In addition to ushering you through these Tu Fu poems, I've begun working with my son on his Common App essay. We're starting close to ground zero: which is to say, he has a general idea about his topic but has not written a word about it. After we agreed that he had to treat my assignments like classroom work rather than annoying mom nagging, I gave him this exercise.
College Essay Exercise #1
1. Working as fast as you can, without overthinking your choices, write down at least 25 words that come to mind when you think about the event, your relationship to that event, your place in the world at the time of the event, your feelings about the event then, your feelings about it now, etc., etc. Don’t try to reach for fancy language or be incredibly exact. The point is to throw a lot of material on the page and see what shows up.
2. Take a half-hour break. Now go back and reread your list.
a. Star all of the words that seem central to the story of the event.**
b. Circle all of the words that seem central to the story of you.
The list he left on my desk is very, very interesting. Many of the starred event words are verbs and concrete nouns. Many of the starred you words are abstract nouns. Anyone who has ever taught writing to a teenager will recognize how often they reach for abstractions in their poems and essays. However, the particular way in which I structured my question helped me understand that young writers may be reaching for abstractions as a way to frame and define their own identities. Adolescents are acutely aware of the disconnect between the physicality of their bodies and their chaotic, amorphous inner selves. So perhaps, when guiding my son into writing an essay about himself, I need to help him make use of his natural linguistic shift between the physical and the intangible. In any case, that's my idea at the moment. We'll see what happens.