Let Lynda Barry Help You Find and Tell Your Best Stories!

Try One of Her Awesome Brainstorming Exercises

If you’re starting to brainstorm that perfect topic to craft your dreaded college application essay, I have a new writing technique you might find helpful.

I’m big on tapping mundane topics to inspire essays.

That means writing about everyday or ordinary experiences as opposed to those that try to impress or wow readers (aka college admissions folks).

Mundane topic example: My obsession with karaoke.

Trying-to-impress topic example: The time I played the star role in the school musical.

See the difference?

Which would you rather read about?

So when I discovered the brilliant writer and cartoonist Lynda Barry recently, and saw she also taps the mundane in life to help her students discover their personal stories, I couldn’t wait to share her ideas with those of you on the prowl for college application essay topics.

It can take practice to let yourself go back in time and scroll through your busy, overloaded mind to unearth your best personal moments and experiences.

If you’re like most of us, when you try to will yourself to remember those golden moments, you draw a blank.

Add the pressure of finding the ONE SUPER DUPER STORY from your past that will help you pound out an outstanding college application essay to land you in your dream school, well, all your lovely creative memory will seize up into a giant ball of stress and dread.


Enter Lynda Barry.

(Did I mention she’s bffs with Matt Groening? Hello! Who tells better entertaining, mundane personal stories than The Simpsons?)

She says,“Thinking up stories is hard. Getting them to come to you is easier.”

And in her bestselling cartoon-style book, What It Is, she teaches YOU how to do this.

Here’s the best writing technique Lynda shares in What It Is that I believe can help you learn to tap your most meaningful, and colorful, real-life stories that you can spin into awesome college application essays.

Even if you don’t come up with the perfect story for your essay at first, you will learn how to use the mundane in your life to start digging them up.


(Here’s a mini-version in graphic form from Lynda’s book, What It Is)

Give yourself about a half hour.

Grab a pen or pencil and piece of paper.

Number it 1-10.

Lynda likes to tell her students to start by relaxing themselves and minds.

Breathe in, breathe out. (Whatever works for you.)

Then she has them think of a very ordinary noun or object.

Like, a car.

Then she has you set a timer (3 minutes) and quickly list the first 10 cars you remember from your past.

Then pick the one that you like the best.

Hint from Lynda Barry: “Pick one that came to you, rather than one you thought up.”

Picture it (in this case, the car) in your mind. (Set time for 3 more minutes)

Write down what you see with your car-related image.

  • Where were you?
  • Why were you there?
  • Who were you with?
  • What were you doing?
  • What does it look like?
  • What do you see?
  • What do you smell?
  • What do you hear?

Just scribble your notes.

Next she has you “orient” yourself with this image or moment.

Set time for 3 more minutes.

Shut your eyes and try to “see” what was all around you.

  • Look to the right. Write what you see.
  • Look to the left. Write what you see.
  • Look down. What’s there?
  • Look up. Write it down.

The idea is that you have now collected notes of specific, random details about that image (memory) from your past.

Now, you’re ready for the last step.

Get fresh piece of paper, with your notes handy.

Set timer for 7 minutes.

You are going to write the entire time without stopping about that image/memory and whatever comes to mind about it.

Lynda’s Rules:

  1. Start with “I am…”
  2. Use present tense
  3. “Tell the us what is happening,” Lynda says.
  4. “No detail is too small to include.”


If you get stuck, Lynda Barry suggests writing the alphabet (A,B,C…) or draw small spirals until the words start again.

The goal is to write continuously about that image/memory or experience for seven minutes without lifting your pen.

Don’t worry about complete sentences, punctuation, spelling or any of that stuff.

Now read what you wrote.

Chances are that you have captured a little story from your past.




There’s also a good chance that your story has some type of special meaning to you.

It’s also highly likely that it was highly personal (these the THE BEST ONES!) and/or amusing or entertaining (especially if you captured some “that happened.”)

I’m big on finding real-life stories from your past where “something happened,” because that means you experienced some type of problem.

I write a lot on this blog about how problems are your friends with personal essays.

Problems–obstacles, challenges, phobias, obsessions, changes, flaws, mistakes, setbacks, failures, conflicts…–are what make things “happen” in life.

When nothing happens, life can be easy but on the boring side.

I challenge you to think of any story you can recall—a movie, book, event, experience, joke, memory–and I guarantee it involved some type of problem.

If it didn’t, I bet your story was dullsville.

For your college application essays, you want and need great little stories for many reasons:

A great little story can hook your reader. (Especially if you start with one, call an anecdote.)

A great little story can help you show how you handle a problem, and give you a platform to explore and share how you handled it.

A great little story can help you show how you learned, and what you care about, value or believe.

A great little story can be memorable (Hey admissions officers–please remember me!! I’m supposed to STAND OUT, remember!)

A great little story makes you want to keep reading. (How does it turn out?)

A great little story keeps you humble. (You are telling a story instead of talking about yourself.)

Instead of fretting about finding that awesome topic for your college application essay, start digging for your own great little stories.

Once you land on a good one, you are set.

Remember, the best ones don’t try to be impressive.

They are simply those everyday moments from your past when something happened. (Read some Sample Essays to see how this works.)

I would suggest focusing in on conjuring stories from your high school years so they would be most relevant for your college application essays.

Here’s a few ideas for mundane, yet potentially personal nouns you might try (stick to high school years, if possible):

Names of teachers

Names of pets

Names of “other mothers” (one of Lynda’s ideas for nouns) or “other fathers”

Names of coaches

Names of kids in your favorite class

Names of weirdest people in your high school

Names of shoes or other footwear

Names of where groups hung out together

Names of vehicles that got you around

Names of people you were teamed with

Name the stuff you carried around in backpack or purse

Names of things you posted on Instagram.

Names of junk food you ate.

Don’t take this too seriously or overthink it all.

Just do one at a time.

Collect all your little stories.

You want one good one for your main core essays, for the Common Application or other applications, that require a personal statement type of essay.

These little stories can be used in other essays, too, such as the supplemental essays or scholarship essays.


One of my favorite things about Lynda Barry is that she believes everyone can write.

It’s not a gift, but something you learn.

I have been preaching this on this blog for the last decade.

There are only a couple “How-to Write” books that I have found helpful over the years.

The reason I like them is that they offer specific tools and techniques to both help readers believe they can learn to write and also teaches specific tricks and techniques to start practicing.

One is Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird.

The others is Writing Tools by Peter Clark.

Now I’m excited to add Lynda Barry’s What It Is to this list.

If you are a student who not only needs to crank out your college application essays, but also is interested in improving your writing–GET THIS BOOK!

If you are a helpful parent who will do just about anything to inspire your teenager, GET THIS BOOK and leave it on your daughter or son’s desk.

In What It Is, which is presented in a playful, cartoony style, Lynda Barry weaves in her fascinating and often hilarious personal story into a fun series of writing exercises.

I will leave you with a Lynda quote about what she thinks about images:

“At the center of everything we call ‘the arts,’ and children call ‘play,’ is something which seems somehow alive. It’s not alive in the way you and I are alive, but it’s certainly not dead. It’s alive in the way our memory is alive. Alive in the way the ocean is alive and able to transport us and contain us. Alive in the way thinking is not, but experience is, made of both memory and imagination, this is the thing we mean by ‘an image.’ “

In a way, what you need to find to write a compelling and meaningful personal essay for your college application is not so much a “hot topic,” but an image, memory or experience.

Ready to turn one of your real-life stories into a killer college application essay?

Try How to Write a College Application Essay in 3 Steps.

Good luck!










Now you set the time again, and start to write about that car.