Category Archives: writing

Tears And College Applications

“I shouldn’t cry.”

(Why not?)

“I’m sorry.”

(You’re not doing anything wrong.)

“You can leave the room if you want.”

(Why in the world would I want to do that?)

For several years, I’ve coached high school seniors on writing their college application essays. Every student is different, and my job is to help them bring out their unique voices. The tools of my trade are simple: Laptop, pen, paper. But one tool is deceptively complex: I always provide, prominently displayed, a large box of tissues.

Many students cry, and tears are often an important part of their writing process. Their tears make sense. They’re stepping forward, trying out a new level of autonomy, facing a strange world. It’s scary, filled with potential, brimming with emotion. Most are surprised to find themselves crying, and they’re mortified. They apologize (“I’m sorry”). They’re embarrassed (“I shouldn’t cry.”) They assume I’m uncomfortable and offer me an escape hatch (“You can leave the room if you want.”). But I assure them that if there are tears, there’s also heart. And if there’s heart, there’s a wonderful, moving essay waiting to be tapped.

Crying takes different forms for different people. Sometimes my students become choked up, or their eyes fill with tears — a fleeting moment, and then composure. Sometimes they need to take a break, racked with sobs. Sometimes they write as they cry. Most important, I always encourage them not to fight the tears. Instead, I guide them to follow their own tears to their deepest internal source, and then bring that source back to the surface, into the words that will shape their essays. If they’re fighting their own tears, they’re fighting their own selves.

Not all students cry; their source grows from a different part of their emotional core. But for those who cry, the source of their tears invariably leads to an essay of authenticity and character. Their tears are valuable, an unerring guide. Their essays sing, chant, speak, whisper, shout.

The process of writing is often an experience of tremendous personal growth. In our initial meeting, students usually arrive stressed and overwhelmed; in our final meeting, they’re completely surprised by the empowerment they own. They grow before my eyes, simultaneously fawn-like and mature. I’m so honored to be a part of each journey.

It moves me to tears.

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For Writers

I’ve found the perfect career.

Since I began my second career as a novelist, I’ve felt a magnetic pull, drawing me into the process of writing. Words to sentences to paragraphs, I built a blog and completed two novels. I discovered the vulnerability, fear, validation, triumph of publishing. The positive reviews were exhilarating, but even the negative reviews felt oddly affirming, a necessary part of the experience. I figured my credentials were in order, and I was officially an author.

But apparently, I’m officially retired.

Since I began writing, countless folks have opened conversations, variations on the same theme:

“I want to be a writer.”

Amy: “I love writing.”

“Yeah, it’s the perfect career.”

Amy: unable to contain her smile, discovering a kindred spirit.

“I mean, I have a real job, but some day I want to retire and write.”

Amy: radiant smile growing dimmer.

“Being a writer is perfect. You sit in a comfortable chair.”

Sometimes, the tone is matter-of-fact. More often, the words are laced with underlying condescension, as though my taking my writing seriously is a joke. Setting aside my annoyance, it’s a fascinating cultural commentary. With so many professing to be “avid readers,” I wonder how these folks think books are made — apparently by people parked on soft cushions, doing nothing.

When I hear these comments, I try to understand their perspective. A good book reads with a rhythm and flow that sweeps the reader into a current. If reading feels effortless, then I suppose it’s a logical conclusion that writing is effortless as well.

But it’s not.

It’s hard to argue the point without sounding bitter or whiny. In fact, I feel neither. Mainly, I feel curious about the gap between the common perception of writing, and the actual experience. I know how much thought I put into my work. I know I lie awake at night, puzzling over one word. I know how many hours go into each manuscript. Any good work is the result of hard-core effort. Yes, I love writing and yes, I feel grateful for the opportunity to write. I’m happy in my work but yes, it is actual work. Maybe it’s in the job description, and I missed the fine print: being an ongoing joke is a part of a writer’s career trajectory.

So I’m signing off, returning to my perfect career. I’m holding my laptop, seated in my favorite chair, diving into a process I can’t defend. An invisible window opens within, and a force deeper than consciousness begins to stir. I wait, trusting the tendrils that I can feel as they reach toward the surface. I concentrate as thoughts clarify themselves, begin to take form. The shape evolves into a structure with a pulse, an extension of my own heartbeat. I wander through a vast field of language, choosing sounds, dissonance, cadence.

After six minutes or six hours, I stretch and take a short break. Then I sit back down and do it again, and again, and again.

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