Some words of wisdom:
“We writers translate the experiences we have been given. Our task is to translate with as much empathy and integrity as we can to be true to each experience. We translate life into the narrative that we create.”
~ Terry Tempest Williams
This is what you need to do. This is it. This is everything.
After I made you feel two inches tall this morning, I continued to think about why and how your essays could have missed the mark so much. It’s not that you didn’t write sentences or paragraphs that mostly offered a coherent experience or commentary on something, it’s just that–apart from a few exceptions– there was nothing really there, under the words, that you were communicating. The so what was tragically missing. There was nothing really at stake in the writing. It maybe mattered to you, but it would never–could never–matter to anyone else. You didn’t let it.
Last night, well into the wee hours of the morning, I was reading overly sentimental accounts of such and such, empty, cliche statements about all kinds of things, positions that reflected obviously limited and selfish perspectives, and essays that were just not essays at all. They were stories, some of them. Stories about this one time when or this person who, without any real connection to anyone or anything outside yourself. In re-reading your mission statements I’m realizing that you did not or could not see beyond the scope of your idea for a way to say something important–to translate your experience–to craft the narrative of that experience in a way that another human–any other human–could relate. This was the whole assignment, though: Take that starter and expand it. Develop it. Re-envision it. Make it into something more than it is now. Didn’t do that? That means you failed. That doesn’t mean you are a failure, though. Just the piece itself. I’ve written failures. Everyone has. I once wrote this terrible “analysis” of the symbolism of light and “whiteness”–whatever that means– in Moby Dick a book you know (if you’ve been paying attention) I despise. It deserved an F. I would give it an F. Incidentally, it didn’t ruin my life. I went on to write perfectly acceptable things and even the occasional amazing thing. Mostly I couldn’t write well about it because I didn’t care about it.
What I’ve realized, I think, is that you either lack the significant experiences, or lack the skills to render them, or lack the interest in doing so. Two of those things exasperate me because I have been trying to equip you with the skills and spark the interest since before September. I cannot give you the experience though. I cannot give you perspective and that is the last and final ingredient in any compelling essay. I also cannot, though I may try, make you care. Skills come with practice, experience and perspective only come with time, but the interest in doing so? That comes only from you. Now and forever. That interest must be beyond anything tangible and extrinsic. If that is not there, your writing really cannot be better than meh. Audiences know when you don’t care. They can smell it from afar. Not interested in broadening your perspective to include anything beyond your own experience? Not interested in considering how this thing you wanted to write about connects to everyone in some way? Audiences know it and it slaughters your ethos, and your point–whatever it might have been–is now moot. But I also can’t make you less self-absorbed. You’re teenagers, that’s what you’re good at. Even you nice ones.
You know that I like you. You know that I geek out about good writing. You know that I want you to be successful in your written endeavors–and all the others ones, too. But you also need to know that sometimes you make me sad. And that’s really it–sad. I so want you to get it. I want you to see that you have something to say and I want you to learn how to say it and then I want you to do that. That’s why I teach this subject and not another that would free up my nights and weekends. I also want you to know that sometimes you will work super hard on something (note: hard work is something you have yet to understand completely) and that will still not be enough, but that doesn’t make it nothing.
Want to know the secret to writing? The key to our final exam and the AP exam in May? Fall in love with language. That’s it. Re-read the first passage on the practice test from this morning. It’s brilliant. Figure out why it’s so brilliant and the answers will LEAP OUT AT YOU LIKE THIS.