It is exciting when I get to travel with my students for the long haul. Francesca, an irreverent and deeply talented student I first taught when she was in 8th grade, is now a writing colleague and itinerant scholar. She’s left school, again (yes, you can leave school for good reasons)…to travel and write and to write about travel as a state of mind.
Here’s just a fraction of her story, and how her college essay became an important touch-stone on a journey of inner and outer travel that is not yet done. Francesca obligingly wrote this for you, as a case in point that your college essay can be so much more than a thing you write to get into college. (It also makes me pleasantly squirmy to be a protagonist/antagonist in such a fine story).
Francesca’s College Essay Story
When I walked into Sara’s house in the summer before my senior year of high school, late for our meeting and out of breath, I had no idea what I wanted to write my college essay about. Sara offered me a plate of avocado toast, and as I ate, she had me free write on a couple on prompts.
I had seen Sara infrequently over the past few years, but in 2009, when I was in eighth grade, Sara and I had travelled around Europe and Northern Africa together. For a school year, she had homeschooled my sister and me, teaching me English, writing, history, Latin, and anatomy. We had spent many hours together most days of the week.
Our year of traveling felt simultaneously central to my identity and far removed from my real life. It was like a dream that I couldn’t fully remember, but that continued to affect me in my waking hours.
That is, it was like a dream I couldn’t fully remember until I sat down at Sara’s kitchen table with a slice of avocado toast and realized that, of course, my personal statement would have to be about our trip.
Revision and Remembering
I was very proud of the essay I wrote with Sara. I had never worked on a piece of writing so intensely, though I loved to write, and Sara helped me edit and rewrite like a sculptor works away the excess marble from her statue. I reread and rewrote until I loved every word in that essay.
I came out of that process a better writer. And, I began to carry the idea of the trip with me in a more permanent way, so that when, at my second college, a peer asked me to tell her something important about who I was, I told her about that strange year.
But I forgot about the essay.
Boring, or Broken Open?
Then, in the fall of 2016, I did an independent study in personal essay writing with my advisor. When I’d written three essays, my advisor met with me to tell me that he really liked my work, but he didn’t feel like I took enough risks. What I wrote was monotone.
I’m a nervous, anti-social person, and I come across as monotone in real life as well. I was crushed and angry. I got on a plane to Tokyo with my dad, and as we caught up, I told him that I probably wasn’t good enough to be a writer. Aren’t you going to try? He asked.
He fell asleep. I stayed awake. I stared at my computer screen. Boring boring boring, I kept thinking.
And then, in one swooping rush, I realized two things. The first was that I wanted to be a writer. The second was that I would have to work harder than I ever had in my life to be a good one.
And then I started to write, as messily as I could. I wrote about every person I’d slept with. I wrote about horrible thoughts I had. I wrote about anything that couldn’t be called boring.
Travel as theme
Sara had come to LA (where I go to school) a few weeks before my revelatory plane ride to Tokyo. She had only been in town for the weekend and I had agreed to assist for the writing workshop she was teaching. Then, on a whim, I’d driven to San Francisco at 5am, and missed the workshop. I’d texted her to tell her that I wouldn’t make it, and we had begun to talk about some issues that I was struggling with.
We’d been texting on and off ever since, and while I was in Tokyo, she told me to send me some of my writing. I sent her an essay about my best friend, and then, remembering being called boring, I sent her my in-flight free write.
I have a habit of not rereading my work until I’ve sent it to someone, and then frantically rereading, terrified that I will have insulted them in the piece, or revealed something too strange about myself. As I reread my free write, thinking about it through Sara’s eyes, I realized for the first time how much of what I’d written had been about our trip.
“You have a path,” she emailed me back, “travel is a theme that has characterized your life for better or worse.”
And suddenly, I was back in Sara’s old Brooklyn house, which she no longer lives in, eating avocado toast and remembering the view of the Bosphorus from our Istanbul apartment.
Meant to Travel
That was October. Now, it’s February, and I am in back in Paris, down the street from where we lived in 2009. I took my spring semester off from college and I am writing. I’m writing about travel and dislocation, and about returning to the same places again and again. I send Sara drafts and she challenges and encourages me. She sends me drafts of her writing now, too. If you had told thirteen year old me that this is where twenty-year old me would end up, I would never have believed you. But looking back, it seems like I was always meant to be here.
Over time, my relationship to the trip has changed. I am not regretful, like I was in that first college essay, that I did not spend more time learning about the histories and cultures around me. In fact, I am still learning, from my memories and from my writing.
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