#ThrowbackThursday — My College Application Essays (and Reflections on Outgrowing Yourself)

My mother’s gmail account was giving her trouble yesterday, telling her she’s reached her storage quota (which is absurd, because we both have 15 GB of storage and I apparently have 500,000 emails and she has about 25,000, and yet I’ve only used up 50% of my storage quota, but whatever, GOOGLE *shakes fist*) so we went back to her oldest emails and set about the Massive Deletion of 2015 (soon to be a major motion picture), and stumbled across my college application essays from 2008, which I had her forward to me before she deleted them.

I’d been in Israel for the year at the time, so I was sending drafts of the essays across the world to my parents for approval, and for desperate advice on what to cut, because for one of them, I’d written an 800-word colossus for a 500-word max. I never did get it down to 500 words, but fortunately the text box on the application site measured in characters, not words, and I slaughtered those characters like I was George R. R. Martin and got it under the limit. Phew.

I don’t have that character-limited final draft; it wasn’t in the emails we found, and my AOL account from those days has long since sealed me out. But what you have here is the original first draft in all its 800-word glory, with a couple of content revisions borrowed from a second draft. I don’t remember what the topic was, but think generic “what struggles have you overcome and what heartwarming lessons have you learned etc.”

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There’s a lot to write about writing. Most of it’s already been written; in fact, there’s a whole bookshelf full of books about writing books in the Barnes & Noble store ten minutes from my house [Edit from the future: that store no longer exists 😦 ]. Characters, literary theory, viewpoint, plot, setting, novels, short stories, plays, screenplays, read-aloud, Braille — you name it, they’ve got a book on how to do it. Probably more than one. I like to sit in the aisle facing that bookcase when I’m writing, but I’ve never taken a book off the shelf. Why?

Writing is personal. At its best, it is an extension of self; at its most penetrating, it is life experience, given a manifest, accessible form. That can be taught far more effectively through the writing process itself than from a book, no matter how well written or instructive. Writing is personal, and it’s the best teacher I’ve ever had.

Lesson #1: “Nothing good comes easy.” Sure, you might catch a few breaks along the way; nobody said it was impossible. Your brother may come home with a flyer from school that advertises a Young Adult Writers Colony for the summer of 2005, guaranteeing publication of any novel completed during the group-centered eight-week program. You may frantically rewrite the first fifteen pages of the novel you started in fifth grade, and then luck out when the program’s organizers like what they see. You may even receive a dizzying stroke of good fortune when illness nearly disqualifies you from the Colony and instead of being sent away, you are set up to work one-on-one with a terrifically insightful volunteer editor, who guides you all the way to the finish. All you have to do then is wait, and the novel is eventually published in an anthology in 2007. Sounds like a piece of cake, no? A published novelist at age seventeen? Where’s the difficulty in that?

Ah, but there’s that other lesson, the one best phrased by the playwright Lillian Hellman: “Nothing you write, if you hope to be any good, will ever come out as you first hoped.” All through the years that I was writing in elementary school, all the feedback I got came from my best friends who read as I wrote and always loved every bit of it. My own personal crew of yes-men. Encouraging, yes. Helpful? Not so much. But help came with the program. “I’m thinking ‘plausibility’ here,” my editor, Chris, would often gently say when I proposed an outlandish explanation my friends would have lapped up. He taught me to troubleshoot the issues with the manuscript stemming from a fifth grader’s mindset, and together we ironed out the kinks until the published version could legitimately be called “moderately implausible” instead of “implausibly implausible.”

But that was only the beginning.

Last lesson learned, and learned the hard way: “Life’s not fair.” Neither is publishing. Being published doesn’t mean you’ll be read. Being finished does not mean you’re done. Having “nothing wrong” with a novel is not good enough. It’s just not. After seeing how hard it was to persuade people other than my closest friends to buy an entire anthology just to read my book, I set about trying to land a literary agent who would market my novel individually. I sent query letters to various agents and awaited their replies. This process is inherently unfair: a query letter is essentially your whole novel condensed into one paragraph, and yet that one paragraph should still somehow be indicative of your writing style. If you want to catch an agent’s eye, a completely different skill set from novel-writing is needed, in addition to a lot of luck. Rejections came pouring in — my total may presently be as high as fifty — but a handful of agents were intrigued. This sparked the most intense stage of revision I have yet encountered: six months of scrapping entire sections and rewriting them from scratch, prioritizing, sacrificing, and compromising. There’s a lot of a neat stuff in that old draft, and at least two really good jokes that I know I’ll never get back, but the narrative itself was strengthened and the characters enhanced. However, in the end, the agent whose detailed suggestions had prompted this major overhaul apologetically passed on the project. That hurt. So I suspended agent-hunting for a couple of months, then started anew. Signs from the latest interested agent are good, but there are no guarantees.

