I Felt Like My Seniors: Writing A Personal Narrative That Says “Like Me, Choose Me”

English 12 started the school year with the College Essay. The all important personal narrative that matters more now that more college admission boards read applications holistically. When I applied to state university nearly twenty years ago (!) I remember handwriting a couple of paragraphs in pen. I do remember thinking about what I wanted to say first but I don’t remember worrying if those sentences would sell me as a student because I was weirdly unworried about where I went to college, thinking I’d move on to an art and design school later. This passive approach to major life decisions was a pattern I kept through dating, career choice, marriage, jobs and children up until maybe two years ago. It’s mostly worked out. But this year Justin and I are looking for a new country and while I’m not anxious about where we’ll land, I also want to be wise about the search, upping our chances at choosing a place rather than taking what seems the easiest or most practical option.

So as my seniors were thinking how to frame themselves in a single, short narrative, I was also worrying what I look like on paper. I spent a couple of months picking at my resume, counting the many times I opened the document, sighed, and closed it. Then I had to write a bio for the international teaching placement service we’re using. I was in the thick of reading college essay drafts and revisions. During conferences with students, we’d look at whether they were telling a specific story to illustrate their character or ambition. We’d point where to expand, where to cut. We’d commiserate over the difficulty of conclusions. All the while, I penned bio starts in my notebook and thought it was hopeless, I wouldn’t find a way to say to potential employers: This is who I am!

One Friday afternoon the kids were out and I made myself write the bio. A lot of my essays get a first draft like this, the just-write-it-now draft. After I’ve written an idea again and again in my notebook, I surrender it to a typed page, see how I might shape it.

My first draft was long. I had to cut nearly a third of the words. Concision appeals. Having to pare a piece forces precision into your work. I don’t totally like the short version best. However, some of the revised diction and syntax works better. While I posted the short version as my bio, I decided to create a last draft combining my long and short version in a piece I think works well. What is gained or lost in the expansion or cuts?

First, the combination draft at 971 words:

This summer I learned to bake French macarons. I can buy them at a bakery for a half dinar or about two dollars apiece but I wanted to see if I could bake a tray myself. I do this sometimes, pick a pastry and learn how to make it. When we first arrived in Kuwait, I spent a few months perfecting the croissant. For a while I baked our bread. I spent a year playing with chocolate chip cookie recipes until I found one I like enough to use exclusively. And now, the French macaron.

I bought a kitchen scale and weighed one hundred twenty grams of almond flour and two hundred grams unrefined powdered sugar which I then sifted between two bowls half a dozen times. Making macarons is meticulous. Recipes use words like “just” as in, whip the egg whites until they just form a stiff peak, and warn against over folding the almond flour and sugar with the egg. But you don’t know you’ve done it right until the macarons are in the oven forming crinkly feet at their edges. Even then, the shells might be hollow in the center. Macarons are maddening. I’d finish a batch and guess what to change on the next round. I ate a lot of macarons in one month. I sent plates to neighbors. I found my favorite flavors – pistachio, salted caramel, and raspberry. Most of my macarons were imperfect, the rounds a little lopsided, the filling too thick or thin. I had fun though.

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570 Word Sentence

This month I put to words something that I had been nudging, getting the shape of, for a while. I’ve been teaching for over a decade, though I accepted my first job expecting to leave the profession after a few years, when I was ready to start an MFA program. I like teaching. But when I think about being part of the field of education, I don’t aspire to do more than keep a classroom and become better at teaching. Meanwhile I’ve watched many colleagues and friends take on other roles in the field. And sometimes I wonder if I shouldn’t clamber for a new title too. But what I really want is to be a great writer. So I practice this craft at the loss of tallying credits toward a masters in education, at the loss of school leadership, at the loss of a raise. Occasionally I wonder how long I hold this split: it seems I might be a great teacher or a great writer but teaching full-time and cobbling time to draft and revise means I’m good at both (even very good, catch me on the right day), but not great at either. I’m only good for the consistent practice. Ten more years of this creative tension and I’ll be exhausted but great.

