The Illuminating Incident in the College Essay

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by KATE LEARY

In her book The Writing of Fiction, published in 1925, Edith Wharton coined a phrase that’s useful to the college-application essay writer as well as to the novelist.

At every stage in the progress of his tale the novelist must rely on what may be called the illuminating incident to reveal and emphasize the inner meaning of each situation. Illuminating incidents are the magic casements of fiction, its vistas on infinity.

When I read Wharton’s pronouncement, I felt its rightness. I’m at work on a novel, and I knew the concept of illuminating incidents could help me pull back and evaluate each scene I’ve written. Yet Wharton’s high expectations intimidated me. If I sat down to draft with her words at the forefront of my mind, fixated on “inner meaning,” I would freeze. I thought about my Hillside clients, who are tasked with writing 650-word essays that convey their authentic selves. They’re searching for inner meaning, too. The assignment can feel unbearably intimidating.

Wharton emphasizes the importance of choice — “the disengaging of crucial moments from the welter of existence.” And this is precisely how the Hillside process begins, in conversation exploring moments that clients have already identified and begun to open in our preliminary exercise, Ten Sentences. Clients needn’t come to the first session knowing why they chose those moments. Lively conversation brings context to the moments and often uncovers new ones; gradually, coach and client discover together which experiences hold meaning, and which seem to speak to each other. Both client and coach feel when they’ve struck a rich vein — a crucial moment. When I started coaching, I worried that it would be hard to tell when the student and I had arrived at one, but a palpable energy tends to enter the conversation, sometimes so obvious that we both laugh.

I’ve had a lot of practice at writing, and yet I can still struggle to get started, just like many college applicants. Sometimes when I want to try something new, my ideas and ambitions feel so big that it’s a challenge even to write a first sentence. Wharton offers practical advice for this problem:

The only remedy is absolutely to abandon the larger for the smaller field, to narrow one’s vision to one’s pencil, and do the small thing closely and deeply rather than the big thing loosely and superficially.

Here, again, is the essence of (and the instruction in) the Ten Sentences exercise. For the Hillside client, doing the small thing closely and deeply at the start of the process leads naturally to doing it at the start of the essay — drafting that crucial moment with attentiveness to detail. I prompt clients to describe how the scene looked through their eyes, what physical sensations they had, what sounds they heard, what feelings arose in the moment. This is Wharton’s remedy, and college admissions officers consistently give advice that sounds remarkably similar. One Tufts admissions officer writes: “As I see it, you have two options when exploring a topic in your college essay: go broad or go deep.” Her strong preference? Go deep. “By focusing on details, you set yourself apart.”

The conversation doesn’t end when drafting begins. It grows only more interesting as the student and I examine and question the details together, building connections. Eventually, the crucial moment becomes an illuminating incident, revealing something the student considers significant about her authentic self. I won’t pretend to understand everything about how this happens. Wharton’s description of illuminating incidents as “magic casements” feels appropriately evocative and mysterious. I’m regularly surprised by what clients discover about themselves in the act of writing and revising. I remember these discoveries because I vividly recall the scenes my clients have worked to recreate on the page. I remember the feeling their scenes gave me — of peering in a window to some previously unseen (sometimes previously unrecognized) part of the person. In Wharton’s words, “these scenes shed a circle of light far beyond the incident recorded.” Inspired by my clients’ work, I aim for the same in my novel writing.