PART ONE: The Image is Ground Zero
Recently, after learning of the delight I take in exploring the evolution of a good sentence, a friend sent me Jason Zinoman's New York Times article "A Stand-Up Joke is Born." Zinoman introduces comedian Myq Kaplan and his work over a period of two months on a particular joke about chivalry, which began at the testing site of a comedy club in Midtown Manhattan and ended up as one of a carefully structured series of jokes that he delivered to a national audience on "Conan." Zinoman's piece is wonderfully entertaining and insightful. Given the topic, I wasn't surprised to be laughing at Kaplan’s punch lines, but I didn't expect to see so many parallels between the way Kaplan works on a joke and the process I've developed to coach high school students in the writing of effective and memorable college-application essays. It makes some sense, though, to pair the joke and the application essay: each aims to provoke a strong, positive reaction from an audience of attentive, inevitably judging strangers.
Zinoman opens his article with Kaplan onstage at the Broadway Comedy Club, trying out twenty minutes' worth of new material. His chivalry joke promptly becomes one of his favorites, and a work-in-progress. Standing on another stage just an hour later, he revises it — adding, as Zinoman writes, “a crisper point of view.”
But the joke, of course, wasn’t born on this night, or in public. First, there was the off-stage, private humor that Kaplan found in a particular image — namely, that of the prototypical gentleman's practice of taking off his overcoat and gallantly spreading it over a puddle for a lady to step across. Before Kaplan was working and reworking language, he was seeing.
At the start of every coaching relationship I cultivate with a student are images. Although for many reasons I do launch the work with a request for writing, the extent of the writing I want to see from a student about any potentially promising material is the single sentence. I ask for a series of distinct, discrete sentences, written out of the student’s unique experiences on Earth, each of which should to some degree make a reader sit forward in his chair, curious to hear more. Pointedly acknowledging that you can't tell a whole story in one sentence but must, instead, bring across a moment, just a slice of the truth, I emphasize concrete specificity. (If there is one element that divides successful application essays from promptly forgettable ones, it is specificity.) But what I'm really getting at, fundamentally, is private observation, precise attention to a picture in the mind (usually) that carries for the student some kind of personally meaningful charge — not unlike the charge, I think, that an image must give Kaplan in his line of work. For Kaplan, there was something very funny about the gentleman and the use of his overcoat; there was something worth comic pursuit, something deserving language and communication to others. For every student, there are moments, images, ways of seeing that carry the promise of direction and motivation, and as a writing coach, I’m in the direction-and-motivation business.
One of the many benefits of the single-sentence approach is how successfully — and necessarily — it reorients a student, detaching her from the anxiety-provoking project of composing "the essay" (such a freighted word is essay for every student) and inviting her into the possibilities and the relieving limits of that familiar distance between an initial capital letter and a terminating period. Paying attention to a precise piece of memory doesn’t feel like essay-writing, not to the student who equates essay with the research and evidence-analysis and argument-building demanded by English and History courses. But this calm visual practice is ground zero. Every successful application essay begins with very focused mental seeing, and its success is due to a great extent on its delivery of this visual experience to admissions officers’ imaginations. When a student has written ten different sentences — and, in doing so, inevitably covered a lot of experiential ground — she shares her sentences with me, her first real audience. A very safe audience.
Continue to PART TWO, in which the comedian and the college applicant perk up their ears....