Left a good job in the city
July 14, 2013 10:22 AM   Subscribe

I am in the middle of a long, demanding professional school admissions process. Essays are required. But I am so demoralized about my life situation that I am finding it very hard to have the proper upbeat tone. Experienced writers and editors--hell, experienced salesmen--what are some exercises I can do to get into the proper headspace? The more concrete, the better, like "start every writing session with ten bullet points about your accomplishments," or similar.

Though it certainly wouldn't be apparent from my posting history, people do pay me good money for my writing and editing, so the very basics are covered.

As is undoubtedly apparent from my posting history, I am massively arrogant and have no difficulty telling of my many charms, so that's not the problem, either.

I need the writer's equivalent of calisthenics, or stretching, or yoga, or burpees...but with a focus on "self-promotion block," so to speak. More coffee? Is that the answer?

Thank you for your help!
posted by skbw to Writing & Language (13 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Maybe you could turn the exercise on its head-- instead of warming up to explain your accomplishments, focus on what this new professional school experience is going to do for you. What do you hope to accomplish? What doors will it open? What is missing from your current life that this opportunity will help you to obtain? Thus you can use the demoralization to focus on the progress and development that this program will allow. Move from why the opportunity is important to you to why you are ready to take advantage of it. You may not include all of those pieces in the essays, but it might be a more fruitful place to start. Best of luck!
posted by Schielisque at 10:33 AM on July 14, 2013

Response by poster: Ah. Thank you for replying! You are undoubtedly correct about changing the angle. But this isn't always possible. Let me try to give a bit of an example of the problem.

Question: Tell us about a time when you were ALTRUISTIC.

skbw: I first displayed altruism in the year 2001. Here are some stats about that altruistic act. Since that time, I have continued to act altruistically in my professional and personal lives, with one notable display of same every six months. Details on request. Unfortunately, this being altruism, it has resulted in very little personal gain or public notice. Meanwhile, my friends and college classmates, many of whom have neither worked for a living nor exchanged five words with a non-working public assistance recipient, have accumulated long CVs with a vague flavor of public servant which is, in my mind, almost totally unfounded in reality. So if you really want someone who will Help People, you'd be better off taking me and not them, even though they're not bad people.

Now, listen, I'm joking about the above. But not entirely. In the Details on Request, there is a compelling story. But I have to bring it out, and if I FEEL like an old curmudgeon who's playing to lose, it'll come through in my writing. This is why I need some mental exercises.
posted by skbw at 10:57 AM on July 14, 2013

what are some exercises I can do to get into the proper headspace?

The advice I got, which has helped me reconfigure the way I talk about my work, is to discuss your work in terms of measurable outcomes: "I implemented X, which caused program Y to improve by a factor of Z."

Also, you talk about your arrogance a lot, but it doesn't actually come out in your writing. Your writing doesn't talk about your accomplishments as much as it seems to portray you in a bunch of sad-sack difficult professional situations. That's why I think you should go through your past work history and re-conceptualize it in a set of initiatives you took that produced positive outcomes. By the end, you will have a track record of accomplishments that "Sell" yourself to the professional program you're applying to.
posted by deanc at 10:57 AM on July 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: OK, one last threadsit, then I'm done, sorry.

We can assume that I have a well-written, outcomes-based, far from unimpressive CV on file. That part has been addressed. This process forces you to measure and quantify. Done that.

When it comes time to orate, I can't orate.
posted by skbw at 11:06 AM on July 14, 2013

I'd write it about somebody else*. Somebody else who you quietly admire, not least for the fact that their path has been different than other people's.

*(where that somebody else is you)
posted by trig at 11:27 AM on July 14, 2013 [2 favorites]

Have a glass of water, then SMILE. IF you know of a humor site, go there to brighten your mental state if only long enough to get your essays written. If that wears off, try a walk in a garden of lovely flowers. If there is a prospect nearby that gives a breathtaking view, go there. Let your surroundings lift your spirit.
posted by Cranberry at 12:10 PM on July 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

You say: "In the Details on Request, there is a compelling story." A good exercise would be to write that story out. Explain why it's compelling. Maybe it will remind you of some others -- write those out, too. Even if they're small things, practice expanding your focus on the positive aspects that you need to highlight. At the beginning, your current curmudgeonly outlook will no doubt be apparent, but maybe you'll end up impressing yourself. You could maybe have some fun by fictionalizing the protagonist, turning yourself into a superhero who saves the world with an unsung act of kindness. That might help get you in the spirit.