My writing has taught me that life should be labeled: “WARNING! Frustration and failure come standard.” I know I have a good book; a professional agent spent six months of her time and free editorial advice on it. The finished product simply wasn’t right for her contacts in the industry at the time. That’s the way it goes. The publishing world contains only a miniscule sample of the outside forces steering the tide in the real world, so I know I’m in for many more disappointments as I grow up. But as long as I stay flexible and don’t expect everything to always be fair and easy, I have the confidence to handle any challenge that comes my way. Bring it on.

* * *

This second essay is a hilarious load of garbage, and I’m not just saying that in hindsight — I knew it was garbage at the time that I wrote it. But it wasn’t entirely my fault, because the topic was garbage: “Imagine yourself graduating from our program, four years from now. How have you grown, what have you gained, etc.”

When I was venting to a friend that I honestly have no idea where I’ll be in 4 years so how could I possibly write this stupid essay, she replied, “I don’t know how to say this, but — don’t be afraid to lie?” Hence the beautiful bs you are about to read.
* * *

To paraphrase Douglas Adams: The world is a mind-bogglingly huge place. It is big and chaotic and, worst of all, there is so much in it. So much to experience, so much to learn, so much culture to absorb, news to track, people to meet, plays to see, books to read, books to write…I remember how I couldn’t wait to get in the thick of it. Fresh from my year in Israel, my identity solidifying by the day, I arrived at Macaulay Honors College ready for anything, and I was not disappointed.

I’ve always known that the best, most insightful writers draw on experience, not simply imagination or cold knowledge. The latter two help, but the deeper the well of experience, the greater and more nuanced the writing becomes. No matter how imaginative or well-read I was as an 18-year-old, there is only so much experience a Queens-dwelling, yeshiva-attending, orthodox rabbi’s daughter can have, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing–not all experiences are good ones–but it is limiting.

After four years in a program that exposes me to numerous cultural elements and a widely varied student body, I have been able to broaden my scope, re-awaken forgotten interests, and most vitally, grasp new aspects of topics ranging from theater to archaeology to civil rights. Every piece contributes to my understanding of the world and my strength as a writer, not to mention my growth as a human being.

All I knew for certain upon my arrival was that I wanted to major in Creative Writing. What I would do with it, whether it could be a viable career–I had hopes, but much remained to be seen. Now, four years later, I have complete confidence that I can do whatever I want with my writing, thanks largely to the mind-boggling hugeness of the world, or more specifically, of New York City and the unparalleled access granted to me by the Honors program.

* * *

LOL at that conclusion. Talk about telling colleges what they want to hear regardless of actual factual facts.

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Looking back, I know I represented myself as someone who wanted to write for a living, because that sounds good, it sounds focused. It sounds much better than, “eh, who the hell knows.”

I don’t remember if at the time I was still genuinely interested in making a career out of writing, or if I just wanted to get this one novel republished and see what happened. I know I was still writing the sequels at the time and had hopes of finishing the series. But I also knew that a lot of what I’d written was awful and would need to be completely overhauled, and I didn’t really want to do that. I didn’t really care THAT much. But I couldn’t actually say that to anyone, because that’s shocking and scandalous makes you sound like a lazy bum who can’t finish what she starts.

People seem to have a tough time understanding why you would do so much of something and then decide you don’t want to do it anymore. But this has now happened to me enough times for me to know that no, doing something a lot is EXACTLY what you need in order to evaluate whether you want to keep doing it. To be able to say, “I know exactly what this entails, and I can do it, but I don’t like it enough, I don’t want it enough, and I don’t believe in it enough to keep subjecting myself to that.”

It’s true of friendships, of careers, of relationships, of hobbies. You aren’t bound forever by what you once wanted. You’re allowed to outgrow it. You’re allowed to let go.

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I’d like to take this opportunity to remind you, wonderful reader, that my GoFundMe campaign is still open — http://www.gofundme.com/sm-automotive. The proceeds no longer go toward automotive school tuition, because I have paid off my loan in full, but you can still commission me to write anything you want. You can force me to watch ANYTHING and review it for you. Anything. Real-Housewives-of-Atlanta-kind-of-anything. Hit me with your best shot.

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