I just read a memoir where the author shared a piece of writing advice that Toby Wolff gave her. Wolff wrote “This Boy’s Life,” one of the best memoirs out there. Anyway, memoirs are books written about yourself. In a way, college essays are like mini-memoirs. They could easily be a chapter in your own memoir, especially if you share a story in your essay.
All that said, here’s the little nugget of advice Toby Wolff gave the author, Mary Karr. (He sure looks believable to me!) It’s almost too simple to appreciate, until you try writing about yourself:
Don’t approach your history as something to be shaken for its cautionary fruit…Tell your stories, and your story will be revealed…Don’t be afraid of appearing angry, small-minded, obtuse, mean, immoral, amoral, calculating, or anything else. Take no care for your dignity. Those were hard things for me to come by, and I offer them to you for what they may be worth.
(A quote from Toby Wolff in the memoir entitled, “lit,” by Mary Karr.)
To me, the little secret in this advice is to just tell your story in a straightforward, honest way and a lot of your message or meaning or lesson will be naturally revealed. In other words, don’t try too hard to teach or preach your message.
Hope that’s not too heady. Like a lot of simple-sounding advice, it’s harder to do than you think. But worth trying.
I just found this link to a wonderful blog on college admissions sponsored by the New York Times, called “The Choice.” Here’s a post from another writer talking about how these essays are really like memoirs!