How I Found Joy in the Writing Process: Thoughts on the Common App Gratitude Essay

How I Found Joy in the Writing Process: Thoughts on the Common App Gratitude Essay

This year the Common App introduced a new essay prompt on gratitude, and as usually happens with anything I think about for too long, I have conflicting viewpoints on this move. 


On the one hand, yes, of course I’d like for the college application process to be more joyful. This fall marks my eleventh year helping high school students apply to college, and while I know how stressful and anxiety-ridden the process can be, I’ve also seen many students experience reflection, growth, and yes, even joy. The question is: can you have one without the other?


Here are my thoughts on why students might find it difficult to write a stand-out college essay on gratitude, and other meanderings on the role positive thinking has had on my life. As you’ll see, happiness and I have a complicated relationship. 


And on that note…


1. …You don’t need to be positive about everything to find joy in your life.


I’m going to start this post with a story I’ve never told before.


About five years ago, I went to see a hypnotherapist. 


Having experienced differing levels of anxiety all my life, I’ve always been on the lookout for traditional and alternative forms of therapy. One night, I was at a fundraiser at my daughter’s school and there was an open auction for a variety of goods and services. I was walking around the room with a glass of champagne in my hand when something caught my eye. It was a completely empty sign-up sheet with a headline that read: 4 Hypnotherapy sessions with Laura King. 


I didn’t know who the heck Laura King was, but I put my name down for the asking bid. Needless to say, it wasn’t difficult to win.


If you’ve never done hypnotherapy before, the objective of the treatment is to re-wire your brain to overcome old patterns of thinking. Many times, anxiety is caused by our brains linking current experiences to events that occurred in the past. The goal of hypnotherapy is to break that cycle by introducing positive thoughts to override negative thinking.


As I do with every new activity I embark on, I took the hypnotherapy thing very seriously. I rigorously attended my weekly sessions at Lake Worth, vigorously writing down everything Laura King preached. I practiced her daily meditations, sometimes even twice a day. I was on a mission to become a positive, happy, anxious-free person, and nothing could stop me.


And then, a few months later, a very odd thing happened: people started telling me I seemed happy. 


Incredible, right? 


Well, here’s the catch: I didn’t actually feel happy. I felt…weird. In fact, I didn’t feel like myself at all. And the more people kept telling me I seemed happy, the less I wanted to continue the sessions.


Go figure.


Tired of being told I was happy, I stopped seeing Laura. A few weeks later, I erased the meditations from my phone. The next month, I gave acupuncture a try. I discovered cupping and before I knew it, I’d forgotten all about the hypnotherapy experience.


Except, of course, I never really forgot about hypnotherapy. Because subconsciously, I’m always on a mission to find the story. 


Over time, I did a lot of thinking to understand what had gone wrong when hypnotherapy was going right. What I discovered is actually pretty awesome. In the process of rewiring my brain, I felt myself changing in a way that didn’t feel authentic to me. I discovered that deep down inside, I didn’t want to be hypnotized. I didn’t want to erase the past; I wanted to make sense of it. Not only that, I wanted to make art out of the experience of making sense of the experience! 


Way to complicate things, huh?


Seriously though: this is the moment when I realized that no matter how hard I try to be anything else, I’ll always be a writer. And it’s not because I have exceptional talent or inconceivable potential or a book contract. It’s because writing is the only way I can make some sort of sense of who I am and what I’ve lived. And for me, there is genuine joy to be found in this process.


I’m not trying to dissuade anyone from positive thinking. My daughter has done positivity work at school and it’s been wonderful for her. All I’m saying is, we need to be okay with the fact that we might not be feeling happy or grateful or positive 100% of the time. We need to make room for the other stuff too, because ultimately, I don’t believe we can have one without the other. 


There is joy and there is pain. There is exhilaration and there is sadness. There is beauty and there is monstrosity. There is wholeness and there are fragments. There is wonder and there is denial. There is symphony and there is silence.


How do we embrace the complexity of the human experience, and then write about it?