So I’d been looking for a way to say this. I haven’t found the best way. But when I had my students write one long sentence telling a complete story, I told a kind of story too. Part profile. Part rumination. I chose to write about myself in the third person which helped me cut through the noise and say what I wanted.


Great At ___/ The Only One For ___

This year Sarah Marslender returned to teaching full-time after four years of teaching part-time because her writing career remains an unpaid fantasy (let’s say this really is her fault and she knows it, because she’s a squawking chicken about collecting rejections from literary magazines and because she isn’t sure she is a brand anyone wants to publish and because she’d rather not stay up past nine for this fantasy, instead wishing for an editor or agent to magically materialize and insist she take sabbatical and finish what she’s started: a multigenre collection tacked together piece by piece over the last five years and showing readers what mattered/ matters to this woman/ wife/ mom/ writer/ friend/ teacher) but also because she is good at teaching and likes it well enough that she’ll probably keep teaching in some capacity for years to come and, more, she wants to figure out better ways to teach writing and revision and developing flow while you write (something she is desperate to hold onto for more than an hour at a time herself) and she wants to help you instill discipline in your practice (something she has by way of games she plays, like filling a notebook a month) – yes, Sarah wants good things in her classroom but this month she also craves being told she is good at what she does because like every other thing that sucks her time and talent, teaching remains a fairly thankless profession if you have anything but a selfless mindset or take to heart the Facebook posts about how great teachers/ teaching is and Sarah thinks this is because there is a high moral expectation for educators, that teaching is akin to taking religious vows which spur dedicated teachers to find even greater meaning outside the classroom, packing their schedules with voluntary committees, sports coaching and activities sponsoring; vows which spur dedicated teachers to pursue masters in education with an eye on curriculum or administration which may get them out of the classroom because that is one way to gain notice in the field, to leave the classroom and all that entails (grading, management, grading, planning, grading) to prove themselves as great educators by helping their colleagues better assess/ manage/ plan; Sarah is just embarrassed to realize that watching her fellow teachers grow into promotions at her school, chosen for positions they fit just right, has made her look at her own empty want of specialness, that icky taste in her mouth of wishing someone would look at Sarah Marslender and think She’d be great at ___/ She’s the only one for ___ and then she’s ashamed because she knows she’s needed and appreciated not only because Facebook regularly praises her profession but because she has relationships at school that matter for a semester or two or a year or so and many times much longer; oh, Sarah is embarrassed her ego was bruised by her colleagues’ deserved placements, which she didn’t even want for herself: no, it’s the wanting to be thought of as Perfect for ___ that kills her this month because what she’s perfect for is teaching and learning and adding up unpublished pages and making herself say it’s okay to matter in a hundred unsaid ways and it’s okay to keep balance like a quiet and flushed student thinking of an answer when someone asks what Sarah Marslender is great at/ the only one for.

Knee Deep In Narrative

Timing is everything. At school we’ve left poetry for fiction. Today I introduced one of my favorite flash fiction prompts (more below). And at home I’m taking an online creative nonfiction workshop through Stanford Continuing Studies. This week I’m working on a personal essay for workshop, but the flash fiction prompt is too tempting to skip, one I return to each semester and still love.

The prompt from What If? by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter:

Write five mini-stories (limit: 200 words each) to account for a single event or circumstance, such as a man and woman standing on a city sidewalk, hailing a cab. Each story should be different – in characters, plot, and theme – from the others.

So this time I’ve asked my students to use this exercise to explore narrative choices: first/ second/ third person; limited or omniscient narrator; past or present tense. Since we have five (super short, nonthreatening) stories to write, we can play with the choices we make as authors. Play along at home!

If you’re looking for a situation or circumstance to get you started, here are some we came up with in class today:

A father and son at a football match

A young woman steps onstage

Two friends at lunch

The power goes out

The phone rings but no one answers it

I like the idea of this prompt generating a finished piece, either as a longer story born of an itty bitty draft; or as a series whose parts stand alone but, when purposefully ordered, create a stronger whole.