By the time I got around to writing my final college admission essay, I already felt beaten. It had been brutally hard work presenting myself in the best possible light. In each previous essay, I’d prevaricated with a vengeance, glossing over my many defects as a college candidate: mediocre grades, a lack of vision for my future, an absence of extracurriculars. Trying to manage how I was perceived by others meant saying a lot without saying much of anything. All that spin was exhausting.
At the time, I had no intention of attending the last college on my list. Even if I did get in, which seemed unlikely. I knew next to nothing about the place beyond its U.S. News and World Report ranking. My high school sent only a couple of people there each year. It was off the radar. Scouting colleges in the Northeast, my Dad and I hadn’t even managed to find the campus. So, just before the application deadline, I figured I’d let loose. Just this one time, for this sight-unseen liberal arts college. Work off some of the accumulated tension by having a little fun with my essay. I don’t recall what the writing prompt was, but I ended up going on an extended, absurdist riff about how my parents kept me locked in my room, feeding me only flat foods that could fit under the door: pizza, pancakes. Imagine the typical meandering Maven Game as a college admissions essay and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what I ended up mailing in.
Applying to a college with no intention of attending it is one of life’s most liberating experiences. It’s like interviewing for a job you’re never going to get, something else I’ve had the pleasure of doing once or twice in my life. Free of consequences, all your filters just…lift away. Suddenly, you can hear yourself. If you sound unfamiliar, it’s because you don’t sound like yourself very often in life.
Naturally, my formal and carefully spun essays got me waitlisted at one “safety” school and rejected entirely from another. My unfiltered riff, on the other hand, won me admission to what became my alma mater. More important, the experience gave me one of my first glimpses of my authentic, unfiltered writing voice.
The dilemma I still grapple with more than two decades later is, how do I take that filter off when I do care about the results? When performance doesn’t matter, I perform a hell of a lot better. But when doesn’t performance matter?
Something Penn Jillette said on a podcast really stuck with me:
I have a fascination and a respect and an affection for people who are able to get out of their filters. Some people do that with pure genius, like Bob Dylan. Some people do it with bravery, like Lenny Bruce. Some people do it with drugs. Neil Young, perhaps. Jimi Hendrix, perhaps. And most people do it with a mixture of stuff. Thelonius Monk said the genius is the one who is most like himself.
I’m not a genius, I don’t drink, and I’m not all that brave. Unfortunately, Penn didn’t mention any other avenues. So I keep trying to pry the filters off by brute force.
Boy, it’s hard to deceive yourself. If you’d told me at seventeen that the key to getting into college would be writing my essay as though I had no intention of getting in, it simply wouldn’t have worked. “Dance as if no one’s watching” indeed. Certainly, pretending to write the Maven Game as though I have no intention of sending it doesn’t activate any hidden reservoir of zany brilliance. As you can see.
These filters are stubborn. The brain is busy protecting you from the consequences of saying the wrong thing, and there’s no question that’s a real threat. Who wants to get canceled? Your head isn’t going to lower its guard lightly.
And yet, the treasures tempt us. We gaze hungrily at those dimly seen jewels of truth and beauty, gleaming in the darkness and rage and wreckage of the id. Clearly, prying them loose involves separating your “writer” from your internal “editor,” but how? Morning Pages? David Bowie’s Verbasizer? Automatic writing?
At forty-two, I’m realizing the Grimm’s fairy tale about the elves and the shoemaker may not have been strictly literal. In fact, there may have been a metaphor lurking…
Joseph Campbell was right, as so many writing teachers have wisely pointed out. To find the treasure, you have to leave the ordinary world behind. Cross the threshold to approach the inmost cave. Only then can you return with the elixir. The pathways are always different, always changing, but they share a common feature: there are no shortcuts.