Monday, July 13, 2009

Another Point About College Essays

College admissions essays do NOT have to reveal some sordid past, some tragedy survived, or some monumental obstacle overcome. If you can show the depth of your character in an example or two from your daily life, AND show your introspective abilities in your analysis of the example(s), you will thereby show admissions folks that you have the maturity to step outside yourself and grow--something they can't teach you in college, but something that will absolutely enable your best learning in college. Even everyday experiences such as struggling in your first job, or feeling awkward in a social setting, can provide the basis for a fine essay IF you show that you learned from the experience you now share with your reader. Prove yourself a learner by showing concrete examples of meaningful (but not necessarily dramatic) life experiences, no matter how mundane they sound to you.

Writing College Essays

Show, don't tell. That's it, that's all. Same advice for every genre of writing, folks. When you show readers what you want them to perceive, and allow them to make their own conclusions or labels, based on the evidence you provide, then you give credence to your readers' intelligence and challenge them to think as they read your words. If you spoon-feed readers with "telling" sentences like "I learned to take initiative during my first job, and I earned the respect of my fellow employees," you dictate what they should believe about you, but never truly make them believe it. "Telling" words not only leave no memorable images in their minds, but also leave readers wondering whether you can even prove your assertions with vivid examples.

When you write an essay for school, you must back up assertions (topic sentences, theses) with details or evidence before adding your commentary. Without those details, you cannot prove your points. Likewise, if you write about your character traits in your college essay, but don't back up your claims, you won't leave any impression except a dubious one. And you won't get yourself admitted to college.

Memorable details are the key to college admission and to writing words that people want to read. Show, don't tell. That's it. That's all.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Psychic Teacher?

One of my Monday class students arrived earlier than his classmates, so we sat down at my teaching table together, and I asked, "So...What's new?" He paused, and I quickly added facetiously, "And don't say 'babies' or 'butterflies about to hatch'!"

His already big, brown eyes widened and he grinned, speechless. I thought he was trying to understand my joke, but then he blurted, "Oh my gosh! I was about to tell you that my teacher just had a baby and we did a butterfly project in school today!"

"Are you teasing me?" I asked, laughing.

"No, Mrs. Lipson!" He joined me in laughter.

"Haha, maybe I'm a psychic teacher! I predict that you'll write something wonderful today!"

We exchanged smiles as the other students arrived. I still don't know what possessed me to answer him that way before he could even answer me!

Thursday, March 12, 2009

An Exercise in Specific Word Choices and Empathetic Perception

In The Geography of Girlhood, a poetry novel by Kirsten Smith, a poem called "How My Father Sees Us" inspired me with the idea for a writing prompt that would use the opening words of each of Smith's four stanzas as an organizational tool to create an original work. After reading Smith's poem aloud, and discussing the word choices and structure, I presented to my students the following prompt: Write a poem, or a poetic piece of prose, titled "How My ____ Sees Me [or Us]," structuring the stanzas or paragraphs based on these opening lines from the stanzas of Smith's poem (but changing the pronouns--and making verb forms agree, of course--as needed):

To him, we are... (This could change to "To them, I am," or "To her, we are," or "To her, I am.")

Because of us, he's...

He tells us he hopes that...

We will be...

I explained that the exercise aimed to challenge their use of vivid images and details, as well as their empathetic ability to see themselves through others' eyes. Kirsten Smith's vivid details of the sisters identified as "we" and "us" in her poem, include "piles of lingerie," "dented fenders," "a trail of CDs," and "a chip in the paint." We discussed how such objects reveal a lot about a character, and I asked them to choose their own details based on their power to paint a persona. Not only were the resulting details from my students vivid, but their pieces were remarkably poignant.

Some examples of vivid details I recall from the notes I took during class:

"To her...I am never around to help, always working on 'less important things.'"
"To him, we are a pile of stinky gym shirts left on a bench."
"Because of me, she's always running out to the store to get more food because I 'never stop eating.'"
"She's given me a life full of lessons that will be appreciated later...even though I may not even give her credit today."
"To her, I am an excuse for her not to have to talk at the table."
"To her, I am a shopping spree and a 2-hour phone conversation with a friend."
"To her, I am a reason to be nervous."

