lefty opinions devoid of lawyer-speak, and Ran’s latest series of stories that will make you hmmm and ahhh and hate him a bit for being so fucking eloquent. I still swoon for a beautiful sentence; but now I blog, email, instant message, and craft silly statuses, because that is the stage for contemporary writing. I also edit college essays to stifle the sort of schlock I wrote before I had the chutzpah to make an admissions officer giggle… before I had a voice… before I stopped writing to please an audience instead of marinating in the sheer delight of having one.