I wrote this essay intending to use it for my graduate school applications, but it wasn’t quite what the schools were looking for. It turned out to be more of a story. If I was applying to an MFA program I could probably use it. Since I’m not, I’ll post it here. Once I find out if I’m accepted to one of the MA programs I’m applying for I might post the essay I ended up using, for comparison.
The Pieces of a Life
My grandmother has a hoarding problem. It’s not like the TV show where the homeowner is suffocating beneath thirty years of trash and dead cats, but there’s a lot of stuff in her house. And it stands to reason. She’s lived a long, storied life. She is the middle of seven children, born at the start of the Great Depression. Her father was the son of a Lebanese immigrant and business owner, her mother a German orphan who married at fifteen. She grew up on the south side of New Castle, PA. She went to school for nursing. She married, had two sons, traveled a lot, and moved a few times. She lived in Hawaii for twenty-some years before moving back to the area. Eighty-five years of life and thousands of miles of travel resulted in the collection of stuff that surrounds her in every room of her house.
Her hoarding is a source of frustration for my family, but to her each object is a memory manifest, something she can hold as proof of her accomplishments. If you ask her about any one object she has a story ready. I think she sees letting go of her things as getting rid of a piece of her life. She worked hard for them. Why would she give them up? But to me, the stories are more important.
Every week for several years now I pick her up on my day off and take her shopping. I drive and she tells me stories. Most of them I know by memory. There are nursing stories, or tirades about the wrongs people have done to her. I ask at that point what she says about me to others, and I’m blessed with thirty seconds of stony silence. Then she tells me about Hawaii.
Once in a while she comes up with a new story. On rare occasions, a memory floats to the surface, some story I haven’t heard. My ears prick up. I’m at full attention and I listen without interruption.
It’s strange to feel that joy of a new story stemming from my grandma’s personal brand of oral history, yet there’s something significant about it, too. I’ve learned in recent years the value inherent in both telling and hearing stories, and studying the layers within. It’s a deeply human thing; we all do it. From the Bible and Beowulf to weekend recaps around the watercooler, we are storytellers.
I am interested in studying these stories, classics and contemporary, visual and written, fiction and nonfiction, and how they inform and broaden my understanding of the world, and how they intersect with and influence each other. I want to examine how stories are put together, especially those that move me. I want to break them apart, see what works, follow the structure of the narrative, and use that knowledge to inform my writing. I want to find new ways to structure stories, new spins to place on them. I read an article from The Daily Mail that claimed there are only six basic plotlines used in all the stories (novels, movies, TV shows) ever made. Yet writers continue pushing the boundaries of storytelling and creating narratives that feel unique and innovative. So what if the building blocks remain the same? We return to the classics time and again for good reason, because the authors made the stories their own. And we learn from them.
I realized while driving my grandma around and listening to her stories that I have stories of my own to tell. They’re not all personal anecdotes like hers. They hinge on lives and places I’ve made up or co-opted for my own ends, but they have value just the same. And like her stories, they contain pieces of my life. I want to learn from the old stories how to fit those pieces together to make stories of my own. I want to share my stories with others and show what I’ve learned on my journey thus far. I collect stories like my grandmother collects stuff. I have shelves of books, and notebooks full of the seeds of ideas, but I’m lost on structure. I have a clutter of thoughts like her clutter of things, and I don’t want to get buried under it all. I want to learn how to make good use of this skill.
I have one more motivation for pursuing this degree. In all the stories my grandma tells there’s a hint of disappointment. Deep under the bravado and pride, there is dissatisfaction. Her life never turned out the way she planned. When one opportunity closed she picked herself up and adjusted her goals, only to be knocked down again by circumstance or obligation. These missed chances left her with a deeply hurt heart and many regrets. I can feel them running through the stories she tells, even when she doesn’t say it out loud. I know they’re there because I’m a lot like her; we both dwell on the ‘what ifs’ of our lives. And so, my motivation for pursuing a master’s degree is in part selfish. I don’t want to look back on eighty-five years of my life with a heavy heart.
My bachelor’s degree was hard won because I fought myself the whole way. I got that degree because I was expected to go to college and graduate with one. I’m choosing to go back now for better reasons. There are three specifically, and they are mine. First, I have a personal desire to learn more in my chosen field. Second, by learning more I hope to improve myself and my writing. Third, from learning more and developing my skills I hope to make myself more marketable for writing jobs. I have a decent job, but I envision something better in my future. I want to improve my chances of getting a job that uses my talents and creativity, that can become a career, and that I might actually love. Pursuing a master’s in English is my best plan to reach these goals. When I look back from eighty-five I don’t want to see the pieces of my life stacked around me like a fortress against the world. I’d rather see a body of work, ideas I’ve created and put into the world. I want my life to be things I’ve shared, not stuff I’ve hoarded. I want to write my story.
That’s the original version. I shortened it while trying to make it suitable for my graduate applications, but it has the same gist. I may post that sometime to examine approaches to editing. Maybe.