Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Myths and Misconceptions of the College Essay: Writing to Reveal Part 5

Myth #4: A personal story should be easy to tell.

Sociological studies show that 90% of daily conversations are couched in narrative language. All of us, in other words, are natural story tellers. We are most comfortable with a rhetorical framework that includes plot, theme, rising action, character, protagonist versus antagonist, climax, and denouement. It's the lingua franca of coffee houses and salons.

The romantic fallacy then we so easily succumb to is believing that a personal essay should involve a spontaneous narrative burst. That's how it works, for example, over a cup of coffee at Starbucks. That's how the romantics - Wordsworth, Keats, Coleridge - did it. That's what the existentialist, like Kierkegaard, called the phenomenon of "authenticity".

The truth is though that to write a truly lucid personal sketch will require immense perspiration. Making the shift, in other words, from person-to-person (aka. Starbucks) to paper-to-person (aka. Common Application) is hard work. In fact the paradox here is that capturing an epiphany - an instant flash of revelation - almost always involves a long, arduous process. There is draft after draft. Rewrite after rewrite. Rewording after rewording. And just when you think you've got it - now lop off another 10-15%.

In the end, a good story is one where the reader doesn't have to sweat. It should be easy for the audience to take the journey and discover the truth. But the journey for the writer is always an uphill battle against an antagonism of forces.