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Personal Essay Spotlight: David Sedaris

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Personal Essay SpotlightHooray! It’s another installation of “Personal Essay Spotlight” in which we help you master the art of the personal essay by harnessing the techniques of the greats. This week, we’re tackling another common challenge (that will come up again and again): Seeing the big picture.

At College Essay Advisors, we love discovering the details that make you you. And guess what? Admissions officers love that too. The rest of your application may tell the story of what you have achieved, but it doesn’t say much about the little things that add up to your big personality. Have you taught yourself how to play the glockenspiel or rollerblade (or both at the same time??)? Can you solve the Rubik’s cube in 7 seconds? Did catsitting for an elderly neighbor affect the way you see the world? Who would ever know if these little gems did’t make it into your application somehow?

The challenge, of course, is that you want to extract a larger message about who you are as a person from these small anecdotes. That sounds easy, right? (JK,JK.) Luckily, some brilliant writers have tread this ground before us, and today we turn to the sensei of the big picture: David Sedaris. Sedaris is the master of the personal essay, known to shed light on his family life, relationships and even his travel adventures with an idiosyncratic and observant outlook that has inspired many a belly laugh. He makes his details work hard and saturates his writing with small anecdotes that reveal his unique view of the world while also driving at some larger point or observation.

In this passage from his book Me Talk Pretty One Day, Sedaris describes the experience of learning French as an adult from a particularly brutal teacher (seriously you have no idea). He loads it up with tiny details that speak to his quirky sense of humor, but also expose him as a hard worker and diligent student. Take a look:

Learning French is a lot like joining a gang in that it involves a long and intensive period of hazing. And it wasn’t just my teacher; the entire population seemed to be in on it. Following brutal encounters with my local butcher and the concierge of my building, I’d head off to class, where the teacher would hold my corrected paperwork high above her head, shouting, “Here’s proof that David is an ignorant and uninspired ensigiejsokhjx.”

Refusing to stand convicted on the teacher’s charges of laziness, I’d spend four hours a night on my homework, working even longer whenever we were assigned an essay. I suppose I could have gotten by with less, but I was determined to create some sort of an identity for myself. We’d have one of those “complete the sentence” exercises, and I’d fool with the thing for hours, invariably settling on something like, “A quick run around the lake? I’d love to. Just give me a minute to strap on my wooden leg.” The teacher, through word and action, conveyed the message that, if this was my idea of an identity, she wanted nothing to do with it.

My fear and discomfort crept beyond the borders of my classroom and accompanied me out onto the wide boulevards, where, no matter how hard I tried, there was no escaping the feeling of terror I felt whenever anyone asked me a question. I was safe in any kind of a store, as, at least in my neighborhood, one can stand beside the cash register for hours on end without being asked something so trivial as, “May I help you?” or “How would you like to pay for that?”

[…]

Over time, it became impossible to believe that any of us would ever improve. Fall arrived, and it rained every day. It was mid-October when the teacher singled me out, saying, “Every day spent with you is like having a cesarean section.” And it struck me that, for the first time since arriving in France, I could understand every word that someone was saying.

Understanding doesn’t mean that you can suddenly speak the language. Far from it. It’s a small step, nothing more, yet its rewards are intoxicating and deceptive. The teacher continued her diatribe, and I settled back, bathing in the subtle beauty of each new curse and insult.

See how the small details and observations come together to drive a much larger story? Look at the second paragraph, where he says he was, “determined to create some sort of an identity,” and then expands on this claim with a description of the quirky and painstaking work he put into crafting unique “complete the sentence” responses. And notice how, throughout the story, his words say one thing but end up meaning something completely different; for example, his initial description of the brutality of learning French returns at the end, transforming the image of victimhood into a description of resilient and self-deprecating victory.

You can read the rest of Sedaris’ essay over at Esquire. And don’t forget to stay tuned for more posts that will help you tackle your own personal essays!

Want more examples? Check out the last Personal Essay Spotlight.

Check out more Tips for Brainstorming Essay Topics.

Read more about The College Essay Advisors Process.

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