These quick, one-time-only exercises can teach us about ourselves and what we want—and how we can tell our story. The bonus? You might just end up with a book...
By Leigh Newman
What to write: Try to summarize your life in two or three sentences. Take your time. Think about your past. "But mostly think about who you are today and how you got that way," says Roberta Temes, PhD, psychologist and author of How to Write a Memoir in 30 Days. "Maybe you want to focus on a certain relationship, maybe a certain theme...or maybe a feeling that has persisted for years."
Consider these examples before putting pen to paper:
Loving mom who worked all the time, no dad. Never really got over lonely childhood.
Love my life, love my dog, love my kids. No room for a guy.
Finally sober. Exhausting journey. Many regrets.
Beautiful, close family. And then the accident.
Fears and phobias finally overcome, thanks to husband. Still not sure if I deserve him.
Why it helps: First off, if you want to write a memoir, this three-sentence description will form the structure of your book. In effect, it's a supershort story of your life—a beginning, a middle and the now, if you will. Even if you have zero impulse to write another word, however, the exercise can show you how you view yourself, your past and your present, all of which can inform your future. Unless, of course, you change the narrative—a privilege granted to any writer.
What to write: Choose one or more of the sentences below and write a page or two that begins with that particular sentence. Don't worry about bringing up material that you are afraid might be too painful to explore, says Temes. "Please don't bother with grammar or spelling or punctuation issues. "Just write for yourself and for your clarity of mind."
Sentence 1: I was just a kid, but...
Sentence 2: I tried my best and...
Sentence 3: In that moment everything changed.
Sentence 4: It was shocking to find out that...
Sentence 5: It was the proudest day of my life. I couldn't stop smiling when...
Why it helps: Sometimes we avoid the most obvious—and complicated—events that have happened to us, events that inform our whole life story. Let's say your three-sentence exercise was Loving mom who worked all the time, no dad. Never really got over lonely childhood. Maybe you could try, "I was just a kid but..." or "I tried my best but..." Was there something else that happened that prevented you from getting over your lonely childhood? Did it happen when you were a child—or later? Did it involve parents? You don't have to know the answers to these questions. Let the pre-written prompts guide you. "Don't think and write," says Temes. "Just write."
What to write: Take a minute to think about the previous two exercises. Then, please finish this sentence; I'd like to really understand everything that led me to _______________.
Here are some examples (it's okay to add an additional sentence or two):
I'd like to really understand everything that led me to marry Blake. He was so wrong for me and I don't want to make another mistake.
I'd like to really understand everything that led me to choose architecture as my life's work. Did it have to do with the way we lived when I was growing up?
I'd like to really understand everything that led me to become such a good mom, considering I had no role model.
I'd like to really understand everything that led me to never get along with my step-mother. Now that she's gone I realize what a good person she was and how she tried to have a relationship with me.
Why it helps: There's no need to do the actual examination and investigation now. Instead, just focus on identifying what it is you might delve into someday—in a memoir or in the pages of a journal or just in your mind. What truth is important for you to get at? You have a structure (your three sentences), you have a crucial event (that may have caused or contributed to that life story) and now you have a purpose—a reason for writing that will let you learn, enjoy and even be surprised by the story you've been waiting to tell yourself and—maybe, just maybe, the world, as well.
Roberta Temes, PhD, is the author of How to Write a Memoir in 30 Days, which includes other exercises like these.
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Tell my story? Fine, but how?
The common advice to "tell your story" has probably been around as long as the admission essay itself. But since when have high school students been afforded the time and feedback to practice telling their stories? And how are you supposed to approach this advice? What parts of your story are you supposed to share in your college essay, how, and why?
When I left teaching high school English a little more than two years ago, the curriculum even then was too packed with everyday academic concerns and standardized testing preparation to invite seniors to practice personal narrative with the same level of structured feedback that they received for academic writing. I have heard from high school teachers that this condition has only intensified since the rollout of the Common Core.
The five-paragraph essays and thesis statements they are accustomed to writing for class do students little good in personal writing, including on their college applications. These are inventions designed for American students to practice national conventions of argumentation—despite the fact that expectations for academic writing change from high school to college. Yet they are what high school students have to work with when put on the spot in their college applications.
In a way the college admission game is a standardized assessment, but it differs in that students are suddenly supposed to write not academically but personally. Given this lack of training in personal writing and the stresses of college admission, it’s important that students find a structured yet creative way to tell their own stories when dealing with low word counts.
So here are a few tips to keep in mind:
- Only you, the student, can determine what is worth writing about. While family may have suggestions, it’s ultimately your story to tell and how.
- In personal writing, there is no need to justify why you are writing about one thing or another. This is the academic habit of proving a thesis. When it seeps into personal writing, it limits the creative potential of the personal essay.
- Choose one or two narrative moments and tell them in the moment. These moments are representative of your story.
- It’s important to accept that any story you attempt to tell will necessarily be incomplete. Avoid the temptation of recounting your memory “exactly” as you remember it. Rather, remember that you are being assessed on the quality of your personal essay, not the quality of your memory. So use the memory as a starting point for the essay, but make sure you end up with a narrative that stands solidly and creatively on its own.
- Try free writing without a prompt and without worrying about the word count—at least at first. A narrative will likely suit at least two of your college’s prompts.
The college personal statement is a strange beast. To my knowledge, college applicants are the only personal essayists who have to write about themselves because someone else expects them to and because big stakes are riding on it. From the birth of the personal essay—typically traced to Michel de Montaigne in the 16th century—the tradition of the genre is self-exploration and discovery, the personal somehow tied to universally human concerns, driven by the curiosity to know more about both. Yet this American rite of passage has given rise to a peculiar kind of de facto national literature.
In short, despite students’ ever-intensifying pressures, schedules, and responsibilities, I hope that by engaging with the genre of the personal essay, students can write for themselves with this sense of curiosity—first, for themselves.
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