I even wrote my own poetic response to the prompt while the kids were writing theirs. I've posted it on my other blog: The title is "How My Kids See Me." Perhaps I should write "How My Students See Me"? I can already think of one detail: "Because of her, our words end up posted anonymously on a blog." I think they should all start their own blogs, and post their works in their entirety, like my student Erin does; check out her blog at (Congrats to Erin, by the way, for winning a distinguished California Teachers of English award!)

Friday, February 27, 2009

About Similes

Similes in literature are like chocolate chips in cookie batter: too few make for bland, unsatisfying snacks; too many make you nauseated after a few bites; the wrong kind—bittersweet—can ruin the overall flavor and make you instantly trash the whole batch; and the perfect handful makes you devour every crumb!

One more cooking tip: mix similes with metaphors (as in the recipe directions above), for additional richness. And be sure to remove any half-baked cookies before serving.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

My Roundtable Critique--as a STUDENT, Not a Teacher

At the annual Society of Children's Book Writers & Illustrators New York Conference last weekend, I participated in two round-table critique sessions, not as the moderator--my usual role--but as a student participant. Like the other 8 writers at my table, I prepared a 500-word sample from a current work-in-progress, distributed copies to everyone at the table, and then read my sample aloud to be critiqued by my table mates. I didn't feel nervous at all...I thought.

Until the person beside me was reading, and I knew I was next.

I felt stunned by my racing heart, and by the questions ricocheting in my head: "Should I read the pages in an Irish accent?"; "Should I read in my normal voice?"; "Should I ask someone else to read my words aloud?"; and "Should I read THIS opener to this group, or the one from my YA novel instead?" I reprimanded myself inwardly for my anxiety; after all, I, a published author and experienced public speaker, shouldn't be as nervous as one of the kids who enters my workshop for the first time! Absurd!

Once I got started--reading in an Irish accent, by the way--I felt my anxiety ebb away with each laugh my words elicited. I was liking this now... Hearing the laughter out loud, in the expected places, sounded like an enriching soundtrack to my earnest author ears. It's one thing to hear and see evidence of readers' engagement with your words when you read aloud an already published work; it's quite another thing to hear enthusiasm for a work that has yet to see print. I realize that I never "workshopped" my previous books, and I will never NOT "workshop" my manuscripts again, because the feedback gained can actually speed up the submission-to-publication process by taking some of the guesswork out of the revision process. Plus, in my case, with the reading of my newest humorous novel for ages 10 and up, the critique session made me feel as if I had around me the beginnings of a fan base--especially when two fellow writers told me they'd love to buy the book someday, based on what they read.

Relating this experience to the workshops I lead for young writers, I must note that some students hesitate at first to share their works aloud, probably because the only "communication" that has occurred in their writing process before coming to my workshops is usually between themselves and their school teachers. But these kids get hooked on feedback once they hear their first round of applause and hear comments and questions that specifically address the word choices they made, often painstakingly, and the thoughts that they transcribed.

As I like to explain to my students: when we write, we connect the DVD players in our brains to the DVD players in our readers' brains via the electricity of vivid words, thus transferring memorable word pictures.

My experience "on the other side" has made me an even more enthusiastic advocate for the workshop method as the only meaningful way to teach writing.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Making a Stand with an Essay

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote: "To be is to stand for." Well, to write is to stand for, too.

The other day, one of my tutorial students presented me with an essay full of what I call "DUH lines"--statements of obvious, unenlightening facts, without any new perspective. I asked, "But what do YOU think about the story? Where is YOUR interpretation? That's the only reason I want to read your essay. I already read the story myself; I don't need a simple summary. Teach me something new, or at least make me argue with you!"

"But this is a Response-to-Literature Essay, not a Personal Narrative Essay or an Editorial, so I don't think I'm supposed to write my opinion...."

"Think again!" I interjected. "Remember what I told you about how a thesis must be arguable--not a DUH line? Well, you have to prove your argument with the rest of the sentences. Each one builds upon the one before it, to convince the reader of your perspective. I can understand the story just by reading it. But I can't understand YOUR perspective on the story unless you share it with me. Again, the only reason I want to read your essay is to find out what YOU think about the story."

I could see a light bulb popping on over my student's head. And then opinions, in the form of commentary, flowed like electricity. Essays should turn on readers, not turn them off!