Mining for Idea

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Mining for Idea

Yesterday, I returned to my high school after seventeen years away. I was back to teach a writing workshop to seniors on the secrets of the college essay. Now, truth be told, these secrets aren’t secrets at all, but they bear the full weight of enigma to those not trained in the art of the personal essay. And more often than not, when the demands of the personal essay make themselves felt for the first time—usually around the age of seventeen, when students mistakenly believe that the essay prompt requires them to distill their “essence” into a palatable 500 words—the path has not been made easier for them by any practice in this kind of writing.

And so, faced with the impossibility of this imagined task, students hedge their bets, and opt for a seemingly safer route. Somehow—and the nature of this alternative route never ceases to baffle me—students collectively go in for the clichéd moral or the reductive life-lesson. So you end up reading a barrage of essays that meander around, and finally settle upon an unreflective and hackneyed claim, such as: “persistence always pays off;” or, “even though life is hard, you can survive anything;” or, “it’s not about winning or losing, but how you play the game.” Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Sometimes it IS about winning or losing. Sometimes, your continued survival is not guaranteed just because you overcame the adversity of your iPhone crash. And sometimes, things just don’t pan out no matter how persistent you have been. And what’s surprising is that when you push students on these points, most of them cop to the fact that, even as they wrote it, they didn’t completely believe in the absolutism or dogmatism of the claims they themselves had made.

I call this post “Mining for Idea,” because I think “idea” is the antidote to these Hallmark card versions of the college essay. (Not that there is anything wrong with a Hallmark card, but it does not belong in your application to school). So what is idea? How does it differ from the concept of a thesis statement…that vaunted component of an essay that teachers are always pushing you to identify? Let’s be schematic about this for a second. If a thesis statement (and I’m caricaturizing a bit here) is that clearly defined and delineated claim that you announce up front, the one that guides the rest of the essay, whose only job it is to support and “prove” the thesis to be true, an idea is just the opposite. There is no proving the idea, because it does not maintain that kind of hard and fast relationship to the Truth. It is often textured in shades of gray, not the high contrast of black and white. Rather than pretending to the status of a final and declarative statement, an idea functions more like a window onto a wider horizon. It taps into the nuances of things and even allows for contradiction when conflicting points cannot be reconciled.

So, how do you get to this mysterious thing called “idea”? Not surprisingly, in the case of the personal essay, you start with the personal. One place to begin is by answering a very simple question: What do I know? However limited your “real world” experience while you are still in high school, there are certain things that you know intimately and unabashedly. These are the things about which you are truly an expert. Maybe you’re a rock star ping pong player. Maybe you personally know the challenge of learning to drive a manual car while your father loses his cool in the passenger seat. Maybe you know what it’s like to be a non-native English speaker who suddenly discovers the prose of Hemingway. Of the essays we covered in class yesterday, one was about the hobby of stamp collecting and the other was about being a die-hard Red Sox fan growing up in the middle of Manhattan. But the reason these two sample essays worked was because they moved past the particulars of each specific activity to uncover much larger and more general observations about oneself or the world. For the first writer, stamps—with their miniature images and their commemorative designs—triggered the profundity of imagination and kept alive the traces of a bygone world. For the second author, the Red Sox were an occasion to contemplate the power of place, as well as the dangers of swearing too tight an allegiance to one group at the expense of others.

Ultimately, the real challenge of writing—and this goes for writing of all kinds, whether it’s college essays or blog posts or opinion pieces or feature stories—is to find some way to render the familiar strange. Only when you approach your subject as though it is worthy of investigation, when you treat it as though there is more to be discovered than whatever it reveals on the surface, only when you find something untapped and foreign in the things that are closest to you, do they give way to genuine insights about the world.

-Jacqueline Abrams

3 Comments On This Topic
  1. Sara posted
    October 13, 2012 at 11:55 am

    I wish that you were a resource when I was writing my college essay! Great advice! I especially love the part about finding a way to “render the familiar strange.”

    • Sarah posted
      October 15, 2012 at 12:36 pm

      This task was so daunting when I was applying for college- these kids are so lucky to have you to help guide them!

  2. Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson posted
    October 16, 2012 at 11:56 am

    I am missing those writing tutor days right about now. I think the points you make are so right on…for all fields of writing. When writing a grant, and thinking about how funders will be drawn to your particular project, it is that very thing you write about “rendering the familiar strange” that us grant writers strive for. Funders are always looking for programs that have outcomes (that have been in place and shown results/impacts on the community), yet they also want innovation. sometimes the two can be hard to reconcile. But that is the way to do it…”render the familiar strange”. Thanks for putting this so eloquently.

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