I am helping my niece with her college applications. This was not an obvious assignment. We did not know each other well before this new partnership. Her father, my brother, is much younger than I am and we have always lived a continent apart. But coaching kids on essay writing is something I do often and she was interested, so we made a date that turned into every Saturday for five months.
The timing is not ideal for either of us. She is trying to navigate a Senior year on zoom and I am trying to navigate a peak season in retail. But our discussions have become a refuge for both of us. We share a no nonsense, take charge approach to everything. She is open and positive and focused. I love getting to know her and being her guide.
This process, potentially so fraught for parents and kids, is for me, an opportunity that is singular and ephemeral. An extraordinary, fleeting, Venn diagram slice where childhood and adulthood converge. Spreadsheets, online forms and deadlines are the ruse that force a young person to teeter on the edge of a nest and then flap, word for word, into a new sky. Every teenager has an 800 word coming of age story waiting to be written, they only need the right prompt.
What does this look like? I see it as a grand, magical journey. But for them, the destination is murky so they initiate the conversation with a shrug and assumption: I have nothing to write about. I have no ideas. I hate writing. They challenge me with apathy, discomfort, doubt. I smile mysteriously. I am not sure that is true.
I pull out a keyboard and begin to ask questions. They don’t look at me, monosyllabic and resistant. I ask more questions. They start haltingly and then hear the click, click, click of someone listening. What about this? How did you respond? What happened next? And they talk. A lot. Their world is present tense and their past very near. The images are vivid. They remember what people were wearing, what music was playing, who said what, how this other person reacted, what they texted back, with fully choreographed action scenes as if they were living it all over again. I type as fast as I can, running alongside, catching every snapshot flashing backwards and forwards. I type and ask questions. I am a stranger without context and they don’t hold back. Stories fill up the pages. Their stories.
How someone tells a story is as telling as the language. I also watch and listen carefully. When does their expression light up? When do the words flow faster or slow down or pause? When does their voice rise and fall. I listen for patterns, themes that come up again and again. These are the breadcrumbs on paths that lead to deeper insights. It is hard to describe the moment when the first essay starts to coalesce. There is a swirl of inflection when the weather shifts as cold and hot fronts come together, where ingredients mix into batter, where something that was moving is fixed into place, where a child walks through a door and an adult comes out the other side. I say: oh this is good. Tell me more.
I hold up the screen and scroll down, showing all the words. These are all your stories. This is enough material for ten essays! My eyes gleam like a dragon at the shining narrative potential. They are amazed at their brilliance. I explain that this is what makes great writing possible, the work before the work, the gathering and celebration of your individual life. They rightly think I am completely bonkers but may be of use to them. We look for stories that have more weight. I ask: what matters to you? What do you think matters to someone who is not you. Then we shape these fragments into an outline. We talk about structural formulas and how their ideas can fit together and flow in a graceful arc that inhales and exhales inherent drama.
From an outline they go off on their own and write a draft. Do it right away! And they do. We revisit and I have them read the draft aloud. They think this is strange and funny. I say: you need to hear your voice and make your writing sound like that voice. They read. I make notes where they say something different than what was written. What do you like? What could be better? They are always right on. They know.
We discuss. I tell them editing is play. We move words around the board but they are their words. I say: what more can you say here? What would you take out here? Say this to me like you would tell a friend? Every word counts, what is another word that does more work for you? The conversation goes back and forth and they see it improve. Their words grow polished, the edges smooth, the seams pressed flat. They can’t believe this is their story on paper. A story of what they saw and wondered, what hurt and what made them laugh. I tell them editing is life. They will live and then look backwards and forward and learn what to do more of and what to change. They will listen to themselves and recognize when they are speaking in their own voice and when they are not. They will gather their stories and tell them again and again, adapting their core truth for each new audience, knowing that feedback and response is how we grow into better writers and better humans.
My niece has a few more applications to go. I am already missing our time together after she submits her last one. She has dazzled me time and time again with a turn of phrase, a way of describing herself or one of her friends or an experience that is unique to her. I think of all the work I do in my life – decisions, meetings, analysis of this or that. Nothing is more meaningful to me than sharing in this world of discovery. Nudging a story from a reluctant teller and then basking in the freshness, beauty, and intensity of their words. This role – transforming the mundane role of editor into cheerleader, fangirl, guide, critic, teacher, confidant and the most unlikely of partners – this role is my best self. The self that remembers what it means to be seventeen. The self that believes we all have plenty to write about.