College Essay as Sculpture

Sculptors of clay and wax seem to have a hundred tools to use during the process of creating a piece. I’d like to be clear that I don’t know much of anything about sculpting, but I find invaluable parallels to writing anytime I study the creative process of any artist. In a couple of wanderings around the web, I learned that many sculptors make their own tools to match the task they want to achieve or the effect they’d like to make. The tool that fascinates me the most is called the wire-end modeling tool, about the size of a pen with a wire loop on each end. My fascination comes mostly from watching it in action. The sculptor pulls the wire loop along the surface of the work and the clay comes off in ribbons. The loops vary in size and shape according to the detail the artist wants to achieve. The larger loops help make the piece look like it could be something identifiable, and the smaller ones attend to the fine details needed to finish the work. I’m oversimplifying for the sake of my comparison to writing. Many artists who work in clay do much of the work with their hands. I imagine there are purists who won’t even use a tool on a project.

For the college application essayist, really any essayist…really any writer…the same principle applies, but the medium changes from clay to words. The difference is that the sculptor begins with material they don’t have a hand in creating. It’s clay. If they need more clay they get more of this thing called clay. The writer must find the words, although now that I’m thinking about it, the writer takes these things called words–things that were already created for them–and put them down on the page. I guess I’m thinking that if the sculptor works exclusively in clay, the choices a sculptor has to make before beginning to shape the piece are fewer in number than the choices a writer has to make. There are way more things called “words” than things called “clay.”

The clay for the essayist, for the purpose of my comparison, is the rough draft. It is difficult to convince young people that the essay they have come to know through their academic experience is, indeed, a piece of art because art takes time and practice and a patient process. To be fair, students don’t have the luxury of treating these assignments as art when they have seven or eight classes in a day, homework, extra-curricular activities, family. So when a student gets an assignment, one of the first questions they ask is “How long do you want it to be?” like I’ve commissioned the work from them.

Assigned word counts cripple creativity for young people, and Google Docs isn’t helping any. On your Google Doc, click TOOLS at the top. Choose WORD COUNT. Then check the box that reads DISPLAY WORD COUNT WHILE TYPING. The rectangular box that appears on the bottom left of the screen becomes the most important aspect of the screen for the young writer. If the college application essay on the common application cannot exceed 650 words, a young writer might either write until they reach 650 words and then pull back out of fear they won’t know what to cut because they can’t neglect to include all of what they wrote, or as they approach 650 words, they think about the danger of going past it and lose the groove of what they were writing.

Word counts are necessary, and students will encounter them their entire lives, especially if they want to be writers of any kind. But my advice to the young writer is to ignore word count at the start of the essay process. Do not click TOOLS at the top of the page during the early stages of the writing process (“process” is the 652nd word of this essay.)

One of the best texts I’ve read on the essay is Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative. The thesis of the book is rather straightforward: There are basically two main parts to the personal essay: 

  • The “situation,” or an event that happened that triggers a deeper realization about the self and

  • The “story,” which is the deeper realization of the self.

As an example, Gornick cites Augustine’s Confessions:

“Augustine’s Confessions remains something of a model for the memoirist. In it, Augustine tells the tale of his conversion to Christianity. That’s the situation. In this tale, he moves from an inchoate sense of being to a coherent sense of being, from an idling existence to a purposeful one, from a state of ignorance to one of truth. That’s the story” (13-14).

Most students default to the “situation” when responding to a journal prompt in writing or when they’re asked about their weekends at the start of class. Students love talking about what happened to them…their situations…So logically, when writing the first draft of a college app essay, a student will recall a situation that had a great impact on them.

The difficulty for the student essayist lies in telling the “story” that resulted–that continues to result–from that situation. I often tell students that when I studied for my MFA in Writing at age 32, I had a lot of difficulty making sense of what had happened to me in the past. Not that there’s anything traumatic about what happened, but that I didn’t think I had enough space to reflect on the events, the situations, that I experienced. If it was difficult for me in my thirties, imagine how daunting it is for a 17- or 18-year-old student, with the weight of college acceptance pressure on them, to make definitive sense of the short lives they’ve lived. 

But students tend to be magical that way. I can’t tell you how many times I’d provide my students a writing prompt, give them fifteen minutes to write something, and then sit in shock as three or four of them read something quite fantastic. I think students have worked so long in moving from one subject to the next during the day and producing the same intensity and output in each subject, that it’s become almost a reflex for them. 

But, again, the difficulty for the young writer is telling this “story” Gornick talks about in her text. The rough draft of the essay is mostly situation, and a student can write 650 words of situation quite easily.  A writer should blow past any word count and throw the entire situation on the page. I’m working with a great student right now who is over 1400-words-deep into his situation for the Common App essay. He’s trusting that this situation is indeed significant and that he will find a deeper story in it, that the situation, and the small details within the situation, might serve as an extended metaphor for personal growth.

That’s where the wire end modeling tool comes in. I ask students to find places they’ve seemed to repeat themselves (and they always do). Cut those words. What about parts of the situation that are really cool to recall but don’t really have much significance for this essay? Cut those, too. If a student loves the words so much, I tell them to cut them and then paste them in another document. Writers do this all the time as a coping mechanism so they don’t have to lose the words to oblivion…or they want to actually save the words for another project.

Another technique (or an additional one) is for the student to read over the situation and find places where they can insert themselves as the present tense thinker. The situation is in the past tense. The story is in the present. If a student reads over the 1400-word situation and can find four or five places they can insert themselves as someone who is contemplating the event in the present, they know that they need to keep those parts of the situation. A student should cut places that don’t serve their purpose in this way.

The further along the essayist gets in the process, the smaller the modeling tool loop is…the more narrowly the writer considers the essay. If in the beginning the essayist is deleting paragraphs of repetitive, irrelevant text, the end is about fine tuning, about cutting adjectives and weak verbs until the work is so sharp with detail that the essay is worthy of the plinth.

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