The Apprentice Years

If imitation plays a central role in the performing arts, where incessant practice, repetition, and rehearsal are essential, it is equally important in painting or composing or writing, for example. All young artists seek models in their apprentice years, models whose style, technical mastery, and innovations can teach them. Young painters may haunt the galleries of the Met or the Louvre; young composers may go to concerts or study scores. All art, in this sense, starts out as “derivative,” highly influenced by, if not a direct imitation or paraphrase of, the admired and emulated models.

—Oliver Sacks, from "The Creative Self" 

William Maxwell would agree. And so would William Zinsser.

The Essayist's Real Challenge

In supporting college applicants' thinking, imagining, and writing, we at Hillside are often demonstrating why concern about what an essay is "about" must not precede close interest in and examination of the raw material — close looking at the specific details of experience. Don't rush to meaning! A fresher, truer "aboutness" almost invariably results from patient recollection (indeed, re-collection) and consideration. 

And so when To Write a Great Essay, Think and Care Deeply, from The Atlantic's By Heart series, came to our attention, we applauded. In appreciation for the lessons he finds in J.R. Ackerly's My Dog Tulip, nonfiction writer Lucas Mann describes Ackerly as "leaning closer, looking so carefully" and notes that "it’s the closeness in his gaze, his dedication to looking, that transforms the subject." Mann reflects how we tend to "prioritize a weighty topic over the force of an author’s gaze, the clarity of her prose, the sincerity of her emotion." He goes on: "[I]t’s important for me to remind myself sometimes that, at its heart, that’s all a great essay is: a virtuoso performance of care." 

Frequently we talk at Hillside about how the interesting writer is the interested writer — how just isolating and describing the specifics of experience with careful attention (attention that is full of care) is not only an essential step in realizing an authentic meaning but an engaging act in itself. As Mann writes, "[S]pending one’s time fretting about aboutness is a deflection from the essayist’s real challenge: to think and feel as deeply and specifically as possible about whatever it is you’re looking at." 

Sound Sense

In pointing us to a "new sentence" from Annie Proulx, Sam Anderson at The New York Times Magazine writes:

Proulx is particularly good with how her sentences sound. She understands that words are not antiseptic little meaning-cubes to be stacked neatly into sturdy towers of logic. They are wild; they make noise. They force the humans reading them to slurp and click and hoot and pop and tap their tongues. Such sounds, combined carefully, can carry their own meaning.

Give Sam's piece a read, and then perhaps click on over to this 2013 Sentence x Sentence entry about the sounds playing meaningfully in another brief arrangement ... 

An Irresistible Quality in a College Applicant

... The problem is that in a deluge of promising candidates, many remarkable students become indistinguishable from one another, at least on paper. It is incredibly difficult to choose whom to admit. Yet in the chaos of SAT scores, extracurriculars and recommendations, one quality is always irresistible in a candidate: kindness.

Read "Check This Box if You're a Good Person," from The New York Times, written by Rebecca Sabky, a former admissions director at Dartmouth College.

Prompt News!

The Common Application has released the new — revised and expanded — essay-writing prompts (italics below indicate language that has been revised from last year's prompts): 

2017-2018 Common Application Essay Prompts

1. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story. [No change]

2. The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience? [Revised]

3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome? [Revised]

4. Describe a problem you've solved or a problem you'd like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma — anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution. [No change]

5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others. [Revised]

6. Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more? [New]

7. Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you've already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design. [New]

New Questions at Yale

Yale’s new application questions come at the tail end of a heated, year-long debate on campuses across the country about class and race. The fact that one of the questions focuses on applicants’ sense of “community” reflects the Ivy League school’s renewed interest in boosting diversity and inclusion.

The new questions also reveal more about Yale’s admissions priorities than ever before....

Read the full article: Yale’s new application questions give away the key things elite colleges want to see from students

News for University of California Applicants ...

After receiving a record-high 206,000 freshman and transfer applications this year, UC felt the prior two-question system “wasn’t providing the kind of insights we want,” said Stephen Handel, UC’s associate vice president for undergraduate admissions. “We just didn’t have enough information to make some very difficult decisions.”

In addition, he said, too many essays had become “fairly formulaic and generalized” and canned responses were available to copy from older friends or from online postings and websites....

“Essays are important,” he said. “We wouldn’t have gone through this much work without feeling that this is information we really need and really want. As important as GPA and test scores are, we want to know about the students and their lives, their challenges and their accomplishments.”

Read the whole story here.

Trying to Figure Out How They Did It

We all need models, whatever art or craft we're trying to learn. Bach needed a model; Picasso needed a model; they didn't spring full-blown as Bach and Picasso. This is especially true of writers. Writing is learned by imitation. I learned to write mainly by reading writers who were doing the kind of writing I wanted to do and by trying to figure out how they did it. S.J. Perelman told me that when he was starting out he could have been arrested for imitating Ring Lardner. Woody Allen could have been arrested for imitating S.J. Perelman....

Students often feel guilty about modeling their writing on someone else's writing. They think it's unethical — which is commendable. Or they're afraid they'll lose their own identity. The point, however, is that we eventually move beyond our models; we take what we need and then we shed those skins and become who we are supposed to become. But nobody will write well unless he gets into his ear and into his metabolism a sense of how the language works and what it can be made to do.

—William Zinsser, from Writing to Learn