2. Conflict makes writing interesting.


The first voice I hear in my head when I read this prompt is that of Les Standiford, my first memoir teacher. If perspective was the first lesson he taught me about decent memoir-writing, the importance of conflict in storytelling would be a close second. Why is conflict so important to writing? The answer is simple: when there’s a conflict, you typically have to do something to resolve that conflict. Your response to conflict should incite some kind of change in you: external, internal, or in the best of cases, a bit of both. Change is ultimately what makes us grow. Change is what allows there to be a before and after. Change gives us perspective (and you know how much I love perspective). With perspective in hand, you have a solid foundation to write a meaningful college essay.


If we follow Les’ advice, the key to answering an essay prompt aimed at offering you a joyful writing experience is to sprinkle it with conflict. Yikes! This seems counterintuitive, and yet, it’s totally doable. If we look closely at how the prompt is worded (which you should always do), then you’ll notice that they’ve included an element of surprise: 


“Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you?”


The keyword here being: surprising. 


Here are a couple of ways you might think about conflict in the context of this prompt:


  • If you were surprised by someone’s good deed, this could mean that there was some sort of underlying conflict in your relationship to this person. The essay could be about your internal and/or external resolution in that relationship.
  • It may be that there was no conflict in your relationship with this person, but that the situation you were in at the time of the event had some element of conflict in it. In which case your essay could be about your internal or external resolution in that conflictive situation.


Any way you slice it, the seeds for conflict, change, resolution, and perspective should still be in your essay.


3. Breaking the rules makes writing interesting.


As I write this, I can hear the voice of my second memoir teacher, Julie Marie Wade, in my head. Julie is mentally telling me: “Monica, don’t dissuade people from writing about gratitude!” You see, the fact that Les and Julie are on the same faculty at FIU is about the only thing they have in common as teachers. Les loves rules. Julie believes rules are meant to be broken. During my five years writing under her mentorship, Julie showed me that great writing happens when you push beyond boundaries.


So, with this in mind yes, I do believed advanced writers looking for a challenge could give this gratitude prompt a try. As you take this risk, however, I also highly encourage you to get college essay guidance.


If you’re not applying to college and the stakes for your writing endeavor are low, then now is a great time to break the rules! In the following weeks, I’ll be introducing some non-traditional writing techniques to help you do just that.


4. Writing against your writing mood will sabotage any attempts at being you.


While we’re on the subject of gratitude, I’ll take this opportunity to say that I genuinely appreciate Les for letting me into the MFA program and teaching me all his memoir rules. 


There were, of course, issues on which we disagreed (see how I did that?). 


When you apply to an MFA program, you have to submit a manuscript of your writing. When I applied, I submitted the only material I had – posts from Apples & Oranges, the blog I‘d started a few years earlier when I moved in Geneva. In Apples & Oranges, I portrayed my life as a newly-married expat in a funny, catchy, uplifting tone. The stuff I wrote had elements of conflict and perspective, of course, but things always managed to end on a positive note. It was a happy blog.


And I’m forever grateful to Apples & Oranges, because it got me into the MFA at FIU, where my writing life was transformed. 


As I mentioned in a previous post, during my first memoir course I wrote and shared a pretty pointless piece about being from Panama. The twenty-page essay was descriptive, but it didn’t really say much of anything. Les’ advice was this: “Go back to your earlier work! Don’t change what you were doing! Keep writing funny!” 


Did I take his advice? No. I did the exact opposite: I started writing deep, dark, stormy essays. 


It wasn’t that I was trying to rebel against Les. I just wasn’t in the mood to write funny. 


Julie understood this. Under her mentorship, I began what I like to call the dark and twisty phase of my writing life. I reached into the depths of my interior world and met face to face with some heavy stuff. 


There wasn’t a single funny line in my entire thesis. 


Once I completed the program, a really peculiar thing happened: without even trying, I started to write funny essays again. Just like that, my dark and twisty writing phase was gone. 


What I’m trying to say is this: If you’re in a phase in your life where you can write happy stories, by all means, give the gratitude prompt a try. However, if you’re in any other kind of writing mood, don’t do it! Don’t feel pressured to write about gratitude because you think you’ll come across as a good, happy person, and this will make the college admissions people like you. 


The college essay is open-ended because they want you to write authentically. And being true to yourself is the single most important thing you must do on this writing journey. 


For more information on getting personalized college essay and/or memoir-writing help, click here.