Struggling With Sincerity

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...

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Yo Chad: you speak for me as well.

The way I describe this is, "I can go on about my _ideas_ for hours, but I'm not interested in talking about my _self_," and "biography is boring." Another facet of it is, I utterly _detest_ having to obligatorily _emote_ under scrutiny. "Say something emotional, we're all watching!" Ewwwww, no thanks.

There are times when getting personal and emotional is a natural part of an intimate situation or a social situation, but it can't be called-up on demand, and (successful actors aside), it most especially can't be called up as some kind of performance.

This isn't ASD stuff; if anything I'm less geeky than the average in the technology subculture, and I'm willing to bet you are as well.

The one thing I'll disagree with you about is, your writing is _not_ "glib and superficial." It's clear that you're deeply engaged with and inspired by the ideas you're working with: those of others, and your own. It's hardly "superficial" to write about that stuff, any more than it is for someone in the arts to talk about the nature of creativity and artistic expression, and the works of others who were major influences in their own works.

So take credit where credit is due: for writing about the ideas that inspire you, and for pointing to things that you find meaningful and others do (or should) as well. Ideas and meanings stand on their own two feet, and you're not obligated to do a "cry porn" segment on daytime TV or evening news; nobody is. The society of endless spectacle needs an attitude adjustment about that. And it will be a great day when we can turn on a radio or TV and listen to someone talk at length about their ideas, theories, observations, and inspirations, without being under pressure to talk about what they did when they were a teenager.

I'm waiting for the angst-ridden, very serious college essay about the pain of trying to craft a good college admissions essay....

By Mike the Mad B… (not verified) on 04 Mar 2014 #permalink

College is "glib and superficial" for most matriculants. Impossibly high campus salaries are the venue of sports coaches. It is the only campus sector that boasts about its graduates, as opposed to its loading dock inputs.

"You will admit me with granted scholarship. My transcendence necessitates future tax write-offs against income, advantageously as charitable donations. Large alumni donation publicly burnishes both of us. Invest in me."

Maybe it's a Canadian thing, but I don't remember writing essays for any of the universities that I applied to. There was a one-page (front and back) form in the smallest type imaginable but no essay at all. And part of the form was checking off which universities it should be submitted to.

I don't recall essays back in 1968 when I applied to college just forms similar to those pointed out by Michael. (But then I only applied to the state land grant school, not to any Ivys)

I’m waiting for the angst-ridden, very serious college essay about the pain of trying to craft a good college admissions essay….

I'm sure somebody has done it. I should ask my friends in Admissions if they've gotten meta essays like that, and what they think.

Maybe it’s a Canadian thing, but I don’t remember writing essays for any of the universities that I applied to.

No essays!?! Next you'll tell me that it didn't cost $80,000 for four years!

(That's a joke, btw, not a serious disparaging of others' experiences. I don't doubt that people in other times and places got into college without angsting over essays...)

(Also, for your general bogglement: elite private college tuition next year is likely to top $60,000. Per year.)

(On further reflection, this post was probably also influenced by this podcast from last week, as there's definitely a third-rate Klosterman imitation vibe to some of this...)

I can see what you mean. It's funny that I set up my blog originally for personal reasons (I had moved to the US and was tired of repeating the same answers about how I like it there etc) but I barely if ever write something personal. (I don't really count photos of the kids as personal it seems.)

My psychologist would probably have some elaborate theory about that, but I think the main reason is that I myself don't like it if people I don't know pour their personal problems and emotional outbreaks over me. (This happens to me more often than you'd think. I don't know what it is, but the moment I sit down at the airport somebody will come and tell me about their husband's heart surgery or their son's affair or their awful experience in so-and-so.) If I scan my newsfeed in the morning, that's not what I'm looking for. It's just too much if you see what I mean. If I am looking for personal stories, I'd look elsewhere.

Having said that, a book is a different thing. I don't read a book the same way I scan through my news items in the morning. I take the time to read it and I expect the author to pour in some of their personality. Especially when it comes to pop science that's one of the main reasons I read a book. So I think your editor is giving you a good advice there.

About the sincerity... Have you tried writing fiction? It is much easier to be sincere if you express yourself through a fictional character that is clearly not you.

btw, about the angst and the essays, should I mention that in Germany there's no essays and no tuition fees either?

No essays for university entry in the UK either - only A-level grades.

On the subject of application essays, would these not add another hurdle for applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds?