On Writing

18 Jul

When I was five years old, I pushed a boy’s head in the girl’s toilet and called him a wench.

I had no idea what the word “wench” meant. My five-year-old self must have had some notion that the word was insulting, but clearly I did not understand that the word was a) somewhat outdated, b) not part of the typical five-year-old’s vocabulary, and c) usually reserved for a woman of some ill repute. What I did understand was the rightness of the word for its purpose: the trip of the tongue over the w and into the e, the thorny jab of the nch. Like Shakespeare lining up assonances and alliterations in lines of verse, I found I could hear the sound of letters jostled together to form words. The quirks of language, I realized then, were mesmerizing – even if my preschool teacher didn’t quite think so.

My world of words grew exponentially larger once I learned to read. I pored over everything I could get my hands on, from Magic Treehouse books to Harry Potter. Several days before my eighth birthday, I began the books that would define my early understanding of literature: The Lord of the Rings saga. I didn’t know words like ‘dwelleth,’ ‘hither,’ and ‘quaking,’ but when Bilbo, old and exhausted, said, “Don’t adventures ever have an end? I suppose not. Someone else always has to carry on the story,” I understood. I ached to be the one to shoulder the burden of that story, to make it my own. During recess, I wound myself around the top of the monkey bars and balanced the book on my lap. At night I snuck a flashlight under my covers to slog through just a few more pages. When I finished, I was restless, eager to write my own path to Mordor.

The first story I clearly recall writing was during second grade, when a teacher charged my class with crafting a story from beginning to end. Mine involved a purple, winged guinea pig named Sahara who could speak Swedish and wield a gun. I cannot remember the plot of said story; however,compared with a gun-slinging lavender rodent, the plot hardly mattered. But what I proved to myself was my ability to take a hazy abstract and pin it, wriggling, to paper. Over the next several years, my work became less outlandish and more focused – I took my bizarre ideas and learned to hone them. Editing taught me prudence, while fishing for that one word taught me perseverence. And once I began receiving rejection slips from contests and magazines, I learned humility.

But above all, I learned that I have a passion for language that can never be satiated. And I am telling you this because I want to write something, anything, that will make you sit back, unable to move for a moment or two because of the stark truth you find in my words. I want you to dream what I dream and wake with my words dancing on the tip of your tongue. I want my words to be in your bones and blood, and I want them to be the thunderous force that keeps your heart beating too. To take a fleeting thought and crystallize it into words – I cannot be content unless I do this.

Because then I might get angry and push someone else’s head in the toilet, and then where would I be?

© 2012 Elizabeth Ballou

(Note: This was my Common App essay.  UVa, which I am attending in the fall, contacted me to let me know that this was one of their favorite essays of the 2011-2012 app season.  If you’re a rising senior and are attending any of the essay workshops taught by UVa admissions office staff, listen out for this one – they’re using it as one of their sample pieces this year 🙂 )

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8 Responses to “On Writing”

  1. Macky July 20, 2012 at 12:45 am #

    I loved the quote from Bilbo! And your words are just so colorful and captivating ❤

    • elizabethballou July 20, 2012 at 3:18 am #

      oh my, thanks ever so much! And yeah, Bilbo is a pretty quotable fellow.

  2. theblackrooster July 22, 2012 at 12:09 am #

    Nice post :).
    I can’t honestly say I sat “back, unable to move for a moment or two because of the stark truth [I ] find in [your] words”, but still, a nice essay, since writing is one of my hobbies. Fortunately, you won’t be able to push my head into the toilet, since you don’t know where I live, lol :D.

    • elizabethballou July 22, 2012 at 3:22 am #

      Hah, well, I hope I’m mature enough at eighteen to refrain from pushing heads into toilets anymore! So glad you enjoyed it!

  3. sandeboritzberger August 1, 2012 at 8:55 pm #

    Really well-written….good luck with your studies!

  4. Jan Simson August 9, 2012 at 10:11 pm #

    This is great. You have a beguiling way with words. Don’t stop creating prose, please, for the good of humanity as well as the ever-growing accumulation of fantastic literature. On another note, I hadn’t known what the word “wench” meant until I stumbled across this neat post of yours. Cheers to the expansion of vocabulary.

    • elizabethballou August 9, 2012 at 10:36 pm #

      I am glad you read, then, if only for the benefit of learning the meaning of the word ‘wench.’ Fantastic word, that.

      Also, that is quite the compliment! Thank you so much! And I don’t ever intend to stop creating writing of some sort.

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