Monday, December 12, 2011

Everything I Know About Writing I Relearned From My Son’s College Essay

My oldest son, Andrew, is a high school senior and has just finished the college application process.  As his utterly biased mother I need to tell you he’s wonderful, brilliant, gorgeous and a great athlete.  (There is corroborating evidence to support the athletic claims, but feel free to take the rest with the appropriate box of salt.) The one thing Andrew isn’t, however, is an enthusiastic writer.
            But, no problem, right?  After all, while it’s basically de rigeur, at least amongst his friends, to hire an ACT tutor, a college coach and/or someone who specializes in helping the kids polish their essays to the point where even the admissions people at the Ivys feel inadequate, Andrew was in a unique position.  First off, he is a diver and was being recruited by a number of schools, so a spot in the 2012-2013 freshman class was his to lose.  To make sure that didn’t happen, he also had me, his mother the writer, to consult on that concise, honest, coherent, reflective of himself as an individual, factually accurate, vivid, likable, controversial if possible, smart, cautiously humorous (per the online how-to articles) all-important essay.
While Andrew focused on the crucial pieces of the puzzle—having an awesome time being flown around the country hanging out with various dive teams and filling in his parents names and occupations on the college app from wherever it was he’d spent the weekend on the plane ride home, I took on the job of worrying about how he was going to write that damn essay. 
With 6 questions to choose from like Evaluate a significant experience, achievement, risk you have taken or ethical dilemma you have faced and its impact on you there was plenty to worry about.  More troubling was Andrew’s totally relaxed attitude about the whole thing.  Despite my incessant pestering about when he was going to settle on a topic and insistence this was going to take hundreds of drafts to get right, his proverbial page remained blank.  One sleepless night, I thought out a deeply heartwarming, wryly humorous essay (in his voice, of course) about our 2006 trip to China to adopt his sister.  I could barely wait until morning to bestow my sure-to-wow-them-in-admissions essay topic on my son.
“‘K,” he said, by way of thanks.  “But, I’m not like all deep and spiritual the way you make it sound and I wouldn’t write it that way anyway.”
“Just write it,” I said.
“No worries, Mom,” he said.

The November First Early Action deadline loomed larger and larger and I didn’t see so much as a balled up piece of paper in his trashcan.  I’d like to say I didn’t scream, shout, panic, threaten and foretell of a grim future where my son, a promising student athlete who could have been someone had he just penned one lousy touching essay about holding his beautiful adopted sister in his arms for the first time, was looking forward to a career that involved the phrase, “would you like to supersize that?”
One night, October 29th to be exact, Andrew came into my office.  “I’m ready to write my essay,” he said.
“Okay,” I said, managing somehow not to add, it’s about damn time and start ranting and raving from there. 
“And it’s not going to be about Eliza’s adoption.”
“Okay,” I said again.  (And yes, through gritted teeth).
             “I’m going to write about what it feels like to stand on the high board, about to do a dive I know I’m going to fail.”
“Well,” I said, trying not to sigh. “I guess that fits into essay prompt #6 – Topic of Your Choice.” 
            He nodded.
Time being of the essence, I opened a word file and said, “Sit down, close your eyes and I guess we’ll see what comes out.”
            He began to speak (with the help of a little professional editing on the part of yours truly.)
 I am on the diving board standing backwards, three meters above the water. Ideally, I will jump, do two-and-a-half flips in the pike position, kick open and dive into the water.
            The chances I will actually succeed are about one in thirty-eight.
Like Spidey sense, my Writey sense began to tingle.
             I’ve never done this dive before and I don’t feel ready.  My preparations on the low board have been decent, not great.  I feel like I’m not jumping high enough and I am flipping slow.
             I’m going to do it anyway.
            He was definitely writing, or in this case speaking, what he knew.  
            After all, Wenbo Chen, the former Chinese Olympic coach and my coach for this week of dive camp, is watching.  So is 2008 Olympic Silver Medalist Kelci Bryant.  The other divers at camp and that halfway-cute girl named Carly are watching too.
            So, I stand, nearly naked, but for the Speedo I will never totally get used to wearing, almost ten feet above the water.
Take the reader somewhere they probably haven’t been before.  Check.
            There are cheers, but I’m not listening.  My eyes register the black strip at the base of the board and the white ceiling of the natatorium, but I’m not looking.  I hear the slosh of water below me, but I can’t see it.
            Wenbo counts, “One, two, three.  Go!”
            I start my approach.  I oscillate the board three times to prepare for the big jump that is the actual dive. 
            I press and I know I should stop.
            Instead, I chuck it.
Show don’t tell.  Check.
           Everything is a blur.  I’m flipping slowly, slower than I’ve ever flipped before.  I am in a little ball.  I have no idea where I am, but I know it’s not the right place. When I think I should kick out of the dive, I kick out and I see the ceiling where my feet should be.  I locate my feet and realize they are pointed horizontally, not vertically.  In that instant, I know with absolute clarity I will hit the water perfectly parallel, flat on my back.  Hard.  What I don’t know is when.
            I smack.
           Every story has been told.  It’s all in the telling.  Check.
           A shock rips through my body.  I can’t move or breathe for three seconds of forever.  I curl into the pain, open up and paddle to the surface.  Finally, I catch a shallow breath, swim to the side, put my head on the rail and listen to the applause from the other divers who always clap hardest when you eat it hardcore.
           Wenbo appears beside me, reaches out his hand and helps me out of the pool. “You did everything wrong,” he says.
           I sneeze away the chlorine in my nose and shake away the pain.
            “Try it again.”
           I don’t want to try it again, but I want this dive.  I tell myself the reward is worth the temporary pain.  I tell myself that practice and perseverance will allow me to accomplish what I set out to achieve.  I want to get the dive.  I want to compete dive 205B.
           I nod, dry my legs with my shammy and climb back up the ladder.

            Nothing like being schooled about the essence of storytelling by your seventeen year old reluctant writer…           


Robin Allen said...

Wonderful story, Linda! Andrew sounds like a great kid. Love the phrase "three seconds of forever."

Lois Winston said...

Ditto what Robin said, Linda. So, did he make the dive the second time?

Unknown said...

Terrific stories, yours and Andrew's! He did everything you said, and even took me back to my own days of pain and glory - another journey for a reader to savor. Thanks, Linda! Indiana should be proud to have Andrew.

Shannon Baker said...

So many lessons in this story. Feel the pain, do it anyway could describe most of my writing sessions.

Darrell James said...

Nice post, Linda. Best wishes to you and Andrew!

Kenn in Colorado said...

Nice job, both you and your son.

Vicki said...

Wow! What an amazing story and what an amazing way to tell it. Any admissions office (and coach) would be thrilled. Well done, Andrew.

Linda Hull said...

Thanks for the comments! And Lois--yes, he got the dive, but apparently it took a lot more than two tries.

J.A. Kazimer said...

What a great kid. And what a great mom.

Keith Raffel said...

And did you get permission from him to post his essay? If so, wow. If not, duck.

Linda Hull said...

Yes Keith, permission was granted. He's pretty chill about that kind of stuff, probably because he's full of chlorine most of the time.

Deborah Sharp said...

Love the essay ... I'd stamp APPROVED on Andrew's entry, for sure! Also love your line: ''Like Spidey sense, my Writey sense began to tingle.''

Vicki Doudera said...

Linda, I've had this same experience with my reluctant writer-kids... several slices of humble pie, right?

Terri Bischoff said...

I have to chime in, Andrew is indeed all that and a bag of chips. Intelligent, handsome, athletic, personable... you name it. A great kid. Still bummed he didn't pick Minnesota. :) You are such a great mom, Linda!