Writing Without the Shackles of Judgement

She stands in the doorway, college banners serving as a backdrop in this agonizing drama. The look on her face suggests that someone just ran over her dog or perhaps she just learned that Taylor Swift had her vocal cords removed. Growing concerned about her emotional state, I inquire about the fear in her eyes. “I have nothing to write about,” she confesses sullenly, as though the end is near. She goes on to lament about the lack of tragedy or fanfare in her seventeen years on this earth. “Nothing bad has happened to me, my grandparents are all still alive, and I have not lead a sports team to a state championship.” Finding it hard to be remorseful, I reply, “write what you know, not what you think the admission office wants to hear.” At the end of last month, I participated in a weeklong writing workshop in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts where our teacher, Nancy Slonim Aronie, shared with us a quote from poet, Gerald Blake Storrow:

“Freedom is the time between your perception and your opinion.”

This has since been marinating in the recesses of my mind and I am struck by the truth it holds for me and for the students with whom I work, if not for us all.

You might have thought that freedom was “just another word for nothing left to lose.” (If you don’t understand that reference, go ask your parents). Freedom in writing, however has everything to do with potential and opportunity. This student, standing defeated in my office doorway, had already allowed her opinion to suppress her freedom to express.

This idea of freedom applies to so many aspects of the college admission process, but is especially appropriate when considering the dreaded college essay. We are so quick to judge and form opinions of our experience that sometimes we do not allow ourselves access to the raw, judgment free perception that can be so powerfully revealing and insightful.

College admission offices want to know more about a student’s story. They have grades, test scores, lists of activities and recommendations, all creating a framework for a student’s candidacy. But who is this student under the surface? What makes him or her “tick”? When are the moments that a student’s passions have intersected with his or her experiences?

Last week, the essay questions for the 2015-2016 Common Application were released. I encourage students not to even look at them, as immediately their freedom as a writer will be constricted. My experience has been that students read the questions and no longer can they perceive their experiences nonjudgmentally. Instead, I suggest that first applicants write about the encounters, moments, emotions, adventures or struggles that are most meaningful in their lives and then later worry about fitting their story into one of the five (rather general and diverse) essay topics.

When I run weeklong personal narrative and college essay workshops each summer, we don’t even consider the essay questions until the week’s end. Instead we focus our time and energy on responding to writing prompts that tap into the raw experience and emotion that exist at the heart of our individual stories. We provide positive feedback and encouragement to our fellow writers in order to reinforce the uniqueness of each voice. It is amazing to witness what emerges. At the end of our time together when we bring in college admission officers to review these works in progress, they are always struck with the honesty and depth in students’ writing.

As we move forward, whether in our writing, our interactions, our work or our home lives, I encourage us all to consider the ways we are quick to judge, form inflexible opinions and place restrictions on the freedom of our perception and experience. Without these self-imposed limits, the world potentially looks very different and we are able to share our gifts and receive those of others in a much more accepting and positive manner.

Standing in my office, the angst embodied in this young woman seems to wane as I try to assure her that there is not one right answer. Though she still looks at me like my children do when I assure them that they will feel a sense of accomplishment after they clean their rooms, she retreats, willing to give it a try. Colleges are looking for authenticity, strong writing ability and for students who are connected to themselves and confident in the purity of their own perceptions. In a process that can often feel judgmental and boxed in, staying true to oneself and one’s unique strengths and experiences is empowering, and yes Mr. Storrow, freeing.