Have you heard of the Kerlan Collection? No? Neither had I. However, after learning about this incredible collection, I think every college applicant, every senior struggling through their drafts of their essays, needs to take a field trip there.
The Kerlan Collection includes more than 100,000 children’s books, but what makes this collection so unique in my mind is that it is not a collection of award-winning novels, prized winning art, or celebrated biographies – it is a collection that includes “books, original manuscripts, and illustrations and related materials.” In other words, it is a collection of thoughts, ideas, and brilliance that led to some of the most cherished stories.
One popular exercise that college essay coaches often have their students walk through during the early stages is to read “essays that work.” In other words, read essays from students who have already gotten into college. While I have to admit that I, too, sometimes use this tactic, I do so only when a student is really stuck on getting started or is having a hard time putting their thoughts into words.
However, when I do, I always remind them that these final essays are equivalent to an athlete’s highlight reel – in other words – the reworked – edited product – and what they are reading is a collection of the writer’s best pieces of writing.
When we watch an athlete’s highlight reel, we only see the amazing, out-of-this-world, once-in-a-lifetime athletic feats. What we don’t see is all the hard work that went into those amazing, out-of-this-world, once-in-a-lifetime feats. When we read a final essay, a published book, we see a highly edited “best” version, not the first words written. In fact, many final drafts don’t even contain those first few words that make the page.
When we watch an athlete’s highlight reel or read an “essay that worked,” we don’t see the failures, the near misses, the not-just-right moments, the frustration, or the tears. Living with athletes, I can tell you that there are many more of those moments than the amazing, out-of-this-world, once-in-a-lifetime feats. For every goal scored or personal best record, there are many falls, crashes, and misses.
The Kerlan Collection allows us to see these misses; the fails, and the not just-right moments of some of the most notorious children’s writers, Kate DiCamillo, Paula Danziger, Maurice Sendak, and Lewis Carroll.
The pieces of this collection remind me that to produce any piece of writing, not to mention works such as Because of Winn Dixie, The Cat Eat My Gymsuit, Where the Wild Things Are, or Alice and Wonderland, there have to be many, many, many drafts – some might be the beginnings of decent pieces of writing, but most are probably no better than a bullet-pointed list of potential ideas.
Last year, instead of showing my students final essays, I shared with them the brainstorming sheets, the drafts of “essays that worked.” Students need to see that their first draft, second draft, or even fifth draft of their common application personal statement will probably not look like “essays that work” during the first few weeks of their writing process. Those essays, much like the works of the authors mentioned above, are the finished, polished pieces that have been stripped of any tear stains or any other signs of a frustrated writer.
While I haven’t seen this collection in person, I have been told that many of these documents in the archives are actually handwritten notes on various pieces of scrap paper: random ideas that the author did not want to forget. Some of those scraps became the basis of bestsellers; others never made it further than an idea on a napkin.
So next time you see your child staring blanking at their computer screen, in tears because they will never get into X University since their essay “sucks” or rolls their eyes at you (or worse) when you ask how their essay is going, ask them to take a breathe and think about their favorite author. Then, ask them if they believe the book they read of that author was their first or 20th draft.
When they are calm (or calmer), hand them a blank piece of paper and a colored pen, pencil, or even crayon (I prefer hot pink, purple, or neon green) and tell them to write. No holds barred, just write.
Who knows, maybe one day, that piece of paper will wind up in the Kerlan Collection.