In October 1988, I trashed my parents’ basement in order to get into college.
OK, the causal connection is a little indirect, but it’s there. I was applying to college that fall, and needed to write an essay to go with my application. I’ve always been able to write stuff with very little effort, so I banged out something that I thought was adequate, and showed it to my guidance counselor, who said “No way.” My parents backed her up on this, and I had to go write another one.
The problem was that while what I had written was reasonably polished, it was also glib and superficial– because I’m also very good at those things. That’s not really the right tack to take with a college application, though, so I legitimately needed to re-do it, and do something more sincere and personal. Which I hated having to do. I ended up staying up very late one night down in the basement, writing and re-writing in AppleWorks on our Apple IIgs– it’s weird, the details I remember about this– and periodically taking breaks to throw stuff around, kick chairs, punch walls, etc.
In the end, I wrote something about basketball, specifically the experience of devoting a great deal of time to the game and still sitting the bench (on a very good team, I hasten to add– the only loss we had my senior year was in the state championship game). We had a running joke down at the end of the bench that I couldn’t be subbed into the game until after my father stomped out of the gym in disgust that we were up by 30 but the coach hadn’t cleared the bench yet. Which is one of those black humor kind of jokes that covers some genuine angst.
I don’t remember much detail about the actual essay, just that it was pretty painful to write. It must’ve been good, though, because I got in nearly everywhere I applied (Princeton waitlisted me, not that I harbor a grudge, or anything…), and I got a thoroughly awesome scholarship at Williams.
I was reminded of this recently by a conversation with a co-worker about getting her son to write college application essays, and also by the fact that I’m currently doing edits on the book-in-progress. One of the comments I got back in the fall was that the book needed additional grounding in everyday activities. In casting around for some way to do this, I wound up adding personal anecdotes to the ends of the chapters, talking about things I’ve done that relate to the subject matter.
This turned out to be really difficult, partly because it was hard to come up with enough relevant stories to fit all the chapters– if I’d had this plan from the start, it might’ve been a shorter book. But there’s also a level on which I hate writing about myself.
That probably sounds really weird, particularly as it’s posted to my personal blog. Where I publish stuff that I write, about myself. And, for that matter, I have two books featuring conversations in which I talk to my dog.
But there’s a level of distance to most of that material. In the books, I’m effectively playing a fictionalized character. And what I write for the blog is mostly carefully filtered– there are occasionally fairly raw posts where I really feel compelled to write up something that bothers me deeply, but a lot of the personal stuff isn’t really personal, if you know what I mean.
Which is not to say that the stuff in the book-in-progress is wrenchingly personal in a trash-the-basement sort of sense– most of it shades more toward the glib and superficial, to be honest. But even that requires a bit of effort, and makes me a little uncomfortable.
I mentioned this to Kate at one point, when I asked her to read over a bit to see if it worked. “Yeah,” she said, “I can see you struggling with sincerity.” Which is a little harsh, maybe, but not inaccurate. I have a much easier time talking about myself when I get to add a little ironic distance.
This is something that carries over to reading, as well as writing. Part of the reason I needed Kate to read those sections over is that I don’t deal all that well with other people’s personal insertions, either. There’s one highly regarded pop-science book that I’ve basically conceded I’m never going to finish, because the author keeps throwing in personal anecdotes about awesome things they’ve done, which I found really grating. This is obviously not a widely shared reaction, as the book in question is more commercially successful than my stuff, but it adds to my reluctance to put much personal stuff in the book.
(I’m not perfectly consistent about this– some personal insertions work really well. But it’s a very strongly bimodal distribution, with not a lot of stuff between the small number of books where I really love this technique and the much larger number where it bugs me.)
The problem of personal insertion is something I worry about a bit as the book approaches reality. Specifically, I’m a little afraid of a kind of an inversion of my reaction to that other book: “This guy keeps talking about himself, but he’s a really boring dude.” Which is sort of an unavoidable risk, given that the whole point of the stories is that they are mundane, connecting scientific thinking to boring everyday activities. This is mostly just my personal slant on authorial paranoia, though– if the stuff in the book really sucked, I trust my editor or agent would’ve pointed that out by now. And while the suggestions I got were mostly requests to cut stuff out, none of the cuts were to the material I worried about. Which probably just proves that I’m weird.
And then there’s this post, which on some level functions as a way of ironically distancing myself from my own worries about my struggles with sincerity. And thus threatens to collapse into a singularity of faintly ironic self-reference, taking the entire blog with it, at least until it eventually evaporates through the slow but steady emission of tiny (but sincere!) fragments of prose (“prosons,” let’s call them), which encode the information necessary to reconstruct the entire blog. Or something.
More importantly, though, this post also functions as a way of putting off dealing with the comment that was “Cut this ten-page section down to three.” Which is something I hate doing even more than I hate writing about myself, and so will grasp at any form of cat-vacuuming activity to avoid…