It occurs to me that I have a lot in common with a pencil. That’s right – a simple and humble little pencil. Not the fancy mechanical kind. That’s too high-maintenance for me. And I’m not as showy as a plume pen or as smooth as a ball point. I don’t live in bold strokes like a heavy marker. But I’m a lot like a pencil. Here’s how:
1. Like a pencil, I have a built-in eraser. I can correct my mistakes. No, I can't change the past, but I can make it right again. And if I can't erase history (after all, what’s done is done) I can at least erase a great deal of guilt and anger with forgiveness.
2. Like a pencil, I do better if I’m sharpened once in a while. My mind and skills grow dull without occasional honing. Even my spirit and attitudes need refining if I’m to be at my best. And there is something else, too. I find that the difficulties of life wear away at me, and they can either grind me down or shape me into a person who is more capable and creative. The sharpening I get from living through tough times is often painful, but I know it can make me a better person.
3. Pencils work best in a skilled hand. And like a pencil, I can do some pretty terrific things with a little guidance. Other people bring out the best in me, and with the help of others, I can do far more than I ever can alone.
4. Like a pencil, I should leave my mark whenever possible. I too often underestimate my influence on another. I have daily opportunities to leave something good behind. That is what it means to leave my mark. It may be in small ways, it may be in the lives of people I love, people I have touched or nurtured, or even in incidental conversations struck with strangers. But, I have a mark to leave and should use every opportunity to leave something good behind.
5. Like a pencil, it is what is on the inside that matters. A pencil without lead is useless. And a yellow pencil will not do when a black or red pencil is called for. What is on the inside is all important. My outer appearance matters less than I probably think, while it’s the stuff on the inside that folks notice about me. Whether it is understanding or intolerance, love or bitterness, peace or unrest, kindness or self-centeredness, hope or despair, courage or fear, what is on the inside matters most.
6. A pencil works best on paper or canvass. It will never leave its mark on water and will wear itself down against a mirror. I do best knowing my strengths and limitations. I can’t do everything well and that is okay. There is still plenty of good to be done by doing what I do best.
7. And finally, like a pencil, the biggest part of my purpose in this life can be summed up in three words: to be useful. When I’m too broken to hold it together, when everything is ground away or worn down, when I no longer have anything to contribute, I know my life is coming to an end. But until then, my job is to be useful.
Like I said, I have a lot in common with a pencil.
-- Steve Goodier
Why a green pen? I always carry a green pen because I grade all my students' essays in green. Why green? Because when a student gets an essay back and it's covered in red marks it can tend to look bloody, like a battlefield. But if a student gets an essay back that's covered in green it looks verdant. Also, red means "stop" (like a stoplight), but green says "keep going." And that's the essence I want to communicate to my students: keep going. The green pen in my essence object box is more than a green pen.
I would also place in my essence box a well-worn North Carolina Tarheel blue and white basketball. Why? I came home from the hospital wearing Carolina Blue, so I've been a Carolina fan, almost literally, since birth. I've spent more time on a basketball court than virtually anywhere else (which is why the ball is well-worn), and basketball also represents my connection with my dad: when I was a kid we’d watch Carolina games together and play basketball in the backyard for hours. This basketball is more than a basketball.
I would also have the blue Bible with my name etched on it in gold lettering that my grandma gave me when I was seven. (See how specific I’m getting?) For me, this particular Bible represents my having been raised in the Presbyterian Church. And my parents were missionaries, so you could imagine a lot of who I am today has been shaped by the Sunday morning services we attended at Weaverville Presbyterian Church, to which I would always carry my blue Bible. This Bible is more than a Bible.
You get the idea.
I want you to make a list of 20 objects. (Don’t complain—you are infinitely complex and creative and could come up with a thousand—I’m asking for just 20.)
Important: Don't write what the objects mean to you as I have just done. I just want you to write the objects. So my list would begin like this:
- green Precise v5 extra fine rolling ball pen
- worn-down, rubber North Carolina basketball
- blue Bible with my name stitched on it in gold lettering
- bbq sauce
- annotated copy of The Brothers Karamazov
- friendship bracelet
- black and white composition notebook
- Amelie DVD
- Evanston Hockey t-shirt
…You get the idea.
Just write the objects with a couple details that describe each, no commentary needed yet.
If it helps, put on some music. Let your mind wander.
QUESTIONS TO HELP WITH THE OBJECTS EXERCISE
What’s something you never leave home without?
What’s a snack you crave?
A food that reminds you of your family?
A food that reminds you of home?
A tradition that reminds you of home?
What else reminds you of home?
An object that represents your best friend?
An object that represents your father? Your mother?
Your grandparents, or lack thereof?
Something you loved and lost?
A toy you used to play with as a kid?
Something that makes you laugh?
A book you love? Best movie ever?
Favorite guilty pleasure movie?
An object that represents something abstract that you broke (a heart, a promise)?
An object that represents a regret?
A favorite gift you received? A favorite gift you gave?
An object that represents a secret? (Don’t worry, this stays between us.)
Something about you no one else knows?
Something you stole?
Something you found?
Something that makes you feel safe?
The worst thing that ever happened to you?
The best thing?
The logo on your imaginary business card?
The image you’d like carved into your tombstone?
An object that represents: a smell you love, a smell you hate, a taste you love, a taste you hate, the sweetest sound in the world?
The coolest thing about science?
Something you forgot?
Something old? Something new? Something borrowed? Something blue?
Best thing you ever found in the street?
Best money you ever spent?
Your life lie? Your favorite object?
Something from another country?
Your favorite sentence?
You’d cry if you lost this?
An object that represents someone you’d like to know more about?
Something you’ll never get rid of?
A bad habit?
A perfect moment?
A time you laughed so hard you cried?
A time you cried so hard you laughed?
An image you’ll never forget?
What they’d put in the museum of your life?
The cover image on your first self-titled album?
Three objects from your room?
A near-death experience?
A moment when you were so embarrassed you wanted to disappear?
Worst (actual) nightmare?
When were you most afraid?
If you had a clone, what would you have the clone do?
A time you were speechless?
The moment you left childhood behind?
A quotation you love?
Your favorite photo?
ONCE YOU’VE WRITTEN YOUR LIST OF ESSENCE OBJECTS
Survey your list. Which essences are missing? Is every aspect of you there? Think more abstractly. Think of qualities not yet represented on the list. How could you phrase those qualities in terms of objects? For example, if you keep lists, perhaps a post-it note? Are you easily angered (lighter fluid)? Good at lots of things (a Swiss Army Knife)? Or sharp (an Exacto knife)?
Write down three more objects.
THE PURPOSE OF THE OBJECTS EXERCISE
T.S. Eliot once said: “The only way to express emotion in art is through an objective correlative.”
What’s an objective correlative? It’s an object to which you correlate emotions, memories, and complex meanings. It’s an object that’s more than an object.
Every object in your essence object box is an objective correlative for some important, complex part of you.
Now survey your list. Does it feel pretty familiar? It should.
Your college essay should feel that familiar.
Just to clarify, I’m not saying all of the objects on your list will end up in your final draft, but some of them might. And chances are good that you will write about the essences those objects represent.
The point is this: if you’ve taken the objects exercise seriously and have described a unique set of objects, you should have the material for a compelling personal statement. In fact, you should have the material for dozens of personal essays, but right now we’re just writing one.
The question of course is which one? Which essences or objects should you choose?
That’s the next step.
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