Or, take your statement: "if you really want someone who will Help People, you'd be better off taking me and not them." Why? Be specific. Write it out as as a debate with your long-CV friends, or as a trial, or an interview with St. Peter at the Pearly Gates.
posted by Corvid at 12:12 PM on July 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Read some writing - books, essays, whatever - by other writers who are upbeat about their own altruism or similar experiences in their own lives. Make sure it's good writing. You don't do this to copy their words or style, but to sort of jog your brain into remembering what you can write along those same lines. (Sometimes it takes me weeks to start new books because I keep having to put them down after two pages to go write what they've reminded me I was going to write.)
posted by DestinationUnknown at 12:13 PM on July 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Feeling Good by David Burns might be a good fit. It's for improving mood, but it has a lot of concrete exercises that focus on using writing to reframe self defeating thoughts. When you feel like writing something negative in an essay, use an exercise to work through it, then go back to the essay.

The idea of these exercises is not to replace negative statements with positive statements; it's to catch distortions and replace them with more rational language. For example, in your joke response you say that you have a compelling story about altruism, but you can't tell it and it doesn't matter anyway because you will get passed over because others have more impressive CVs.

More rational language might sound like this: It's true that you might not be able to convey how compelling your service has been, but service to others is obviously important to you and some of that is bound to come across in your writing. It's also true that they'll see a lot of CVs, and some of them will be better than yours, but that doesn't mean the admissions board won't see value in your work.
posted by balacat at 12:16 PM on July 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I was going to say what DestinationUnknown said. I swear someone linked on the blue once a study showing that the best way to change your writing style is to read someone else's immediately before. Try some memoirs of successful people.

Also, figure out when you feel most hopeful and positive and write then. Maybe a certain time of day is best? Maybe right after accomplishing something minor like cleaning the kitchen or working out?
posted by salvia at 12:28 PM on July 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

I didn't apply to grad school for two years because I got writer's block when it came time to write the essay about why I wanted to go to grad school.

What finally allowed me to break through was something along the lines of what trig said: I pretended I was writing fiction. I thought, what would a snooty, self-confident blowhard who had absolutely no insecurities about this process write? I imagined a whole life and personality for her and I channelled her. Like, my body language actually changed when I sat down in front of the computer. She was -basically- me (we had the same resume) except unlike insecurity-ridden, doubtful old me she was obnoxiously arrogant, painfully unreflective, and 100% certain that she belonged in grad school and deserved a spot in the program. I probably wouldn't want to get a drink with her, but she got into a bunch of grad programs I was too scared to apply for... so there you go.
posted by pretentious illiterate at 4:15 PM on July 14, 2013 [4 favorites]

I think what you're missing is the WHY. Among other purposes, admissions essays are about communicating your thought process, so that readers can determine your fit with the school. So for all your prompts I'd want to communicate why you chose to do something and what you learned from it and/or how it changed you, particularly in a way that makes you a better contributor to the school.
posted by emkelley at 9:17 PM on July 14, 2013

Revisions / practice. I felt like crap going in to my last round of job searching. But I honestly did think I was a good fit for the jobs I was applying for, and kept working on identifying (and then writing down, because otherwise I can be forgetful) what were the things I had done and how did they show that I'm qualified?

Over time, each little bullet item in my head got more filled out, as I tried to think about what exactly it was that I was proud of in that project. When you write it down, and you think, "That really doesn't convey what was important about it..." then it's a great opening for you to ask yourself what would convey that, and how to go about communicating those things.

For example: "Here are some stats about that altruistic act." - Do those stats fully describe your entire effect on the people you influenced? Of course not! What are some of the things that are missing? Well, there's this one family...
posted by Lady Li at 10:30 PM on July 14, 2013

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