Sunday, April 11, 2010

Reflective Writing

Writing is a powerful aid to memory. Recording insights and perceptions allows you to live them anew. Make “I remember . . .” a frequent opening for daily writing practice.

Colleges and employers count on your memory, inviting you to recall events and experiences that have transformed you. Many essay prompts to admissions and awards could begin with “I remember . . . .”

The essay prompts below are paraphrases of college admissions essay and scholarship competition prompts gleaned over many, many years. As you read them, consider how many require a memory brought to life as evidence of your abilities to persevere and/or your sense of purpose. You may also wish to review the lessons from the Sunday, March 14, 2010 blog, entitled College and Scholarship Essays. Job Interviews, before you begin. Here are some sample prompts:

The face of the United States is changing. How has your community prepared you for the changes taking place?

Successful students know how to persevere. Briefly tell about a time when you had to persevere and explain what you learned by doing so.

Tell about a time when you set a goal and accomplished it. Explain what you learned about yourself as you worked to achieve your goal.

Wise men often declare that working for a reward is not as satisfying as the work itself. Tell about a time when you learned that the reward is less important than the work.

Goals and dreams walk hand in hand with obstacles and challenges. Explain how you have overcome obstacles and challenges to realize your goals.

In each of these five sample prompts, you must recall for the reader or interviewer an incident or period in your life, you must be able to reflect upon the moment, and you must explain what insights and confidence you gained from it. Usually, you must accomplish this in two, double-spaced pages or less.

Be ready for those moments. Practice by writing essays for each of the five prompts, and after you have written a first draft, be ruthless in editing it. Practice word economy as your revise. Cut out anything extraneous.

“I remember” can also open up endless memories:

I remember the day of my driver’s license test . . . .

I remember meeting the man I would marry . . . .

I remember meeting my best friend for life . . . .

I remember the most humiliating moment of my life . . . .

In these recollections, you meet your past self, and you meet the challenge of trying to make the memory live in all its complexity. How warm was the day? Was the moon full or a sliver? Was it cloudy or overcast? What were the aromas or odors of the moment? What was the taste in your mouth as you lived the moment? What and who could you see? What could you hear? What did your hands touch? How solid was the ground on which you stood or the seat in which you rested? In other words, bring your memory to life with each of the five senses (tactile, olfactory, gustatory, visual, and auditory). Good writers use all the senses to show us the moment and let us step inside it. As you write “I remembers,” add as many of the five senses as are appropriate for the moment you re-create.

GUM: Grammar, Usage and Mechanics

You should avoid contractions when writing for formal purposes. Writing required in school, admissions essays, scholarship entries, cover letters to potential employers, business letters, letters to the editor, and résumés are all examples of formal writing.

The added benefit of avoiding contractions is that you will also avoid mistakes we all make when we write and proofread hurriedly. These mistakes include:

1. using “there,” “their,” or “they’re” as if they are interchangeable
2. using “your” when you mean “you’re,” and “you’re” when you mean “your”

So send contractions packing for most writing. Obvious exceptions to this rule include your personal daily practice, creative writing tasks, and personal cards and letters.

Reading Challenge:

Choose authors who use “I remember” anecdotes to enrich their stories and essays. Annie Dillard is one; pick up Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. So are Dave Barry, John Grogan, John Ciardi, and so many, many more. “I remember” anecdotes are everywhere.

Writing Challenge:

Write an “I remember” story every day for the next week. Don’t worry about contractions or pronouns or active voice verbs. Do try to weave in as many of the five senses as you can, but above all, just enjoy telling your story.