When I directed a high school writing lab, my favorite part of the job was working with students on their college application essays. It was challenging at first, teaching them to answer the prompts while showing their best selves in their own best words. But after I learned to ask the right questions and to show students how break the essay into its parts and then piece those parts together again, pushing students toward a better draft was exhilarating.
I’m not working with students right now, but I know that at this time of year, application due dates are piling one on top of the next, even as early acceptance letters are also starting to trickle out, and I’ve heard several mentions of college essays in recent weeks. These references reminded me of a post I wrote a couple of years ago, inspired by a student who came to me for help with her personal statement. So for all of us putting pen to paper right now, whether we’re drafting admissions essays, the next great American novel, or a confession of love, when we’re struggling for words, maybe it’s good to remember that our wrestling can bring with it more than we ever at first imagine.
The subject line in an emailed draft of a paper on Pride and Prejudice I received earlier this year read, “Sorry so late, not my best work.”
Naturally, in my response I often send to students to let them know I’ve received their emails, I wrote, “Got it. Sounds promising.”
Because, you know.
With my responsibilities this year coordinating the writing lab at our school, I’ve spent a good deal of my time working with seniors on their college application essays. Some of the topics colleges want students to expound on can be pretty bizarre, like “To tweet or not to tweet,” “How do you feel about Wednesdays?” and “You have 150 words. Take a risk.”
Often, however, the most challenging essay is the personal statement. Students struggle with how to define themselves, and often resort to writing their resume in paragraph format rather than focusing on something about themselves not included on other parts of the application. They don’t know how to make themselves stand out, or how to tell about an experience that encapsulates who they are. In their defense, it’s often because they’ve never tried to do it.
Last fall, one particular student came to me for help with her personal statement. She was bright, articulate, and beautiful, so at this point in life, the world was her oyster. But as I sat reading her well-written draft, I kept thinking, “Almost everything is fine about this. Technically, it only needs minor alterations. So what’s bothering me about it?”
As we began to discuss it, I realized what it was.
Her essay was fine; it was everything you’d expect it to be. She had all the things going for her that you’d want to have going for you, and she wrote with intelligence and clarity.
But it was off.
Not because it was bad, because it wasn’t. It was good.
It was off because of her. It was off because she is better than her essay. She is, simply put, better than her first draft.
Of writing, Hemingway reportedly said, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”
I won’t even tell you what he said about first drafts.
But the truth is that there’s a reason for the bleeding. Because, after all the hemorrhaging ends, when we wipe away the mess, sometimes, there’s something there that stuns even ourselves.
Something in our final drafts stuns us, but not because a hundred drafts have culminated in something better than or brighter than us.
It stuns us because it is us.
We just never knew it, until we put to words and wrestled words and cursed words and erased words and stared at the space where words once were until we told ourselves we’d never write words again, that these final drafts are us.
So, we could settle for our first drafts, and it might be just fine. But imagine never getting a chance to see our final ones.
This draft to be continued…