Writing to be liked

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.


12 responses

  1. That same French-speaking diabetic swimmer asked me to look at her college essay this summer. Despite being a lifelong member of the writing persuasion, I have to admit that I wasn’t able – as you were – to enter the land of creative joy. I did make some observations and suggestions, but never sat down to take the tidbits of her great story and try to weave them into college-worthy oratory. I never had to write such an essay to get into college (when I went, the gates of knowledge were flung wide open to an Air Force veteran with full G.I. Bill benefits and a C+ high school GPA). So, to be honest, I wanted to see the rubric. What are they looking for – the honest words of a 17-year-old girl in 250 words or less or a hand-crafted version from a cranky old former newspaper editor? I am ashamed to say that I still have the draft she printed out for me on my bedroom dresser. I would love to see what you did with it, Britt. I love the way you dance with words. I laughed out loud (not “LOL” – but really laughed) when you mentioned desktop publishing. In 1982, I went to a convention, with thousands of other people,to learn about a program called Ventura Publisher. In L.A., no less. The software cost a thousand bucks and it was at the cutting edge of whatever cutting edge means nowadays. Now, you can do the same stuff on your i-whatever. I digress… Ok, you have inspired me to take another look at our young friend’s essay. Now if I could just do cart wheels.

    • Jim! I would love to read how you tackle the essay of a 17 year old girl… and see those cart wheels. You are a doll to read and join the navel grazing conversation about writing… xoxo

  2. I continue to learn in so many areas and deeply appreciate the advent of the computer. I realized this all over again when hand-writing letters to my first wife Eleanor’s friends announcing her death. The time before that was when I did consulting for a German company and had to picture each recipient and how my English would seem to them.

    Live life out loud!

  3. Britt – Isn’t it telling that so many of the people from our Writing Associate class are still writing, and indeed still writing about writing? To wit: Your writing is so effective because it so fully expresses you, the person whose wit and charm I have enjoyed since we were writing one minute poems about lollipops as sophomores at Trinity. As I have an occasion to read a number of college entrance essays these days, I find that I am most impressed by students whose essays do just that: use words to convey the essence of who they are and how they view the world. Your friend was in good hands, and I would be lucky to review essays from the likes of your mentees.

    • Thanks, friend. I would happily tweak college essays all day. Remember how we used to scoff at the five paragraph essay format? Now I compose those for FUN. Love and miss you.

  4. As another one of those lucky Writing Associates around that table, you have inspired me so! I have an ancient blog just sitting there waiting to house my musings, which I laughingly created when my second baby was 3 weeks old and sleeping all the time. “This is EASY!” I fooled myself. “Everyone was RIGHT! The second one IS a breeze!!” But then she woke up, and I have been chasing her ever since.

    But she starts Kindergarten next year. There’s hope. Thanks for being my beacon.

  5. I’ve got one rule that I let guide my potentially controversial writings: If I hesitate to write something, for fear that it might piss some people off, then I have to write it. Full stop. Gotta write for yourself, I reckon. Otherwise the narks win, man.

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