I spent the weekend at Amherst College as writing coach for the College Summit program. (“College Summit is a national nonprofit organization that partners with schools and districts to strengthen college-going culture and increase college enrollment rates, so that all students graduate career and college-ready.”) Volunteers spend four days leading workshops in writing and college counseling. At the end of four days, everyone is a better person.
While the experience was completely life-altering for many reasons, in light of me still telling myself that my blog is my “calling card,” I will spare readers the stories about how I finally felt like my life had a purpose and how the kids were stunning and brilliant and the other coaches were inspiring… and just try to distill some practical advice about writing, media and business.
Yes, that’s right, not only am I great with kids, but I’m also an expert in writing, media and business. Don’t you want to employ me? I thought so.
Anyway, the job of the writing coach is to spend three days in workshops with students developing their personal statements. We start with free writes, then we “goldmine” the free writes for great images and ideas, then we write several drafts of personal statements until a story with a message evolves.
Yes, evolves. Sounds like it might take too long, right? And as I worked with each kid, I brought with me some of the anxiety that comes with being a professional writer, meaning the “crap, do I have an angle and if not now, how soon?” anxiety. Despite this worry, I kept working with kids. When I felt like we were at a dead end, we just chatted. Through talking, stories, true and genuine stories, always made their way to the surface. At the end of the workshop, I really felt like each student had been able to tell his or her very best truth. The joy that I felt during and after the workshop was based on the feeling that we’d unearthed something that was already there, something that was waiting to be expressed.
But after 24 hours, the euphoria I felt had faded, and I remembered that I had a career that went beyond listening to high schoolers thank me for being so awesome. (although they did say they didn’t like my jokes, they told me they loved me despite my lame sense of humor. I’ll take it.) Anyway, I started to think about how what I had learned at the workshop could be applied to my “career.”
It occurred to me in professional writing and marketing, the idea is that you have make up a story. In reality, this attitude implies that there’s not a story already there. But as I learned this weekend, there’s almost always something that really is ready to be said. Telling stories should less about choice, and more about discovery and trust that some “angle” exists–it just needs to evolve.
Let me be a dork here and reference India Jones and the Lost Crusade. We tend to think developing an angle or a hook is like we’re in that room with the knight with all those chalices and we’re either going to choose wisely or have our skin rot off our face. In reality, even if we make the alleged right choice, we weren’t supposed to take it out of the room with aged knight. It’s artificial.
Developing a story should be more like the part where Indiana Jones has to find the invisible sky-walk. (Bear with me, forget we’re talking about Jesus. As every good agnostic Jew knows, Jesus is just a metaphor.) Bottom line is, the story is there if we are willing take the leap of faith, and then follow that trail of stones. We get into trouble when we think it’s our job to fabricate something. The best writing, and the best marketing, is about showing the truth, not inventing it.
The problem with the professional world is that when we’re faced with making money, we sort of panic. We pressure ourselves to make up something quick, and make up something awesome, or risk failure. And I realize that deadlines sometimes require that attitude. But after what I witnessed this weekend, I believe there’s a lot of be learned from experimenting with a more observational exploration of what’s already there. (Or maybe that’s just all the yoga talking…more on that later.)
Not that the kids didn’t worry, too. But my job was be the patient one, and to provide the tools that would help them be less hard on themselves, so they could unearth truthful stories. I made them feel better.
I could make you feel better, too. What that’s you say? You want to employ me? I thought so.