Building Something Out of Nothing

I’m posting on my website frequently and I think it’s because I’m off Twitter. Trading addictions for addictions. Also that ‘picking my brain’ post really emboldened me to voice myself more here.

I’m currently working with two teenagers on their college essays. Gotham offers a 5-hour college essay package. The first two hours of the package entail a ‘brainstorming’ session. I meet with the girls (separately) in a windowed room in Manhattan, books shelved around us, ambulances constantly ringing, air-conditioning blaring. We drink iced coffees. The girls are both Syrian-Jews and grew up in their tight-knit Syrian community together. They are best friends. One likes to write and one doesn’t. They are both sweet as hell.

What’s been so endearing about meeting with them, is that they are starting from scratch. I don’t ever start from scratch anymore. I don’t know if I have since Highschool. I still feel seventeen in some ways, and sitting across from these sinewy girls reminds me I am not. Since high school, I have not had to write an essay because I was told to. It’s always been for fun or desire or money.

Similarly, my students are not at a loss for what to write about. They have a surplus. Life happens. Your twenties happen. We have stories. Pain. Confusion. Observations. But these girls are seventeen. They say their moms made them work with me because otherwise they’d never write their essays. One girl offers me a sip of her green juice. We discover she wants to be a nutritionist.

It’s really refreshing to sit across from people that have to write an essay but don’t identify as “writers”.

“I feel like I’m selling myself,” one of the girls said to me this morning.

“You are!” I told her. Get used to it, I think in my head. “You want NYU to want you!”

“I feel like I’m bragging about myself.”

“You are!”

Neither of the girls knew what they wanted to write about. Neither knew when the essay was due. Neither knows what they want to major in. Neither has given thought to what their plan B schools are in they get into NYU.

We start from absolutely nothing. We talk. I play therapist and ask them questions and take notes while they talk. My notes look insane. But they work for me/us.

“What’s the worst thing that’s ever happened to you?” I ask them.

They can’t think of anything. Nothing bad has happened to them, they say.

“What would you do if you had a weekend alone with your best friend?”

“Nothing? Shop? Eat?”

I get it. When I was a teen, I wanted to do less than that. I wanted to smoke pot, leave my town, go to parties. I didn’t want to go to college. These girls are lightyears ahead of me.

“What about when you took that trip to Italy? Did you ever get lost? Have any problems?”

“We just used our phones,” she tells me. “GPS.”

Me at 17. My mom HATED all these flipping the finger photos.
Me at 17 in the high school cafeteria.
My friend Hannah and I at 16.
My friend Hannah and I at 16. My mom HATED all these flipping the finger photos.
Me at 29 at Gotham today.
Me at 29 at Gotham today.

So anyway, I take these psycho notes and by the end of the first hour we come up with an idea. Then I take her computer and I outline it for her. This is where you say your curious nature is what makes you want to be a psychologist. And stuff like that. I create something from nothing and ask her if it feels authentic or like a white lie. She says authentic. We talk about what a phenomenon the college essay is, how silly. How silly it is to know what you want to do at 17. We say the college essay should be banned within the next 5 years.

Then I pee and get water and leave her to it and by the end she’s made something out of nothing. She’s written an essay about her life. I read it out loud back to her. She says she’s excited and likes it.

Screen Shot 2015-08-19 at 11.42.58 PM

My photo is shitty because I’m on the train and  it’s moving. My notes cover her favorite Woody Allen movie (Annie Hall and Midnight and Paris), her favorite books (The Martian. The Great Gatsby, Outliers), what her parents do (real estate and professional running), the time she slammed her finger in a door as a baby leaving it deformed, the time she lost her mom in the supermarket, the time she was approached by a crazy person on a Sunday afternoon in Notting Hill, etc, etc, etc.

Makes me wonder what my therapist’s notes say about me.

My college essay was about music therapy. Or visiting France. I think. I don’t remember. I didn’t know what I wanted to do but I was damn good at churning out essays, at bullshitting words, at finding meaning on the page.

I really hope both girls get into NYU. I don’t know why they wouldn’t.


5 thoughts on “Building Something Out of Nothing

  1. I dig this post. And all your posts. I think blogging is a worthwhile addiction to have. I loved your latest “On picking my brain,” it’s inspired me to forget about trying to get paid. To just write. To submit. To get rejected. To be a waitress, or whatever. Who cares? As long as you’re writing.

  2. I’m a new follower of your blog having recently read your Freshly Pressed post (I declined to comment then since there were plenty already, although I really enjoyed you voicing your feelings and could understand why you felt the way you did). Just wanted to say I’m enjoying the glimpses you offer of the reality of being a writer and that it isn’t magically a whole new world on the other side once you’re published, that you still have to put in the work every day. As a writer aspiring to be published more often (though I’m not even sure my few e-publications even count), it’s so important to keep reminding myself that nothing will change, I will still have to work hard every day to be heard, I’ll just be heard a little more often if I’m ever published more often so really I just need to focus on the work and not the end-result. It’s nice to know that even writers who are published widely still struggle, still work other jobs, etc.

    I found this post extremely endearing. I remember being their age, wondering how I could fit the essence of who I had become in my short little life (but what felt to me like a very long life at the time) into a page-long essay that would be deemed either acceptable or unacceptable by people I’d never met. I would have appreciated a patient guide and teacher such as yourself helping me to put the bits and scraps together into a more meaningful form. I don’t know how much weight the essay actually carries in admissions decisions, but I do know the process of writing them is such a coming-of-age process in which we’re forced to come to terms with who we are in the face of who we want to be. I wonder what my essay would say today if I had to write one. I almost wish it was a requirement to write one every five years for one reason or another because simply writing an essay about myself now just wouldn’t really be the same as being forced to prove myself to a group of unknowns so I can have the privilege to pay them to have the opportunity to learn (kind of strange if you think about it). I’m looking forward to reading your work and your blog. Thanks for continuing to voice your thoughts here!

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